Once upon a time some young designers from the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp took their collections to London. Although they went more in hope than expectation, they made an instant impact. Within weeks the 'Antwerp Six' were being touted as the bright young things of European fashion.
That was in 1984. Eight years on, the Antwerp Six no longer exists as an identifiable grouping, but the impact of Belgian designers on avant-garde fashion has been marked. The Belgian designers were not one-season wonders. They hung around, matured, showed in Paris and sold their clothes to stores round the world.
From the viewpoint of 1992, we can begin to perceive their long-term significance: they were designers from the least hip country in Europe, and they breached the barriers of snobbery within the fashion industry. In the process, they proved that exciting fashion design was not the exclusive preserve of the French, Italians and British.
Dries Van Noten, one of the original six, points out with a wry smile that in the early days many US retailers did not know where Belgium was. Since the Belgian breakthrough, international fashion buyers have proved willing to throw their nets wide. Designers from Spain (Sybilla), Germany (Jil Sander), Austria (Helmut Lang) and even Sweden (Marcel Marongiu) are making names for themselves.
There are at least a dozen Belgian designers worthy of note, but the four pictured here are the ones with staying power: Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela, both womenswear designers; Dirk Bikkembergs, a menswear designer; and Dries Van Noten, who designs for both sexes.
Only Margiela, who worked for Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris before going solo, has left Antwerp. The others love their city - for its mix of languages, nationalities and cultures.
Demeulemeester, a perfectionist, says: 'I am not influenced by other designers. I don't care about fashion - I just do what I want to do. In Antwerp there are no constraints. I have been able to start from zero, building up my own style.'
Bikkembergs, a tall, skinny workaholic, says: 'Antwerp is a lot more exciting than Milan. We are open to new ideas. The city has an international feel.'
Reasonably enough, the four designers do not like being lumped together. They have carved out their own niches, and go their own ways now (Margiela, who lives in Paris, has pushed this to extremes: he refuses to have his picture taken and is notoriously reluctant to talk about his clothes).
There are, however, some leitmotifs running through their collections and the way they think about fashion. All four share a common delight in playing with proportions and shapes.
Geert Bruloot, an Antwerp retailer who knows all the designers well, says that they are perfectionists, working like architects, constantly refining shapes. Demeulemeester will spend days working on the cut of a pair of trousers, or adjusting the hang of a jacket so that it sweeps long and low at the front.
Bruloot makes another astute point: that the Belgian designers share a common respect for tradition, for old fabrics and ways of working. Dries Van Noten, who comes from an old family of Flemish clothing manufacturers, works only with natural fabrics and has a suspicion of anything synthetic. There is something in him of the designer as artisan, building collections by meticulous attention to cut, fabric and the layering of clothes. Retailers agree he makes some of the best quality clothes in European fashion.
Even Martin Margiela, arguably the wildest of the four designers, has a very strong feeling for tradition. He deconstructs fashion, turns clothes inside out, messes about with seams and zips, but within a recognisable framework. Margiela is the one you will spot at the Clignancourt flea market in Paris, examining the old-fashioned linings of jackets, hunting through scraps of fabric for ideas.
All four dislike the idea of head-to- toe designer dressing. Van Noten explains: 'The 'total look' fashion of the Italians and Japanese is over. Fashion is about mixing nice shirts, sweaters and jackets in a way that suits your personality, not following the dictates of designers.'
Dirk Bikkembergs agrees. 'I would prefer to see men buying just one piece of my clothing, then mixing it with other clothes to create their own individual look. I don't want people to accuse me of making clothes for fashion victims.'
Bikkembergs' menswear has been hugely influential and much copied: his chunky boots, which prompted a boom in demand for big, butch footwear; his body-sculpted leather jackets; and his inventive knitwear, particularly high-necked, ribbed sweaters and pullovers.
Bikkembergs is renowned for staging spectacular fashion shows at the menswear collections in Paris, but he plans a more low-key approach for his next show, which opens the menswear collections in Paris tomorrow.
In recent seasons, Bikkembergs and his Antwerp colleagues have attained a new maturity. The signs are that their influence will grow, rather than diminish, during the Nineties.
British stores are responding by increasing their orders. All four designers are now available here. Dries Van Noten, the biggest name, sells to 10 shops. Their clothes are not cheap, but Belgian fashion, like much else coming out of Belgium, is well worth a look.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content