Published: May 2009
By Richard Alleman
Now appearing at center stage: an often overlooked city where innovative fashion meets old-world elegance
Moment is one of the fashion world's most popular words. Unlike Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, a moment doesn't imply a flash of celebrity. In fashion, it's a unanimous nod of approval from a powerful inner circle of style-setting magazine editors and their cohorts. A designer can have a moment. Consider Armani, Helmut Lang, Donna Karan, or Marc Jacobs. So can entertainers: Ricky Martin is still having his, and Madonna, master of the multiple moment, is no doubt planning her next one as you read this.
Most moments are brief, but they usually last longer than Warhol's 15 minutes. And once you've had your moment, it doesn't mean you're finished. On the contrary, it often means you've moved up to a new level of status and respectability. This is especially true of places. St. Bart's, Prague, Barcelona all had moments in the past 15 years but have since joined the ranks of tried-and-true destinations like Paris, London, Rome, and Venice. Right now, Antwerp is having a moment.
Long considered the beautiful if boring stepsister of Brussels, Belgium's second city used to be famous only as Peter Paul Rubens's hometown and as a center of the global diamond industry. But things have changed. As most moments do, Antwerp's started with buzz, which can be traced back to the mid-eighties when the Antwerp Six, a group of then-unknown designers, wowed the fashion world with their sassy, futuristic couture. The buzz got louder a few years ago, when another brigade of Antwerp fashionistas started making waves with their own edgy ensembles. Fast-forward to 2000: In addition to competing against the runway shows of London, Paris, and Milan, Antwerp is now turning up on the short lists of many savvy travelers. And the fashion press is reporting not just on Antwerp's designers, but on the city that spawned them.
Will Antwerp's moment last?Or is this current hipness all hype?And what's there to make real people--not just the fashion crowd--want to visit?These were questions I had when I pulled into the city's dazzling Beaux-Arts Centraal Station, having arrived from Brussels after a speedy trip from London aboard the Eurostar.
What hits me first is not Antwerp's cool, but its solid, old-world charm and bourgeois luxury. My hotel, De Witte Lelie (that's Flemish for "the white lily"), is one of the poshest little places I've ever checked into. Proprietor Monica Bock fell in love with Antwerp when she moved here 21 years ago from Germany, but she felt the city was missing something. "It had so many fine restaurants and cultural attractions--museums, concerts, theaters," she says. "The one thing it didn't have was a small luxury hotel." So six years ago, Monica and her interior-decorator sister created one, retrofitting a 15th-century town house with contemporary touches. With its white-linen sofas and armchairs, marble fireplaces, Persian carpets, masses of fresh flowers, and cushy bedrooms with lavish baths, the hotel offers more classic creature comforts than cutting-edge design--which doesn't seem to bother the many fashion writers and buyers who flock there.
De Witte Lelie is steps away from the Oude Stad, or Old City. So I slip on my black Campers (the walking shoes of the moment) and hit the streets in search of that much-buzzed-about wilder side of Antwerp. But instead of groovy boutiques, I happen upon the Hendrik Conscienceplein, a small square highlighted by the spectacular Baroque St. Carolus-Borromeuskerk, a church whose extravagant façade is said to have been designed by Rubens. A few blocks away is the staggering Notre Dame cathedral, home to Rubens' massive Assumption and his two moving triptychs Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. Beyond the cathedral I find the Grote Markt, one of Europe's most glorious squares, edged with gabled guild houses topped by golden eagles, angels, gods, and monsters. As I walk back to the hotel, passing old-fashioned candy shops, bakeries, toy stores, apothecaries, and haberdasheries, I worry that I may have come to Antwerp in search of the wrong story.
That all changes the next morning when a thick plastic garage door pops open and admits me to the magical world of Walter. Created 17 months ago by two of the original Antwerp Six, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene, Walter is an avant-garde art gallery and chic clothing boutique rolled into one. Bizarre sights abound: a wooden cabin full of Van Saene's little red dresses and long black skirts, the expanding polyurethane modules of kids' clothes (hologram T-shirts, squirrel-shaped hats, sweatshirts with light-up robots on them), the giant sculpture of a sleeping bear that displays fabulously freaky winter wear by Japan's Final Home label. Is this art or commerce?
At Walter, the answer is "both"--what's on the shelves is as much an installation as it is merchandise. And sometimes the garments themselves are works of art: Van Beirendonck's quilted tubular coats that look like cartoon characters; Vexed Generation's multipurpose survival ponchos (you can practically pitch them as tents); stiff A-line dresses from Kosuke Tsumura that stand on their own. "Some of these are funny clothes," the bearlike Van Beirendonck tells me, "but there are serious ideas behind them. I'm not interested in designers who are åin'; I like the ones with stories to tell."
Everyone I talk to in Antwerp points out this flip side to the city's hip side, a powerfully grounded idea beneath the glossy surface. It's true even of a designer like Lieve Van Gorp: though she cultivates a bad-girl image with her rock-star chatter and upscale Gothic couture (impish T-shirts emblazoned with Patty Hearst's face, white leather bustiers), she comes down to earth by using classic fabrics and the city's best tailors. Van Gorp credits her five years at Antwerp's Royal Academy for her obsession with quality. "You have to be creative, but at the same time you have to work like hell."
There's also something about Antwerp's centuries-old tradition of fine craftsmanship that substantially informs its modern aesthetic. Indeed, it's hard to forget tradition in this city, whose proud past is constantly present. Van Gorp's chic little storefront boutique, for example, is just around the corner from Rubens's 17th-century town house museum.
