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Travel: Belgium is in fashion, and that's flat: Antwerp has been quietly turning out talented designers for years. Now it is where those in the know go, among them Alix Sharkey

Big docks, nice paintings, decent football team, fresh mussels, great beer, chocolates to die for, and an in-your-face baroque cathedral bang in the middle. That is the Antwerp story, right there. Or it was until six or seven years ago. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Nineties.

Almost overnight, fashion pundits started raving about Belgian designers with names straight from a Monty Python sketch: Dirk Bikkembergs, Anne Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Dirk Van Saene and Walter Van Bierendonck. At the time, I was co-editor of i-D magazine, which was itself rife with eccentric talents and exotic names. But still I could not believe it. Six of them? And all from the same provincial city? All from . . . Antwerp?

More than once I suspected a colossal wind-up. Any moment, I thought, they will add Dik Van Dijk to the list, and the jig will be up. Not so. The clothes arrived, and were avant-garde but eminently wearable and beautifully made. Each of the six had an individual signature.

Curiously, all had attended the same fashion course at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which I imagined to be some purpose-built, European Union-funded showpiece design institute, doubtless bristling with technology. This, and the city's artistic tradition - Rubens was a native - would explain it. So much for imagination.

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, despite its grand name, is shockingly down-at-heel, especially its annexe, a former infants' school that is now home to the fashion course. Beyond a silent playground, flanked by aged wooden cloisters with peeling maroon paintwork, Linda Loppa and 10 second-year students were gathered under stark strip-lighting in a grey room with high ceilings, barren save for a few scruffy desks. They watched intently as a student modelled her own see-through design, noting the cut, how it hung on the body.

One by one, the students produced their notebooks. All were bursting with ideas and, of course, all spoke fluent English. Clearly the tuition was of a high standard, but where were all the computers, fax machines, drawing boards - the hi-tech tools of modern design? This place looked like, well, a disused Victorian schoolroom.

'We're very poor here,' said Ms Loppa with a breezy smile. 'There is a very limited government grant, so we have to be creative.'

In another bare room stood six old sewing machines for making samples. Most students work in bars and restaurants to pay for fees and fabrics. When it comes to end-of-year collections, they are expected to get on the phone to talk manufacturers into helping them out.

'First, they have to work hard on the creative aspect. Then they must become resourceful and learn to use their charms. They will need them later,' said Ms Loppa, who clearly regards austerity as a virtue. Recently, a big-name firm had offered a free computer, complete with pattern-cutting software. She and the students had tried it for a week. 'But you cannot get an idea of volume, how the cloth drapes on the skin, from a screen,' huffed Ms Loppa. 'I told them to take it away.'

We went for coffee at Lenny's, a snack bar in Wolstraat, just around the corner.

I asked how, aside from the academy, Antwerp had produced six world-class fashion designers in half a decade. Ms Loppa did not bat an eyelid. 'The city is only an hour from London by air, three hours from Paris by car. It has a southern European feel, with cafes and terraces, but a northern European work ethic.

'The port gives it an international flavour, but it is small enough to be relatively quiet. The apartments are nice and big, and it is not too expensive to live here.' Ms Loppa had studied alongside the Big Six. A few years ago, she said, they all ate at Lenny's.

These days, however, Walter Van Bierendonck and Dirk Van Saene lunch at Lucculus, an unpretentious little Italian cafe in Nieuwe Gaanderij off Huidevetterstraat. Could they explain Antwerp's sudden outburst of fashion talent?

'Everybody asks that question,' said Van Bierendonck, a large teddy-bear of a man, his hands encrusted with silver rings. 'There's no answer.' Perhaps they had tried harder: 'We were nobodies, Antwerp was nowhere. These days, if you say you're from Antwerp, doors open in Paris and Milan.' Van Bierendonck has helped to perpetuate the academy's reputation by teaching there, two days a week, for the past eight years. Clearly, given Ms Loppa's remarks, it is not done for commercial gain.

