ANTWERP, Belgium — Antwerp, a Belgian city with a population just over 500,000, is best known for its seaport, diamond district, beer and being home to the baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.
But this small European city is also a prolific source of world-famous fashion designers — including Martin Margiela, Haider Ackermann, Kris Van Assche, Demna Gvasalia and “hundreds of anonymous graduates working in teams all over the world” says Walter van Beirendonck, head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, where the aforementioned designers all studied.
Launched in the 1960s, when European universities were being rocked by the rebellious spirit of the ‘68 student protests, Antwerp’s fashion course first rose to prominence in the 1980s when it produced the “Antwerp Six.” This clan of designers, which included Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, jumped from Belgium to the global industry stage and “attracted a lot of international candidates to study in Antwerp,” says Van Beirendonck, himself one of the Six.
Since then, waves of graduates have continued to ripple out of the city and into cities like Paris (home to Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Peter Philips, creative director of Christian Dior makeup) and London (Peter Pilotto & Christopher de Vos). The school came fourth in both BoF's undergraduate and graduate programme rankings.
You can’t explain this on paper. The key element of the success of the school is the team at the faculty. They know each other so well.
Van Beirendonck describes the Academy’s method of teaching fashion as “a vision focusing on creativity and individual designer statements.” Antwerp offers a three-year fashion BA and a one-year MA, and is known for teaching fashion as “art.” Students’ final collections are usually explosively colourful, conceptual and not immediately commercial. This year’s graduate collections included suits made of industrial foam and horned tiaras, with diverse materials and design techniques thrown together in each look.
According to some, the school’s success boils down to its unique teaching methods. “The methodology [of the fashion course] never changed in 50 years,” says Linda Loppa, who led Antwerp’s fashion department for 25 years and is now head of strategy and vision at Italian fashion school Polimoda. “You can’t explain this on paper. The key element of the success of the school is the team at the faculty. They know each other so well. That makes it very special.”
“It’s about the dialogue, enthusiasm, helping each other, shouting at each other sometimes when it’s important,” she continues. In BoF’s education survey, the school scored above average for quality of teachers at MA level.
Van Beirendonck agrees that Antwerp’s attentive teaching style — each student works individually and has regular revisions of their work with the faculty staff — is key to success of its fashion courses. “All students receive a 'measure-made' study, are guided intensively by a group of teachers,” he says. “We are lucky that we could keep our way of working and teaching over the years, and that we are able to be selective and strict in the guidance of our students.”
But while students from all over the world flock to the small city — 45 countries are currently represented in the Academy’s student body and the fashion course received 400 applications for 60 places last year — Antwerp’s refusal to incorporate business education into its fashion curriculum has divided opinion in the wider industry, where companies now demand employees with skills in areas like e-commerce, social media and sustainability.
The challenge is to make that step to coming out from this incredible creative bubble where anything was possible and step into reality.
The school scored below average for student satisfaction with courses in business, marketing and sustainability, and work placements at MA and BA level. It also scored below average for careers services and events. Still, 100 percent of BA students and 75 percent of MA students from the school said they had a job within six months of graduating.
Sophie Pay, project manager at the Flanders Fashion Institute, which provides business advice to Belgian designers, says business skills are Antwerp students’ biggest challenge. “The challenge is to make that step to coming out from this incredible creative bubble where anything was possible and stepping into reality,” she says. “After school and before starting their own label, the most crucial thing is to get experience within the industry.”
Belgium’s publicly-funded school system means that tuition fees are relatively low — students from inside the European Higher Education Area pay an annual tuition fee of €230 (almost $260). According to Loppa, the fact that “everybody could apply — not only the rich” creates a meritocracy that is key to the school’s high calibre of students. "I went [to Antwerp] literally because it was the only school I could afford,” Demna Gvasalia, artistic director of Balenciaga and head designer of Vetements, told BoF in an interview earlier this year. “At the time it was €500 or €600 a year, I think because it was a state-owned school."
Still, the Academy scored below average in BoF’s survey for financial aid, and some in Belgium’s fashion industry complain of a lack of funding and cohesion between institutions. The country is divided into three regions — Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region — and three communities (Dutch, French and German-speaking), which have legislative power over higher education. “We are dependent on the Flemish government [for funding] so theoretically we work for Antwerp,” says Pay of the FFI, adding that, “The school itself has to work with very limited means. That’s a strength of Belgium — designers at these schools have always been able to [do] great things with limited means.” Van Beirendonck agrees: “We are used to working with ‘small’ budgets.“
Aside from The Royal Academy of Arts, Antwerp, Belgium’s main fashion school is La Cambre, an arts school in Brussels whose alumni include Anthony Vaccarello and Julien Dossena. (Other Belgian arts schools, such as École Supérieure des Arts de Tournai, also teach fashion-related courses.)
Like Van Beirendonck, Tony Delcampe of La Cambre has led the school’s fashion course for over a decade — but until this year, the two educators had never met, reflecting the lack of collaboration between institutions on different sides of Belgium’s linguistic borders.
Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March, the two schools collaborated to release posters for their respective graduate fashion shows featuring models wearing the same dress by Van Beirendonck, with the slogan: “Stop Terrorising Our World.” "We now have an opportunity to really get closer and come together,” Delcampe told BoF in May, after meeting Van Beirendonck for the first time.
In the last few years, Antwerp has made efforts to “attract creative people from the outside world, for collaborations, projects and workshops,” concurs Van Beirendonck. Such collaborations, he says, will “keep this slightly ‘isolated bulb’ of the Antwerp Fashion department alive and kicking.”
To view the full State of Fashion Education Report and BoF Global Fashion School Rankings click here.