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The Reunited States of Belgian Fashion

As a show of solidarity against the terror attacks in Brussels, Walter van Beirendonck of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Tony Delcampe of La Cambre meet for the first time.
Tony Delcampe (L) and Walter van Beirendonck (R) | Photo: Dirk Alexander
  • Elisabeth Clauss

ANTWERP, BelgiumWalter Van Beirendonck, director of the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and Tony Delcampe, his counterpart at La Cambre in Brussels, have moulded some of the most acclaimed artistic directors in recent years.

On Beirendonck's honour roll: Raf Simons, Kris van Assche at Dior, and Demna Gvasalia at Vetements and Balenciaga. On Delcampe's list: Anthony Vaccarello at Versus Versace then Saint Laurent, and Julien Dossena at Paco Rabanne.

Through their students, these two men have exerted a significant influence on the global fashion industry. At the helm and in the creative studios of some of the most prestigious brands are numerous “Belgians” who have infused the fashion scene with a Belgian identity begun by the ‘Antwerp Six’ (Beirendonck, himself, is one of the six) since the mid-eighties.

In a world where many of the most prestigious fashion courses are privately funded and expensive to attend, The Royal Academy and La Cambre stand out not only as hothouses of talent, but as publicly-funded institutions. And yet, these two influential men had never met until this year.

For 30 years, "Flemish" and "Brussels" fashion have been compared and contrasted: the Antwerp Academy stands for a modernised mix of the radical legacy of 'the Six', combined with a focus on loud colours and cuts; while La Cambre's particular take on minimalism yields pared down collections featuring ultra-modern cuts and volumes. Haider Ackermann in the North, Cédric Charlier in the South.

Following the attacks in Brussels, eager to help ease tensions in Belgium and show solidarity, Walter van Beirendonck and Tony Delcampe officially met, for the very first time, in Antwerp. They shook hands and spontaneously hugged. The two giants from the engine rooms of Belgian fashion quickly realised they were already on the same song sheet, if not completely tuned in to one another. Not long before, they’d decided to shoot posters for their respective schools’ fashion shows, featuring models wearing the same garment from van Beirendonck’s post-Paris attacks collection, with the slogan: “Stop Terrorising Our World”.

“Shortly after the events in Brussels, I was contacted by Pierre Daras and Pierre Debusschere [art director and teacher at La Cambre, and photographer for the posters, respectively], who asked if they could use my dress for La Cambre’s poster,” Walter van Beirendonck explains. “I initially thought it was a bizarre request because my work is so strongly linked to the Antwerp Academy. And then I quickly realised that it would be a very strong message, and a beautiful symbol, to reaffirm that it’s time to stop differentiating Belgian fashion along linguistic borders. So we worked with the same garment on both posters, to reassert a joint commitment against terrorism, and to demonstrate solidarity between Brussels and Antwerp.”

Tony Delcampe concurs: “Given neither of us had ever had a falling out, it was a shame we hadn’t had the chance to meet through our schools. We’ve both been around for over 20 years, and especially at the beginning, our two fashion departments were frequently compared with one other. We now have an opportunity to really get closer and come together.”

On the occasion of their schools’ shows (which both take place in June) they decided to reaffirm that the country is united in its joys and sorrows, and that Belgian fashion is internationally successful and indivisible. When asked what unites them, Delcampe and van Beirendonck reply with a single voice: “Energy, passion and hard work! And also the way we work with our students. We follow them very closely, at every stage, we look for solutions, and we experiment. In other schools, the research is often more general, I believe.”

“Everyone evolves in the same circuits, designs in the same way, and everything ends up becoming stereotyped,” continues Delcampe. “Whereas we are fortunate to be able to champion individual work, tailored to each student. Anthony Vaccarello is not Matthieu Blazy, who is not Julien Dossena. We are not training the same personalities.”

“I don’t know what happened with Demna Gvasalia in particular. We trained him the same way we train all other students, but when he graduated, he embarked on a magnificent career,” says van Beirendonck. Delcampe concurs: “We didn’t treat Anthony Vaccarello any differently. We taught him how to observe, as we do with all others, and he studied every possible and imaginable vocabulary relating to garments. He definitely had the proverbial fire in the belly, but I remember the first time I saw him, when he sat the entrance exam. I found him interesting, but that was it. I advised him to first go and do a year in a textile academy, and a year later, he came back, more motivated than ever. He made impressive progress because he is particularly headstrong, very passionate and works like a madman. All we do really is open up the spectrum of possibility. After that, it’s up to each student to follow the motion.”

What differentiates the Belgian “creative touch,” according to van Beirendonck,“is an identity distinguished by creativity. At the Antwerp Academy we put a lot of effort into ensuring that our designers become storytellers. For us, creativity is essential, sometimes even more important than the garment’s ability to function in the fashion world.”

“The development of the narrative is constructed within the development of the collections,” adds Delcampe. “The essence of ‘Belgian’ is first and foremost garments that are not merely functional but constructed with a specific vocabulary, turned upside down, mixed together and reinterpreted. They’re not just a theory which can be explained.”

But the catwalks are paved with good intentions. Is the new guard of designers is ready to take on the fashion industry's future challenges? "La Cambre and the Antwerp Academy are art schools. We're not aiming to develop businessmen," says Delcampe. "For now, the market is saturated and all we can hope for is that these fledgling designers will find their own space, without being swallowed up straightaway by larger groups. A few years ago, smaller structures could still evolve over time. Walter and Ann Demeulemeester are people who were able to grow and make a name for themselves. Today, it's pretty much impossible. After two or three seasons, you get swept aside and replaced by other people."

“The largest groups call the shots, be they on the mass market side or the major luxury groups. Not to mention the temptations to modify the fashion week calendar,” says van Beirendonck. “There have always been bouts of evolution, it’s totally normal for things to change. We’ve chosen a complicated profession. It takes time to create well-produced objects that will be presented to boutiques. In the 1990s, Martin Margiela had already wanted to shorten the distribution cycle, namely by organising presentations just before the commercial release of his garments. He didn’t wait around for social media to do that. In any case, people who like ‘designer clothes’ are always willing to wait a while to get hold of them. This is what ensures that young designers, and independent houses, will always have a future. For the rest, it’s another business.”

“Fashion, hasn’t democratised itself but it’s done an amazing job of ‘popularising’ itself, and has also boldly claimed its space. Twenty years ago, 300 designers didn’t graduate from schools every year. Fashion is now in fashion,” says Delcampe. Van Beirendonck agrees: “Interest is intensifying on social media. And with collections proliferating during the various fashion weeks, we’re just about reaching an overdose point. And yet, it’s still possible to create one’s brand and be successful. There’s no reason to stop believing in the future.” Especially when one has allies.

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