Shopping in Antwerp

Antwerp is now an established part of the international fashion scene. Yet its homegrown (or at least home-trained) designers have persistently avoided any flashy antics: this is not the place for lurid diva tantrums or vampy collections. Instead, the passion for fashion manifests itself with a particularly Belgian sensibility: thoughtful, deliberate, well crafted, inventive.

Credit for bringing the world's attention to the phenomenon goes to the so-called Antwerp Six, and in equal measure to the designer who trained them, Linda Loppa. (Some contend the label "Antwerp Six" stuck because it was easier for non-Flemings to pronounce than the designers' names). As the story goes, six graduates of the Antwerp Academy from the years 1980 and 1981 rented a truck, drove to the London Fashion Week, and took the show by storm. The reality may not be quite that dramatic, but in just a few years the Academy crew had made a serious impact. These days, style arbiters are fixtures at the Academy's annual spring show for design graduates. You can check coverage of the show on the Academy's website www.antwerp-fashion.be.

The original Six are Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk Van Saene, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, and Marina Yee; although they shared the same training ground, their styles are distinctly different. Van Noten, for instance, creates an "East meets West" fusion of classic looks with exotic fabrics, inspired by countries like India, Morocco, and Egypt. Van Beirendonck consistently pushes the conceptual envelope with futuristic ideas; through most of the 1990s he designed a label called Wild and Lethal Trash. Demeulemeester, on the other hand, has developed a pared-down, fluid aesthetic, turned out mainly in black and white—perfect for the Patti Smith music that often plays at her shows.

Designer Martin Margiela also graduated from the Academy, along with the Antwerp Six. So private that he's been compared to reclusive authors J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, Margiela nevertheless has an avid following. In addition to his past work with Jean-Paul Gaultier and Hermès in Paris, he devotes his own line to his signature deconstructions, clothes with seams, stitching, and hems exposed.

The next wave of designers promises similarly intriguing innovations. Véronique Branquinho often looks to Jane Birkin for inspiration; Bernhard Willhelm takes a playful, pop-culture-inflected approach; and Raf Simons delves into youth culture for his men's clothing. Stephan Schneider, Anna Heylen, and Wim Neels are other names to watch.

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