Forget all the boring jokes - Belgium's avant-garde designers have been world leaders since the early Eighties. Now a second wave of trend-setters is about to hit our shores. Tamsin Blanchard reports

SINCE THE beginning of the Eighties, Belgium has been a hotbed of avant-garde fashion. Out of the fashion school at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts came the elusive and influential Martin Margiela, who started his own label in Paris after working with Jean Paul Gaultier. Then came the Antwerp Six - Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester among them - who are now both commercially and creatively acclaimed. Antwerp, any savvy shopper will tell you, is the new Tokyo; in non-fashion speak, while the Japanese dominated the new wave in the Seventies and Eighties, the Belgians have been an equally strong force in the Nineties.

Now a new generation of lowlanders is making its mark. They have been helped along by the now-established Belgian designers, including Walter Van Beirendonck (who opens his own store in Antwerp in September and also teaches at the Academy) and Dries Van Noten. The names Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons, AF Vandervorst, Lieve Van Gorp and Jurgi Persoons might not mean anything to you now, but they soon will. This autumn, Branquinho, Persoons and Simons are being given star billing at an Antwerp designer boutique called Louis - and as Louis, the first shop to sell Margiela and Demeulemeester, is something of a legend in its own town, its seal of approval is a sure sign of a name to watch.

The secret of the Belgians' success is difficult to pinpoint, but the rigorous Academy (where these pictures were taken) probably has a lot do with it. Students who survive the course - this year only seven graduated out of a group that began with 60 in the first year - have both strong motivation and real talent. Sadly, the Academy's original and rather grand building is crumbling dangerously, so the students are being located to modern premises. It's a pity: these clothes share with the art college's old home a certain aesthetic - quiet, sombre and dark - that is typically and unmistakably Belgian. It must be something in the water. !



Simons, who is 28, studied industrial design in Genk, Belgium, and graduated in furniture design. He worked for Walter Van Beirendonck while studying, and through him became interested in fashion. Buyers love his 'new dandy style, inspired by classical clothes but with a teenage look' Hannelore wears black cashmere tank-top, pounds 210, black cotton knitted sweater, pounds 147, black leather sleeveless jacket, pounds 342, and black stretch cotton trousers, pounds 144, all by Raf Simons (enq: 00 33 1 53 36 12 12); black leather boots by Dirk Bikkembergs (enq: 00 33 1 40 27 07 37)


An Vandervorst, 29, and Filip Arikx, 28, graduated in 1991 from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. An previously worked for Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten, Filip as a stylist. Their first collection is inspired by German artist Josef Beuys, not just his work but 'his philosophy to rehabilitate the human soul'; they want to translate his ideas into clothes. Buyers say they work 'with emotion' and present a good balance between strong ideas and comfort Sylvie wears white cotton 'chambermaid' shirt, pounds 65, with khaki and beige 'salvation' skirt, pounds 120, both by AF Vandervorst (enq: 00 33 1 42 33 93 18); khaki boots by Robert Clergerie, 67 Wigmore Street, W1 (enq: 0171 935 3601)


A 1995 graduate of the Royal Academy, Branquinho is 25. After working with Walter Van Beirendonck and Miu Miu, she presented her first Paris collection in March 1998. Inspiration for the new collection came from the character Laura Palmer in 'Twin Peaks': 'dark romanticism, secret feelings, the mysterious nightlife of girls'. Buyers like her clothes because they are chic, casual, simple and sexy Sylvie wears black synthetic turtle-neck top, pounds 64, and trousers, pounds 241, brown and grey striped wool one-button jacket, pounds 303, and grey wool pleated skirt, pounds 198, all by Branquinho, from Browns, 23-27 South Molton Street, W1 (enq: 0171 491 7833), and Joseph, 74 Sloane Avenue, SW3 (enq: 0171 590 6200); black shoes, pounds 265, by Manolo Blahnik for Clements Ribeiro, as before


After studying film, thirtysomething Van Gorp switched to fashion, graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1987. After various styling and assisting jobs, she showed her first collection, 'Warriors', in 1991, and says 'strong women are one of my recurring themes'. She teaches at the Academy, and in 1995 opened her own shop in Antwerp, branching out into menswear two years later. Her theme for this collection was 'Victim or Hero', with zips and leather contrasting with softer drapes and prints Hannelore wears grey wool and leather sleeveless dress, pounds 250, with sheepskin sleeves, pounds 115, both by Lieve Van Gorp (enq: 00 32 32 25 19 65); black leather shoes by Manolo Blahnik for Clements Ribeiro, 49-51 Old Church Street, SW3 (enq: 0171 352 8622)






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