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The Antwerp Six (no, not the bike race)

Words by Paul Maunder with images from Karel Fonteyne

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This was some waistcoat. The principal fabric was beige linen (there was a lot of that about in the early 1990s) but the embroidery made it special. Myriad colors, intricately stitched. My colleagues and I would lay the garment out flat on a glass table close to the front windows and watch the light play across its tones. It wasn’t cheap. One customer to our little independent menswear shop, where I was working while attending university, asked why the waistcoat—it’s called a “vest” in North America—cost so much. Consider how much thought went into this, I said, how much design. I gestured dismissively at the piles of Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren around us, standard safe lads’ fare. This is all well-made stuff, I said, but a piece by Dries Van Noten is something else entirely.

Van Noten was a member of a group of six Belgian fashion designers who have come to be known as the Antwerp Six. The group studied together at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and though they only briefly worked together as a group before forging their respective careers, their collective influence on the fashion world has been significant. In the process they have put Belgian design on the international map and given Antwerp a creative edginess.

Belgium’s second city was always an economic powerhouse. By the first half of the 16th century, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. Its strength was founded on the finance and trading houses that moved from Bruges when silting of that medieval city’s tidal inlet hastened its decline. Trade in sugar and spice was foremost in driving the Flemish economy. The Scheldt River and Antwerp’s sizeable docks allowed hundreds of ships to daily unload raw commodities from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, including pepper and cinnamon, and the wealth that this import-export trade created attracted foreign traders and bankers. It was a thriving, cosmopolitan place and because the affluent traders wanted beautiful places to live, arts and craft flourished too.

During the latter half of the 16th century, the textile trade became increasingly important. Much of the imported cloth came from England. Unfinished woolen broadcloths were produced in the English counties of Somerset and Wiltshire then shipped to Antwerp to be finished for the European market. By the 1560s Antwerp’s industry was being disrupted by the Dutch Protestant struggle for independence from the Spanish who ran the city. Trade moved north to Amsterdam and Belgian religious refugees fled to the eastern parts of England. Many of these refugees were skilled textile workers and their presence helped England develop its own textile industry, reducing its reliance on Antwerp. Diamonds became the city’s dominant trade but the Flemish cloth industry survived, with manufacturing centers in Ghent, Kortrijk and Ypres.

However, tradition wasn’t uppermost in the mind of young Walter Van Beirendonck. Born in 1957 in a town near Antwerp, Van Beirendonck was an introspective, artistic boy. His heroes were not Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck but Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Like so many teenagers in the ’60s and ’70s, suburban life seemed very dull compared to the exploding underground music scenes of New York and London. In 1976 he enrolled in the fashion department of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. One of the oldest of its kind in Europe, the Royal Academy was founded in 1663. With its imposing buildings located on Blindestraat, in the heart of the city, the Academy was an institution with a reputation for rigorous classical education. The fashion department, however, had only recently been created and kept tradition at the length of a sleeve.

Studying alongside Van Beirendonck were Van Noten, Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dirk Van Saene. The six became friends, and though they didn’t collaborate on projects, there was mutual encouragement and more than a bit of friendly rivalry. They had their own distinct styles, with Van Noten arguably the most conservative of the group—he was the son of a tailor and grew up with an eye for a finely cut garment rather than the desire to shock, which was more the territory of Van Beirendonck. In the late ’70s Belgium was beginning to undergo a subtle change. Antwerp was home to influential avant-garde art galleries, such as Wide White Space, and experimental theatre companies. The city was relatively small, fostering a sense of collaboration, and its heritage of trade and art gave the students a sense of heritage that was inspiring rather than stifling. The expansive buildings around the docks offered cheap space for happenings…a favorite nightclub of the Academy students, called Cinderella, was situated in a disused warehouse at the harbor. Young dockers danced alongside art students and the city’s first punks.

