Archive: The Belgian Take on Fashion May Just Reign Supreme

One thing that is almost instantly apparent when considering the grand scheme of fashion? The difference between fashion brands in the U.S. and those that are launched in other places. The U.S. produces large lifestyle companies like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Tory Burch and J. Crew; brands that are inherently commercial. Contrast this with, says, Belgium, which has turned out creators that are thoughtful, visionary creators first and foremost.

Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and Walter Van Beirendonck - for instance - seem to value art over more mainstream commerce, especially when compared to the U.S. 

This point of differentiation is not necessarily a bad thing. It has allowed Michael Kors, for instance, to build a truly enormous business, allowing him to join Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch in the fashion billionaires club. 

As journalist Robin Givhan wrote a couple of New York Fashion Weeks ago, "American fashion, rooted in New York City, has always had a democratic approach to style [which has] allowed the industry to grow and profit in a way that its French counterpart did not." Givhan elaborated, writing: "These brands are not interested in rewriting the definition of fashion by taking subversive stances on femininity, beauty, or power. Mostly they just strive to make clothes that are pretty and fun and, in a few cases, relatively affordable."

To this point, ask yourself: Are the individual brands - aside from the Michael Kors and Ralph Laurent powerhouses - themselves actually maturing or are they just growing in a crunching-of-numbers sense? And are we, as the American fashion industry, giving them enough time to do so? 

There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Some New York-based brands (and certainly London, Milan and Pais-based ones, too) are content to operate on a scale much smaller than say, Michael Kors. They are happy to turn out smaller quantities of boundary-pushing and/or thought-provoking garments and avoid the affordable luxury market and everything that comes with it. A small handful of the names that come to mind, in terms of New York-based brands, include Thom Browne, Creatures of the Wind, Joseph Altuzarra, and Rodarte (the latter of which is actually based in Los Angeles). 

Hell, even Hood By Air may even be included in this camp, depending on who you ask. While these brands may not be growing at an exponential rate, I would argue that they are developing in more ways than the one indicated on a balance sheet. They are growing their bottom lines, but also, they are evolving and progressing as noteworthy sources of fashion (as distinct from mere garments or apparel).

Despite some of the more obvious downsides of an industry striving primarily for commercial success (think: quality being a secondary consideration to quantity, a lack of innovation and the conversation that comes with truly well-designed garments, a shortage of representation of American talent in the international arena, and/or a lack of consistent young talent, etc.), there are some  significant benefits to the way the U.S. conducts business. 

The distinction was quite accurately addressed by David Vandewal, the designer (for Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten and Karl Lagerfeld)-turned-creative consultant and stylist, when we spoke about the very commercial nature of fashion in the United States. Of the U.S. fashion model, Vandewal, an Antwerp native, who has been based in New York for over ten years now, said:

"Fashion in the U.S. is commercial and more rational. It follows certain grids, certain numbers. It is kind of like, ‘Honey, find a job. You can’t do your hobby the whole time.’ And in Europe, there is a lot of smoldering around the question of: Is this a hobby or is this a job? Of course, though, this gives a lot more room for creativity. In America it is very quickly, as you can imagine, put in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, and people say, ‘Well, this doesn’t look good’ and then the project no longer exists. While in Europe, I don’t think people really yet know what an Excel spreadsheet is. [Laughs]"

Vandewal's sentiment, which sheds light on the rapidity with which the American market expects young brands to develop and then ultimately sustain (a task that entails a significant amount of resources and not just the financial ones), is echoed by Dirk van Saene, a designer, who lives and works in Antwerp, oftentimes with fellow Antwerp Six member and partner, Walter Van Beirendonck. In 2011, van Saene, who is known for his relatively subdued and elegant aesthetic, especially in comparison to some of the other Antwerp Six members, told Oyster magazine: "Fashion is such a huge investment, both financially and emotionally. You see that with young designers now. There’s hardly a chance to grow anymore. People expect you to be huge in three seasons only."

So, why is Antwerp, for instance, all that different than the U.S. in terms of fostering design talent? Both cities certainly have produced (and continue to produce) quite a bit of significant design talent.

In terms of size alone, Antwerp is different. With a population of a half a million people, Antwerp is tiny in comparison to New York. Nonetheless, it has been fostering design talent, albeit, not internationally-known talent, since at least 1633, when the Royal Academy of Fine Art, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in Europe, opened.