In their time, ventured Van Saene, things have been run by the steely Madame Prijot, who had founded the course in 1963. She laid down strict rules: skirts should never show a woman's knees, the ugliest part of the female anatomy: 'Perhaps the imposition of strict limits creates a framework for creativity.'

Certainly, Van Saene's classic, elegant designs would bring a flicker of approval to Mme Prijot's stern countenance. Indeed, one can easily imagine them on Audrey Hepburn, the most elegant Belgian ever to draw breath. For interested parties, they are available alongside the work of Demeulemeester, Bikkembergs and Margiela, from Louis, the city's best fashion store, in Lombardenvest.

'There was a competition called the Golden Spindle which helped promote the designers,' explains the suave-looking Dries Van Noten. 'It spurred us on. If one did a good fabric, or photographs, the others had to respond with something equally good, or better.'

Van Noten's response has been to found a flourishing empire, based around the Modepaleis, his refurbished Art Nouveau store in Nationalstraat. Here he sells cool, comfortable and thoroughly modern men's and women's wear, along with a few complementary items by Paul Smith.

Antwerp, says Van Noten, is a cosmopolitan village. 'It has the positive points of a village. Everything is within walking distance, the air is relatively unpolluted. People are interested in you, not in what you are. It's quiet. The food is good. So we are comfortable spectators on what is happening in Paris, where everybody is stressed and everything is so superficial.'

Aside from the port, its urban flavour is enhanced by an Orthodox Jewish quarter (still responsible for a large part of the world's gem trade), a China town, and small Russian and Polish emigre communities.

One of Van Noten's favourite areas is the Cogels-Osylei district, where a Twenties architectural competition, funded by the city's bourgeoisie, produced several spectacular streets full of Art Nouveau curiosities. 'Just walking around there gives you ideas, refreshes you.'

As for lunch, Van Noten has graduated from Lenny's to Hungry Henrietta, a stylish modern European restaurant in St Jacobsstraat which, for the tourist, is conveniently located by the churchyard containing Rubens's grave.

'It's a very easy city to live in,' said Van Noten. 'You can meet people here, and make friends.' This might explain why, despite their international success, five of the Big Six still live there. Only Margiela has moved to Paris, where he lives in Garbo-esque seclusion.

In contrast, as I left Van Bierendock's workshop for the airport, I looked back through the window and saw him sketching at his desk, a felt-tip in his mouth, surrounded by his kaleidoscopic collection of kitsch. He was visible to all the world, yet completely oblivious of it.

'Schoolchildren often stand here and watch him,' said Elsa, his assistant. 'He doesn't mind.'


Getting there: Sabena (081-780 1444) and BA (0345 222111) fly from Heathrow/Gatwick respectively (from pounds 93.90 return, booked a week ahead); VLM (0920 485059) from London City (pounds 99.80) and Liverpool (pounds 164.80).

What to do (Dries Van Noten's recommendations): Snacks: Lenny's in Wolstraat, Brooderie in Zakstraat, Lucculus in Nieuwe Gaanderij-Huidevetterstraat, Dagelijks Brood in Steenhouwersvest and Aza in Waalsekaai ('the south of Antwerp, very in'). Restaurants: Facade in Hendrick Conscienceplein, La Terrazza in Wisselstraat, Hungry Henrietta in St Jacobsstraat. Cafes: D'een Artiest in Leopold de Waelplaats, Whitsley Poetzli in Blauwmoezelstraat, Cafe Beveren in Oever ('typical cafe with dance organ'). Shops: Modepaleis in Nationalestraat (for Van Noten), Louis in Lombardenvest (Demeulemeester and Bikkembergs), Coccodrillo in Nieuwe Gaanderij-Huidevetterstraat (shoes), Francis in Kloosterstraat (second-hand clothes).

Further information: Belgian Tourist Office, 29 Princes Street, London W1R 7RG (071-629 0230).

(Photographs omitted)