Also, the city was perfectly positioned for the six designers to observe the fashion scenes of London and Berlin, though far enough away that they could so with a sense of detachment. Or, to put it another way, the designers were creatively strong enough to resist simply copying what they saw. Van Beirendonck in particular was fascinated with the punk explosion in London, where British designer Vivienne Westwood, the riotous counterculture of the Kings Road and seminal magazines such as iD and Face were influencing the whole world. The six friends often travelled to London for gigs and fashion shows (getting in with forged tickets)—dressed, of course, for maximum impact.

Indeed, London provided a pivotal moment in the collective history of the six designers. After graduation they all began working on their own collections, with some moonlighting with existing Belgian fashion companies to pay the rent—though a robust government-funding scheme to support the Belgian fashion industry also helped a great deal. At this time the six were doing innovative work but couldn’t make an impact by only showing their work in Belgium. So, in 1986, they loaded up a van with their collections and took a car ferry to England to showcase their work at a London fashion fair. Buyers from New York, Paris and London were impressed, the media got excited—and within a few days their collections were on the clothing racks of Liberty in London and Barneys in New York. The media created the moniker “Antwerp Six” partly because the group’s Flemish surnames were so difficult to pronounce and partly because a new artistic group is always a good story.

Since their emergence into the spotlight, the six designers have followed different career paths within the industry. Van Noten, Bikkembergs and Demeulemeester have arguably created the biggest brands, though none have attempted to achieve the brand saturation of, say, Prada. These Flemish designers are for the fashion cognoscenti; they’ll never have their names plastered over cheap sunglasses or bottles of perfume. All six now have loyal followers who buy their clothes season after season, whether the dark arty styles of Demeulemeester or Yee’s reconstructed flea-market treasures. This lack of commercial ambition (or one could call it corporate greed) has helped them maintain financially sustainable business models. While at the Royal Academy their studies focused solely on design. No heed was paid to the realities of the fashion industry; it was a purist approach that probably ill-served some students, but it meant that the six didn’t compromise for the retail market, and that helped them land in London with such an impact.

Today, remarkably, all six are still based in Antwerp. The city’s underground culture may have moved on but its vibrant blend of trade and arts, together with its architectural juxtapositions, seems to be endlessly conducive to producing creative work. With tidy circularity, Walter Van Beirendonck is now the director of the fashion program at the Royal Academy. The program is one of the most prestigious in the world for aspiring designers; it is also rigorous and extremely testing—so testing that the program accepts many more undergraduate students than will graduate, in the expectation that some will drop out and others will be asked to leave because of underperformance. This practice is common in Belgian higher education, but nevertheless must heap pressure on the young students who are already in awe of Van Beirendonck.

The Antwerp Six now fall into the elder-statesmen category of fashion designers. Their reputations are assured. All radicals eventually become the establishment. Their emergence is often painted as a serendipitous combination of cultural factors—the relative immaturity of Belgian design culture, their geographical and cultural position in Europe, Antwerp’s history and the political shifts of the 1980s that created such powerful subcultures. Yet the six friends also had phenomenal drive and resilience, and they had each other. Mutual support and competition kept pushing them on in those early days.

Could it happen again? Another influential group emerging from nowhere? In interviews over the last few years some members of the group have said they think it unlikely, that theirs was a very special and specific moment in time. They bemoan the disappearance of underground culture, that the internet makes design immediately visible around the world and that young designers want fame as soon as possible.

Some of this may be true, but they sound rather like people who have become successful, comfortable and somewhat out of touch. The fashion industry is saturated with images of its history, giving a sense that nothing new can ever be created again. For a truly radical design movement to emerge, it will require a designer, or group, with total confidence in a new vision of the future. And it will require that designer to look beyond the history of fashion, even to dismiss it as irrelevant. In 2020 there is more than enough upheaval in the world for a talented, engaged designer to respond to—including the coronavirus pandemic and isolation, far-right populism and the climate change emergency. Good design always has a context. Perhaps in the future fashion can play a role in making life more sustainable too.

From issue 95. Buy it here.

Pre-order Karel Fonteyne’s book called “Spell” here.