More recently, the curriculum for fashion students has been curated very carefully; beginning in 1963, under the direction of Mary Prijot, the Fashion and Theatre Costume Design department has trained young designers in couture skills along the lines of the famed Parisian couturiers, such as Chanel. This level of education, coupled with the relatively quiet city's production of worldwide stars, such as Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Marina Yee, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Bikkembergs of the Antwerp Six, Kris Van Assche, Raf Simons, and Martin Margiela, beginning in the 1980's, has helped the city position itself as more than merely a home of the diamond trade and large sea ports.

Moreover, rather than projecting a uniform Belgian style to match Paris's penchant for the avant-garde or New York's continued relationship with casual sportswear, for instance, one of the only meaningful common denominators amongst the Belgians (including big names, such as Raf Simons, Kris Van Assche and Martin Margiela) is an unwavering sense of individualism. If any terms can be used to collectively describe Belgian fashion, I suppose they would be: directional and unapologetically different. This, thereby, distinguishes the Belgians from the more commercially viable aesthetics in the more established houses of the major fashion capitals in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

This is not to say the Belgians have not been influenced by outside forces or that they cannot be categorically described at all. In fact, the Antwerp Six have cited Thierry Mugler’s exaggerated silhouettes, Jean Paul Gaultier’s gender-bending garments, Yohji Yamamoto’s take on minimalism and Rei Kawakubo’s sense of anti-fashion, as inspirations.

Simons, on the other hand, looked to music and album artwork for insight into the world, namely: "Kraftwerk, Joy Division, and that kind of stuff," including the work of graphic artist, Peter Saville.

Of his youth, Simons says, "Music was the only escape. You could buy it in the local record store. But galleries? Never heard of them. Art institutions or art schools? Never heard of them." This may be part of the puzzle that makes Belgian fashion what it is; a sense of being an outsider, a notion that Simons, in particular, continues to explore to date. An adept Simons fan is well-versed on his exploration of the "other," of "applying an outsider theory to fashion," and certainly, of the concept of the interzone.

In speaking of meeting the five other members of the Antwerp Six, which came together at a time of social, political and artistic unrest and bonded over a mutual sense of rebellion against the Royal Academy of Fine Art's strict curriculum for fashion design students, Ann Demeulemeester has expressed a similar sense of outsiderism. “I came out of the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have the weight of the French or Italian traditions, and that gave us the freedom to start from zero," she said.

Simons shares this sentiment, hailing from Neerpelt, a self-proclaimed "small town filled with farms," and one record shop. Of his youth, Simons says: "I come from a white trash family. I was playing on a farm with cows and sheep and chickens and a lot of children, and that's it." This is something Dries Van Noten identifies with now, at age 56. He shows his menswear and womenswear collections each season in Paris but maintains his studio in Antwerp in a specific attempt to remain at “a healthy distance from the fashion world.”

He says he lives in the countryside where he is able to maintain a very normal life, outside of the fashion industry. His brand, despite its success, comparably  resides on the fray (think: a conscious choice not to advertise and or to conform to the nearly uniform practice of offering inter-seasonal pre-collections).

This term, "outsider," seems to follow the great Antwerpians. Simons' longtime collaborator and friend, Willy Vanderperre, a Belgium native, who studied fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts before switching courses to take up photography, has also been labeled a fashion "outsider." Of this, he has said: "What is establishment and the notion of being established? It is weird to be labelled. The term is questionable and in the eye of the beholder."

Not so coincidentally, Dazed & Confused chose to speak to Walter Van Beirendonck, who splits his time between designing his namesake collection and serving as the fashion director of The Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, for its 2014 "Outsiders" issue. Van Beirendonck is known for his outrageous and controversial designs, which are often better described as wearable art installations than simple utilitarian garments, with their unusual shapes (think: two-pronged heels and penis-shaped papier-mâché hats), bold color combinations, strong graphic lines and even stronger radical social messages (such as fetishism, sadomasochism, racism, gender, sex, and HIV). In this way, WVB is a bit of an outsider, himself.

Sure, designers take on social causes from time to time (Alexander McQueen's Highland Rape collection, Jeremy Scott's Arab Spring collection, John Galliano's "Dior Not War" t-shirts, Rick Owens' casting for Spring/Summer 2014 and Vivienne Westwood's comment on climate change that same season, comes to mind), but designer rarely take on this level of activism as consistently or arguably as creatively as Van Beirendonck. McQueen and Hussein Chalayan are perhaps his closest counterpoints. In this way, it is difficult to fit Van Beirendonck's creations into a box with many other designers' work.

