The red-light district of Amsterdam, famous for its sex shops, brothels and "coffee shops", is relaunching itself... as a fashion hotspot. Last month a project called Redlight Fashion Amsterdam offered a group of young Dutch designers the chance to live and work rent-free for a year in the former establishments of prostitutes; their designs will be also be available to buy in a gallery store.
The project sits at the very heart of the Wallen (red-light district) and the result is a radical mix of hip, young Dutch designers and members of the world's oldest profession. Bathed in the neon glare of the sex shops, the work of these designers vies for space between windows displaying girls dressed in eye-popping underwear.
The initiative is a collaboration between the Dutch authorities and the fashion consultancy HTNK, which supports young designers. It has come about in part due to rising concern among city councillors about gang culture and crime in the area. Armed with new laws enabling the closure of establishments believed to be involved in criminal activity, last year the city bought 55 buildings from a former brothel baron; 16 of these are now to be handed over to the designers.
"Fashion designers have a lot of problems finding affordable places to live and display their work," explains Mariette Hoitnik, director of HTNK. "During a recent meeting with the authorities in the area, I suggested we put some designers there. It seemed to work well as a temporary solution."
Inevitably, the scheme has created controversy, with some claiming that it is an attempt to sweep controlled prostitution from the world's most famous red-light area. Hoitnik firmly disagrees. "I don't understand why the people think we want to get rid of it," she says. "The project is called Redlight Fashion Amsterdam, we have gone to great lengths to ensure the houses have been kept in their original state, and it is going on for just a year."
Brigitte Hendrix, one half of the partnership behind the label ...And Beyond, says she knows some people aren't particularly happy the designers are there, "but we haven't experienced that personally – the girls working alongside us are quite friendly. Having a workspace in the centre of Amsterdam helps to reconnect us to the city," she adds.
For Edwin Oudshoorn, who considers himself a tailor more than a fashion designer, the location does not feel controversial at all. "Tailoring and prostitution are both very old professions," he says. "To have an atelier next to a brothel feels quite natural."
Mada van Gaans, a graduate of the fashion institute of Arnhem, whose fantastical, feminine creations have graced catwalks in Paris and New York, agrees that the area is an ideal place to showcase her work. "At night, with all the lights and the crowds, it has a very filmic quality. I love using the window space to tell a story with my clothes."
Perhaps the most high-profile participant in the project is the award-winning designer Bas Kosters, also a graduate of the fashion institute of Arnhem. He uses recycled materials to create playful, flamboyant pieces. His graduate collection, "Two tea-cups and a frying pan", scooped the coveted Dutch Robijn fashion award, and gained him international renown.
Hoitnik believes the project's strength lies in uniting a diverse group of talents. "In Holland we don't have people such as Donatella Versace; someone like that couldn't exist here. There is not that sense of glamour. It's far more quirky."
Another contributing designer, Daryl van Wouw, concurs that it is the Dutch capital's offbeat character which makes it such an inspiration. "The mix of impressive old buildings on the canals, new hi-tech architecture and the cheesiest neon signs, make it like an urban collage with heart, soul and history," he says.
Van Wouw started his own label in 2005 after working for Donna Karan and Converse. In his last collection he used knitted fabrics made of silk, cotton, cashmere and, unusually, bamboo to create a mix of streetwear and couture. "My work has to have a refreshing, original quality that sets it apart," he says. "I pull from many subcultures and incorporate ideas that young people can recognise and identify."
While cities such as Paris or Milan may represent a more traditional couture fashion aesthetic, Amsterdam clearly offers a different dynamic. And just like St Martins in London and the Royal Academy in the nearby city of Antwerp, much of its current vibrant scene can be traced to one institution: the prestigious Fashion Institute of Arnhem – a college based in the eastern part of the Netherlands whose former alumni include Viktor & Rolf and Spijkers en Spijkers.
The 16 designers camping out in the old brothels have until 2009 to prove themselves. "I don't know what will happen," confesses Hoitnik. "We see it as a work in progress and an initiative to give world-class professionals an opportunity to finally show their work to a bigger audience."
For more information: www.redlightfashion amsterdam.nl