Fashion: Tall talent in a flat land

Belgian menswear designers are flexing their moules, and the world is watching.
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The Independent Culture
Jan Van Laer, the co-owner of Aura, period furniture specialists, Reyndersstraat 12, Antwerp, wears Dirk Bikkemberg. Two-piece, single-breasted, camel-coloured tweed suit, pounds 750. Available from Jones, 13 Floral Street, London WC2, 0171- 240 8312

Shoes - model's own

Gustaf Quintelear, shop assistant, Francis, vintage clothing and furniture shop, Steenhouwersvest 14, Antwerp, wears Ann Demeulemeester. Black, single-breasted suit: jacket, pounds 425; trousers, pounds 235; black, crew- neck jumper, pounds 155. All by Ann Demeulemeester, available from Liberty, Regents Street, London W1, 0171-734 1234

Stefan Tilburgs and Tom Tosseyn, graphic design students, Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, wear Dries Van Noten. Waistcoat, pounds 240; polo neck, pounds 195, from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1, 0171-235 5000; trousers, pounds 170, available from The Library and Liberty. Coat with fake fur collar, pounds 465, available from The Library

Gerrit Bruloot, owner, Louis fashion boutique, Lombardenstraat 2, Antwerp, wears Raf Simons. Wool suit, pounds 645, available from Jones as before; cotton mix shirt, pounds 135, available from The Library, 268 Brompton Road, London SW3, 0171- 589 6569

Photographer: Adrian Wilson/Stylist: Sophia Neophitou

It's not here yet, but already the hype is building up nicely for a fashion collection that promises to have the likes of Helmut Lang and Miuccia Prada seriously flustered.

Indeed, so significant was the recent unveiling of the spring/ summer 1999 menswear line from the must-have womenswear designer, Martin Margiela, that invitations were restricted to the Very Important Few buyers; press were (to their immense frustration) denied access until much later and photographers were banned from the showroom altogether.

All very confident stuff - but not particularly surprising. Apart from the fact that Margiela is the most recent non-national appointee to a luxury French house (Hermes), and therefore enjoys a certain level of notoriety, he is also a member of a flourishing group of designers who are giving the rest of the fashion industry a run for its money.

Today, any fashion aficionado (let's not call him a victim - he knows what he's doing) who is worth his black, single-breasted frock-coat, is looking to Belgium for his really avant-garde schmutter.

It all began back in the mid-Eighties with a group calling itself the Antwerp Six (all graduates of the city's renowned Academy of Fine Arts) which included Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester and Walter van Beirendonck (W&LT). They were instantly acclaimed as outstanding talents and, despite the comings (and goings) of other feverishly feted fashion stars, the intervening years have done nothing to diminish the creativity of Belgian designers. The group just gets bigger.

Generally credited with being the first British menswear buyer to recognise its potential - and still putting his money where his mouth is and backing Bikkembergs to the hilt - is Peter Sidell, formerly of Jones and now co- owner of The Library (it also sells books) in London's Brompton Cross.

One of his hottest labels (he was the first in the UK to buy it three years ago) is Raf Simons, a former industrial designer with a passion for punk, mods and rockers and anything else that reflects a dark, edgy - and British - youth culture attitude. Winter suits with awe-inspiring price tags - pounds 700 is not uncommon - attract those in the know, many of whom can do little more than try them on and yearn. Japanese kids in particular - although there are fewer of them around with bulging wallets at the moment - are drawn to the skinny-fit long jackets and wide pants.

"There's so much hype around a Raf Simons show," says Claudine Davies, a Harvey Nichols menswear buyer. "It's seen as one label to have, and his customers are real fashion people." Bernie Thomas, menswear buyer at Browns, agrees. "Stylists borrow the clothes for a shoot, then want to keep them." These, then, will be the post-Modern punks you see, wearing raggedy layers of mesh, solid jersey and raw-edged sleeveless jackets, or perhaps the more stylised Kraftwerk tailoring.

Bikkembergs, on the other hand, takes his inspiration from military imagery: "strong clothes for strong individuals. I don't wrap pretentious nerds in sophisticated cashmere."

Depending on your viewpoint, his body-conscious clothes have a homoerotic element - "quite camp, but also football terrace stuff" - according to Andrew Clark of Brother to Brother in Sheffield - but with the bonus that they appeal to women too.

"Girlfriends get their guys to try it on," says Nick Laurence, creative director of American Retro in Soho. "The cut of shirts, almost like uniforms, can alter physiques and even improve the way men stand." In some ways they're classic pieces: simple shapes, with integrity of cut, always in heavy, dark colours, but continually being reinvented so that they're perfect for the new season. His discipline comes from starting out as a footwear designer: "A shoe has to be just right, or it doesn't work."

Proof that the Belgians are a fiercely individual lot who don't follow the crowd, can be seen in Dries Van Noten's collections. "He offers a look that no one else does," explains Thomas, "which means that he has a very loyal customer base who will always come back for more. It's good to offer something that isn't Lang- or Prada-inspired. We can't hit everyone with clean, sharp tailoring."

Van Noten, by way of something very different, draws upon his deep interest in North Africa, a love of layering and a passion for fabrics, which allows for an eclectic mix of textures, colours and shapes. "It's about buying individual pieces, and wearing them in your own way, rather than having the restrictions of a total look," says Davies, who, with Thomas, waxes lyrical about Van Noten's trademark richly patterned scarves, as well as his easy tailoring shapes.

Also regarded as one of the more "grown-up" menswear labels is Ann Demeulemeester, whose most recently launched menswear line is gathering momentum at Harvey Nichols. "She has a very strong identity," says Davies, "and is known particularly for her beautifully cut tailoring, trousers especially, which are always very wide (though not cheap, at around pounds 195-pounds 265). Jackets are always low-slung and single-breasted, with one or two buttons and narrow lapels. But she's introducing slightly more commercial, easier shapes, which is broadening her appeal."

And what about Margiela? "Ten", his small but perfectly formed capsule collection is, according to Davies, "based on a total wardrobe and all you would need to wear - so clever in its concept".

More specifically, from Thomas's point of view, it is basic, with ideas borrowed from his much-admired womenswear line (plenty of arty deconstruction, then) but with current ideas "moved on" - such as "narrow shoulders of a jacket slightly pushed forward in a traditional tailoring way, and a mismatched suit with jacket a tone darker than trousers, so that the pants look as if they've been worn more". So now you know.