ANTWERP, Belgium — This weekend the city of Antwerp feted the 350th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the 50th anniversary of its storied fashion department. The school is the alma mater of the famous “Antwerp Six” designers — Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk van Saene and Marina Yee — who, in 1986 drove a van to London Fashion Week, where they attracted their first orders from Barneys New York, putting Belgium, and the school, on the global fashion map and paving the way for subsequent generations of Belgian designers.
“Sometimes it’s still hard to believe what we achieved; I feel a little nostalgic,” Marina Yee, told BoF during the opening party for the multi-faceted festivities, dubbed “Happy Birthday Dear Academie.”
For the occasion, MoMu, Antwerp’s fashion museum, has put together an ambitious exhibition that examines the entire history of the Royal Academy’s fashion department. It begins on the museum’s staircase with a timeline that tells the story of the school from its founding in 1963 to the present day; a significant portion of which is devoted to Linda Loppa, the head of the fashion department from 1985 to 2006, who is widely credited with its success.
The entrance to the museum’s main floor features a selection of photos highlighting various generations of graduates. Karen van Godtsenhoven, curator of the exhibit, pointed out that, as the fashion department’s reputation grew, the composition of its students evolved from being all-Belgian to a more international. Indeed, today, the Royal Academy is an elite fashion school that is notoriously hard to enter and difficult to complete. Its graduate show attracts talent scouts from all over the world.
In the 1990s, many of the program’s graduates aimed to start their own fashion companies. But after the failures of labels started by a number of highly talented designers — like Olivier Theyskens, Jurgi Persoons, and Veronique Branquinho, among others — the Academy’s students have become more cautious, noted Van Godtsenhoven. Today, most of the department’s graduates aim to get a position at a top fashion house in Paris. “You can see it in their work, which is a bit safer [than before], but the Academy tries to push their boundaries,” she added. “They go to fashion houses like Balenciaga and work under Alexander Wang and that’s why you don’t really hear their names anymore.”
Walter van Beirendonck, who has taught at the fashion department since 1985 and helmed the program since Loppa left, was more upbeat. “I think today’s graduates make a smart decision by going to a big fashion house and get more experience and then start their own label,” he said. Though when asked for examples, Van Beirendonck was hard pressed to cite specific names. “There is Cedric Jacquemyn, who worked at H&M before starting his own line,” he said.
The main floor of MoMu has been divided into several rooms featuring work from the many generations of the school’s graduates. It is a brilliant collection fashion history. “This was an incredibly difficult exhibition to put together,” said Kaat Debo, the museum’s director, “because we had to work with so many people, whose archival pieces might not be in the best condition or were hard to locate, since many of them no longer design. It was all worth it, of course.”
The room devoted to the “Antwerp 6 + 1” — the “+1” refers to Martin Margiela — is a treasure trove of rare outfits and images. Margiela, who is often wrongly credited as being part of the “Antwerp Six” was the only one who, after graduation, scored his dream job, working in Paris at Jean Paul Gaultier. As BoF toured the room, Geert Bruloot — the one-time owner of Louis, the Antwerp store that was the first to carry the work of Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, and Raf Simons, among others — was still putting on the finishing touches.
Bruloot’s name is not well-known, but he was the man who initially spotted the footwear of Dirk Bikkembergs, who, in turn, introduced him to his classmates Dries van Noten and Walter van Beirendonck. “I thought I should take them all to the London Fashion Week,” said Bruloot. “But they did not have enough money to rent a truck, so they asked Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee and Dirk van Saene to come too. We rented the cheapest space we could find, which turned out to be amongst bridal-wear on the second floor. The first day nobody came. So we printed fliers and went to the first floor and gave them out to buyers.” Their first order came from Barneys New York, and other stores soon followed. Over time, the Six achieved enough traction to start showing in Paris — and Belgium became synonymous with cerebral, avant-garde design.
But getting there wasn’t easy. Ann Demeulemeester recalled how Mary Prijot, a formidable classicist and the first head the Academy’s fashion department, kept insisting that her work look like Coco Chanel’s and how she, armed with Patti Smith’s punk spirit, was resolved to create anything but.
Alongside the MoMu exhibit, another ambitious project, Antwerp Icons, has taken over the city’s streets. It’s a series of twelve images of the most famous outfits created by Belgian designers, each printed on four shipping containers stacked on top of one another. The images were created by the photographer Ronald Stoops and the makeup artist Inge Grognard, a duo that is legendary in their own right. “We had no idea what we were doing when we started,” Stoops told BoF. “I was modeling for Walter [van Beirendonck] when he started making clothes and he told me that he needed a photographer and that I should pick up a camera. I learned everything on my own.”
Van Beirendonck was grateful for the spirit of experimentation that characterised his generation. “It was a very active period when we were studying. There were a lot of strong identities coming out. First, you had the Italians with Versace and Armani. Then you had all the French designers with Mugler and Montana. Afterwards you had the Japanese, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. That all happened [during] exactly the four years that we were at school; so you were really overwhelmed by these powerful fashion statements.”
If there was a bit of nostalgia in the air at this weekend’s festivities, “It’s in the good sense of the word,” Yee concluded.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com