Moreover, WVB has given us a sense that he views himself as an outsider, of sorts. For his S/S 1990 show, the "audience received a free newspaper, the Walter Worldwide News, which included an array of articles, including some that highlighted his own alienation as a designer, entitled: "Who is this mysterious creature called Walter?" and "Is Walter an alien?" Van Beirendonck, now 57, is certainly a thoughtful outsider.

And thus, another common thread amongst the Belgians: a heightened appreciation of contemplation in connection with design, an element of intellectuality that very well may surpass any other group of designers (they certainly have some competition from the Rei Kawakubo's, Yohji Yamamoto's, Karl Lagerfeld's, etc.).

Van Noten is one of more commercially successful members of the Antwerp Six, thanks to his very much established eponymous label, which has attracted the likes of actresses Cate Blanchett and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom have worn his designs to the Academy Awards, a huge coup for designers (and an industry practice from which the designer largely shies away).

Van Noten, who serves as both chief executive and creative director of his eponymous company, found recognition for his unprecedented ability to combine the elaborate (embroidery, pattern, and color), the ethnic (an array of tribal references) and the ordinary (tailored khakis), and has since been labeled "one of fashion’s most cerebral designers," by the New York Times. To this, Van Noten says he is perhaps better described as both “emotional and cerebral” at the same time when designing.

And we are posed with an addition inquiry: What role does emotion play in all of this? It seems emotion (colored with hues of individualism, anti-authoritarianism) may be a leading force behind what has kept most of these designers at their own eponymous labels and well, … in Belgium. (Simons, despite his role at Paris-based Dior; Van Noten; van Saene; Van Beirendonck; and Demeulemeester, all spend the majority of their time residing/working in Belgium).

It has also kept them from succumbing to the pressures of becoming mega-brands. Van Noten, who refuses to design collaboration collections for mass market retailers, recalls: “When I first started in 1986, the big houses did not exist like now and it was a real battle to survive. Trying to get a loan for a fashion business in Antwerp at this time was laughable. Then in the 90s when everyone started to sell out to the big houses, I asked myself ‘can we survive?’ The answer was ‘yes’ and we decided to go it alone.”

Simons, who has rather recently partnered with German sports giant, adidas, for footwear, was reportedly approached to design a collection with fast fashion brand, H&M, a partnership that obviously never came into fruition. It was slated to hit stores after the Margiela for H&M collection, one that was completed after Martin, the house's founder, had long left the brand.

This is not to say that these designers are not keenly aware of the need to sell garments, as a means of remaining in business. Speaking with Vanessa Friedman (then, of the Financial Times), Van Noten said he has always been very mindful of "the need to sell and to make garments that can be worn." Yet, he "has largely resisted the pressure to create showpieces or looks whose purpose is primarily to grab column inches." Because his label is privately owned, he has complete freedom to make such decisions.

As such, maybe it is not so much these designers' avoidance of big houses, while that may be the case for Van Noten and his fellow Antwerp Six-ers, for the most part, as it is their ability to stand their ground, to remain authentic, to remain a bit distant from the very inclusive nature of the fashion industry as a whole.

It is worth nothing that Raf Simons and Kris Van Assche, both of Belgian descent, have taken on roles at large houses, Raf Simons at Jil Sander and then Dior, where Van Assche serves as the director of menswear, but it is also worth mentioning that both maintain their eponymous labels, where they play large roles.

Simons, for instance, relies heavily on the existence of his namesake brand, and the duality of the two, as a means of exploring "darker, dirtier, and more underground" codes, particularly the youth culture for which he has come to be known. Similarly, neither Simons nor Van Assche show particularly obvious or press-hungry designs, whether it be for their eponymous labels or for Dior.

Thus, maybe it is the Belgians' quaint city, the bohemian air of its members, the lack of overwhelming industry (that demands a finished project, a global brand, a solid bottom line within a few seasons), such as the one that New York boasts, the luxury of a bit more time for designers to really focus on their vision, experience and learn their market, and form a solid foundation (that takes into account both their ultimate creative output and the unavoidable business realities), that is arguably Antwerp's greatest strength. After all, according to the New York Times, Antwerp, itself, is an underrated fashion paradise.

*This article was initially published in August 2014.