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Belgium: A design love affair
...the resurgence of a country with a deep influential design history
Belgian design is arguably unusual, because it does not sit comfortably in either camp (of either the new ‘Vanguard’ attempting to contribute to the zeitgeist, or the classic established quadrumvirate). However, it does have an historical precedent of contributing in a meaningful sense to the industry. Furthermore, with the latest resurgence in international interest in the country, it seems Belgian design is once more on the ascent.
The most obvious starting point for any historiographical evaluation of Belgian design is the Antwerp Six, the avant-garde collective of the 1980s. All graduates from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (and disciples of prolific teacher Linda Loppa), the group’s individuals made their mark on the fashion industry by presenting a distinct, counter-culture aesthetic. Much like contemporary Belgians who display at established fashion weeks (more on them later), in 1988 the group came to London to display their collections. The Six are now part of fashion history (and continue to enjoy successful careers, most notably Ann Demeulemeester and Dries van Noten). Van Noten, described by the New York Times as ‘one of fashion’s most cerebral designers’ , has an established brand and design house in his own right, producing RTW pieces. Similarly, Demeulemeester, who showcases at Paris Fashion Week, is credited with paving the way for deconstructed, untraditional (and often androgynous) tailoring. It is interesting that, despite being approached by many of the established fashion houses to head their design teams, the majority of the Antwerp Six sought to build their own brands; many of their boutiques and studios remain in Belgium.
However, a common misattribution often occurs when discussing the period. Cult designer Martin Margiela is often credited as one of the Six (or, by others, as the ‘missing 7th member’). Though originally from Belgium, Margiela’s career actually took a different path to that of his contemporaries. He moved to Paris and worked for Jean Paul Gaultier at the time of the Six’s London display. In the tradition of the Six, however, Margiela soon established his own ‘maison’, with several numbered ranges. Unlike the rest of the Six, Margiela’s eschewing from the press and public, combined with creative and business difficulties, led him to leave (or, in the least, relinquish control of) his Maison.
Interestingly, even in the 1980s, globalisation helps to explain and contextualise the unique aesthetic which was being championed by the Six and Margiela. Many established fashion critics saw similarities between the designers of Belgium and Japan, particularly with avant-gardist designers such as Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons). Though not identical, the two movements appeared to share a core, underlying manifesto that was distinctly disestablishmentarian, directional and unapologetically different (thereby directly contrasting the commercially viable aesthetics in the more established houses of the West).
Eventually, however, the success of the group led to the proliferation of its ideas and aesthetics into Western design, particularly in the 1990s. By then, Belgium had established itself as a key place where new talent could be found. This led to the next generation of students (including the French Haider Ackerman and Austrian-Italian Peter Pilotto) deciding to forgo learning at equally established schools (such as Central St Martins) in favour of the Royal Academy.
In addition, the emergence of the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI) in 1998 further enabled new designers to establish themselves commercially. The Institute, a body that still helps aspiring designers to establish viable businesses today, has experts in distribution, production and promotion. In 2007, the Institute created its first showroom at Paris Fashion Week, showcasing a variety of new Flemish designers to the industry’s most important tastemakers, editors and buyers.
In 2009, RA Antwerp, a gallery-come-bookshop-come-concept retail outlet, emerged as an important avenue for Belgian designers to promote their work. It is telling that he RA has two units, in Antwerp and Paris respectively. In collaboration with the FFI, this February the RA brought over 4 young designers to London Fashion Week (echoing the journey once made by their design predecessors). Designers selected include Wolf. By Sofie Claes and OMSK. To mark the occasion, an accompanying instillation was constructed by inimitable talent (and NJAL favourite) Niels Peeraer. Peeraer, a pupil of former Antwerp Six member Walter Van Beierndonck, was recently named by Dazed and Confused as one of the ‘Nouveau Antwerp Six’ , alongside Wali Barrech, Jantine van Peski, Manon Kundig, Mariel Manuel and Matthieu Thovenot. Whilst some of these names have gone on to design for, or intern with, established houses (from Balenciaga to Ackerman), most are building their own brands in their own hometown. And, much like the original Six, the underlying message in their aesthetics and approaches to fashion is distinctly anarchistic, challenging and unique.
Overall, the future seems very bright indeed for Belgian design; and long may our love affair with it continue.