Straight to the heart of Flanders fashion
Slice Of The City: Antwerp - Back in 1988, a group of young designers took London by storm. William Cook picks up the trail of the Antwerp Six
For Flemish fashionistas, it's become the stuff of legend: in 1988 half a dozen graduates from Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts threw some clothes into a van and drove to England for what was then called the London Fashion Fair.
Hailed as the Antwerp Six, these unknown designers – including Dries Van Noten – wowed the fashion world and returned as local heroes. So, as the Flanders Fashion Institute prepares a showcase event at this year's London Fashion Week (until 21 February; britishfashioncouncil.com), why not pay a visit there, and strut around Antwerp's fashion hot spots?
Antwerp is a compact city that's easy to get around on foot, and scores of designers live and work right in the heart of town. Despite its worldwide renown, the fashion scene here still feels like a cottage industry. Walking from shop to shop, you get a good flavour of this creative city – not just the clothes, but the bars and galleries and historic buildings.
The best place to start is on Leopold de Waelplaats, at the flagship store of Ann Demeulemeester (00 32 3216 0133; anndemeulemeester. be). She was a leading member of the Antwerp Six and is now one of Europe's top designers. Her shop's floor is stark and arresting, like an avant-garde gallery. It's an extension of her workshop and her only store in Europe, the other three being in the Far East.
Brasserie Nero, a few doors away (00 32 3292 6500; brasserienero.be), is a good place for coffee (or cava), with lots of locals dropping in for everything from brunch to supper.
Now walk north along Volkstraat and into Nationalestraat. In a quiet side street called Sint Antoniusstraat you'll find the studio of another Antwerp Six veteran, Walter Van Beirendonck (00 32 3231 7732; waltervanbeirendonck.com). Van Beirendonck is famous for his colourful, iconoclastic clothes, but his no-nonsense shopfront, formerly a garage, is refreshingly down to earth.
Further up Nationalestraat, you come to the hub of Antwerp's fashion scene, ModeNatie, site of the Flanders Fashion Institute and the influential fashion department of the Academy of Fine Arts, where the Antwerp Six all trained. It's also home to MoMu (00 32 3470 2770; momu.be; closed Mondays), Antwerp's excellent fashion museum, with temporary exhibitions throughout the year. The next major show is on fashion's influence upon middle-class women, from 1750 to 1950, and opens on 21 March. Downstairs is Copyright (00 32 3232 9416; copyrightbook shop.de), a classy art and architecture store with books on Antwerp designers and Flanders fashion.
Carry on up Nationalestraat to Het Modepaleis, a beautiful fin de siècle building that's the chic flagship of Dries Van Noten (00 32 3470 2510; driesvan noten.be). His designs are more classical than the other Antwerp Sixers, but they still startle – his Lightscape dresses are stunning.
From here, turn right into Lombardenvest, past a quaint old-fashioned glove shop, Huis a Boon (00 32 3232 2387; glovesboon.be) and turn right again down Lombardenstraat, to Maison Anna Heylen (00 32 3232 3282; annaheylen.be). Anna still works upstairs in this old warehouse. She's one of the new designers who've come through the Academy of Fine Arts since the Antwerp Six – proof that things here are constantly evolving. Anna's clothes are versatile and often understated. If you're lucky, you can sometimes find designer dresses on her sale rail for less than €100.
By now, you'll probably need a bite to eat and a stiff drink to wash it down. Appelmans (00 32 3226 2022; brasserie appelmans.be) is a bustling restaurant with hearty Flemish food and an absinthe bar next door. Just retrace your steps to Het Modepaleis, turn left up Kammenstraat and it's in Papenstraatje, the third street on the right. I had the Antwerp stew (beef in beer) with thick chips and a white cabbage salad followed by a slice of apple pie for €23. A glass of absinthe costs €7.50. If you're not too tired and footsore after all that shopping, there are DJs here on Fridays and Saturdays.
Come out of Appelmans, and you're right beside Antwerp's grandiose Gothic cathedral. If you want to see the works by Rubens inside (four in all, including The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross, two of his greatest masterpieces), you need to come between 10am and 5pm (or 3pm on Saturdays and 1-4pm on Sundays), though the best time to appreciate Antwerp's architectural sights – a rich blend of medieval and Renaissance – is after dark.
Walk across the Grote Markt, Antwerp's ancient central square, and stop outside the flamboyant town hall to get an idea of what a political powerhouse Antwerp was during the 16th and 17th centuries. It's the perfect place to finish your walk, surrounded by the ornate merchant houses of Rubens's mercantile contemporaries.
The modern boutiques of the Antwerp Six may not be quite so striking, but with this lively city now established as the cultural capital of Flanders, they're certainly the most fitting symbols of Antwerp's current renaissance.
Travel by Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar. com) from London St Pancras, Ashford or Ebbsfleet to Brussels Midi and change for local train for Antwerp. An Any Belgian Station ticket (from £80) covers both legs.
Conveniently located above Brasserie Nero, Hotel O (00 32 3292 6510; hotelhotelo.com) has doubles from €145, room only. The black decor is a bit overwhelming but the beds are supremely comfy.
Visitors can book guided tours through the tourist office (00 32 3232 0103; antwerpen.be) on subjects such as fashion and Rubens.
Antwerp's high rise Museum aan de Stroom, aka MAS (00 32 3338 4434; mas.be) which opened last year, is the city's most spectacular modern building. Built in the edgy dockland district north of the centre, it houses an atmospheric mixture of fine art, history and ethnology, but the best thing about it is the view. Almost 400 years after Rubens's death he is still Antwerp's most famous artist, and there are several houses associated with his life and work. These museums have been enhanced by loans of Rubens originals from KMSA, Antwerp's museum of fine art, while it's closed for renovation. See these pictures in their proper habitats at Rubenshuis, the Rockoxhuis and the Plantin-Moretus Museum (antwerpen.be)
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