Prior to the 1980’s, Antwerp safely occupied a space outside the realm of the world’s most easily identifiable fashion capitals. Not a particularly populous or cosmopolitan city – boasting a population of roughly half a million people – the Belgian city was, for the longest time, a far cry from Paris or Milan in terms of having a place in the upper echelon of fashion, in terms of offering the kind of groundbreaking fashion that puts a city or a group of designers on the map.
Antwerp lacked a movement that mirrored the ones initiated by likes of the Japanese greats, such as Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Kenzo Takada, that turned Parisian fashion ideas upside down in the 1980s or the larger-than-life Italians, like Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, and Valentino Garavani, that made Milan – as opposed to the already established Florence – into the Italian epicenter in the 1970’s and 80’s.
That changed, however, with the rise of the Antwerp Six, the influential group of avant-garde Belgian fashion designers: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee.
Having graduated between 1980 and 1981 from Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, studying under the direction of Linda Loppa (who has also been praised as helping to give fellow Belgian Raf Simons his start), the group became solidified as a cultural movement in 1986, when they took to London for the British Designers Show. Their slick, eye-catching presentations and ground-breaking designs caught the attention of the UK fashion press, which dubbed them the “Antwerp Six,” at least in part as a way to get around their notoriously difficult to pronounce surnames.
Reflecting on the famous six-some, Geert Bruloot, who helped to pioneer the group by way of his Anwterp boutique, COCCODRILLO, which started selling the first collections of Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs and Ann Demeulemeester, said: “Before London, we went to Japan to introduce the graduates’ collections to buyers and press. I got to spend two weeks with them in Tokyo and discovered they had real potential as designers. They were frustrated in a way, because they could work within the industry, but were not able to do what they wanted or express themselves. London had a vibrant fashion scene in the mid 80s, with designers like John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett gaining prominence. I got Dirk to come with his shoes, Walter to design a new collection and Dries phoned me to ask if he could join us. Then I had the idea that it should be six of them and I contacted Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Van Saene who accepted to go to London, too.” It was here that the group got their start.
Their presence on the fashion scene – paired with that of elusive Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, who has come to be known as an unofficial seventh member of sorts – largely worked to expand the focus from Paris, which was firmly established as the center of the fashion universe, particularly then; their aesthetic was significantly different from the luxury houses that were dominating the industry up until that point. “I guess it was a rather exotic group for most. Barneys were the first store that placed an order and journalists kept coming in, as they were intrigued by the collections and designers,” Bruloot said. “There was an opening towards a new sensibility. The stores were excited, because something new was happening.”
Celebrated for their respective approaches to design, some heavily conceptual in nature, others with an emphasis on the dark, moody, and gothic, and all partly responsible for the new wave of experimental designers that came up throughout the 1990's. Van Beirendonck's work is associated with color, geometry, and ease, and is rife with political, social, sexual or cultural commentary; Van Saene's aesthetic is relatively subdued and elegant, especially in comparison. The work of Van Noten, who is certainly the most commercially known of the group thanks to his eponymous label, is characterized by intricate embroidery, dynamic prints, and the use of exotic materials, beading and dying. Yee, in contrast, is possibly the least known, and yet, one of the most experimental and rebellious. Lastly, Bikkembergs, whose label was bought by the Italian company Zeis Excelsa in early 2012, was largely influenced by athletics (namely, football aka soccer) and focused quite a bit on footwear and knitwear.
As for what set them apart early on, and continues to distinguish them from the designers of today, Bruloot has some thoughts: “Since it started, so many people have been asking us the same question: What’s up with these Six? One American journalist wrote: ‘What’s in the tap water in Antwerp?’ It remained an enigma. Why and how? It is very difficult to explain. I think it has to do with the political situation in the 80s, when the world was changing very fast and we became a global community; where the identity of a small country suddenly saw the possibility to become one of the players in this global story. We saw the future.”
He continues: “I think there’s a bit of an urge today to become a star very soon. I can feel this with the students [of the Antwerp Fashion Academy]. But, the Antwerp Six didn’t have that. They had this dream and this healthy naivety to believe in it. They knew that one day they would make it, but that was it. They were sure that what they were doing was good. It went much faster than they had foreseen. And when we became too important in London, the British Fashion Council chased us out. That’s what made us decide to go to Paris.”
The Antwerp Six and their experimental-meets-commercial approach to fashion opened doors for other Belgian designers, most notably Olivier Theyskens and Raf Simons, the latter of whom studied industrial design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and then interned for Walter Van Beirendonck between 1991-1993.
And the movement has continued to grow ever since. Veronique Branquinho, A.F. Vandevorst, Jurgi Persoons, Angelo Figus, Bernhard Willhelm, Bruno Pieters, Tim Van Steenbergen, Anke Loh, Dirk Schönberger, Marjolijn Van den Heuvel, Haider Ackermann, Erik Verdonck, Tom Notte, Kris Van Assche, Bart Vandebosch, and Anthony Vaccarello are all designers who have Belgian roots. Some have even come to place bets on the next six Belgians to watch. Among them: Christian Wijnants, Wim Bruynooghe, Toos Franken, Cedric Jacquemyn, Marius Janusauskas, Devon Halfnight Leflufy, and Glenn Martens.