Dries Van Noten, another of the original Antwerp Six and one of the city's most famous designers, sees his hometown as "a bridge between past and future, a place that allows one to dream while keeping one's feet firmly on the ground." The 41-year-old Van Noten, whose family have been tailors for the past three generations, creates clothing noted for its beautiful workmanship, luxurious fabrics, and classic simplicity. His Antwerp headquarters is Modepaleis, a handsome 1881 wedge of a building that's become a tourist attraction for trend-seeking travelers, especially the Japanese.
With its antique wood-and-glass display cases and counters, the interior of Van Noten's "Palace of Fashion" looks so much like a set from a 1930's RKO movie that you almost expect Fred and Ginger to waltz out of the dressing room. Such stars of the silver screen would envy the satin smoking jackets, soft Gatsbyesque dress shirts, cashmere sweaters, and handmade silk ties. It's hard not to try on a few things in this seductive environment--and harder still not to fall for a loden overcoat with a quilted lining that fits me perfectly.
While most Flemish designers proudly acknowledge their roots, a notable exception is Antwerp Six superstar Ann Demeulemeester. After repeated attempts to interview the wildly successful international couturier for this story, I was told by her Paris-based PR people that she does not wish to be considered an Antwerp designer. Nonetheless, she must feel that her city is having a moment, since she just opened her first-ever-anywhere shop in the trendy Antwerp neighborhood known as Zuid (the South). Planned in the 19th century, Zuid encompasses waterfront warehouses as well as wide boulevards edged with flamboyant Neoclassical apartments and mansions. After a period of relative stagnation, the quarter has been discovered by artists, art dealers, and restaurateurs, many of whom have set up lofts, galleries, and cafÈs near the waterfront.
Again revealing how seamlessly the old-world and the cutting-edge coexist in Antwerp, Demeulemeester's starkly elegant palazzo stands across the street from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, with its rooms full of Rubenses, Jordaenses, Van Dycks, Van Eycks, and Brueghels. But there are no old-world masters at the eerily minimal Demeulemeester. Instead, headless mannequins in the front window float, ghostlike, clad in sleek leather dresses and coats, feathery dressing gowns, fringed suits and jackets. On the second floor, which holds mainly men's clothes, I discover a thick gray-wool sports jacket with deliberately unfinished lapels and all sorts of subtle darts and secret stitches. When I try it on, it's as if the garment is the culmination of several fittings with the designer herself. Antwerp can be dangerous, I think, as I spend far too much time checking out the jacket in the mirror from every possible angle. This time, however, I manage to escape without a major purchase.
Safely outside, I spend the rest of the day exploring Zuid. I cross the street to explore the museum where, besides all those Flemish masters, I make a new best friend in the Fauvist/Impressionist Rik Wouters. I take a glass elevator to the sixth floor of MUHKA, Antwerp's modern-art museum housed in a former grain silo, and work my way down, Guggenheim-style, through a fun house of mesmerizing video installations, off-the-wall sculptures, paintings, and interactive displays. On the fourth floor, a huge Keith Haring mural covers one wall of the café; it was done by the late American artist for the museum's 1987 opening to thank the city that appreciated his work before he became famous in his own country.
Zuid is also home to a photography museum, some of Antwerp's best art galleries, and a number of funky shops and cafés. Here you can feast on the most fabulous fries on earth (served with all sorts of sauces--curry, barbecue, mayo, even ketchup, if you insist) at the minuscule Frittur Erik, started by a former Royal Academy student, who found frites more lucrative than fashion. Another former Academy student, Christophe de Muynck, is behind the nearby Bar Tabac, a self-consciously grungy boîte that is the right place for the right crowd at the right hour.
Zuid's hottest new spot is the high-concept Fair Food, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant (there's non-vegan fare too: ostrich steak, stir-fried turkey, salmon tartare). Sporting a utilitarian interior of black-metal tables, white plastic chairs, recycled-paper place mats, and windows devoted to artists working in recycled materials, Fair Food was started by 45-year-old former food photographer Max Schneider. "I wanted to try something new," he says. "You can do that in Antwerp. A small business can still do well here. Of course, you need to do something good, something special, to be really successful. This city is very demanding."
German-born designer Stefan Schneider (no relation) has also found Antwerp receptive to new businesses. Graduating at the head of his class from the Royal Academy in 1994, Schneider scored internationally with his "neo-rustic" clothing festooned with embroidery, appliqués, pleats, piping, and patches. He now presides over a smart boutique all his own in the old town. "Almost anywhere else it would be impossible for a young designer to open his own shop," the 31-year-old Schneider says. "But in many ways, Antwerp is a village--and it still has relatively low rents, so I could do it here."
Initially attracted by Antwerp's edgy, anything-can-happen quality, Schneider has started to worry recently that his village may be going a little too mainstream. "They're promoting us as åAntwerp, City of Fashion,'" he says. "But we were much better off when we had insider status, underground status. That's what fashion people want--to be inside, to be surprised. Now we have to take the next step and no one knows quite what that will be or where that will lead. Expectations will be high."
They're already feeling the heat over at MoMu (short for ModeMuseum), Antwerp's new fashion museum, which will combine an existing textile and costume collection with the work of the country's contemporary designers. Set to debut by the end of the year, MoMu is housed in a historic building a block from Dries Van Noten's Modepaleis. According to Gerdi Esch, a fashion journalist and spokesperson for MoMu, it's high time to celebrate Belgium's decidedly different contribution to the world of fashion. "Our designers are artists," Esch points out over coffee at 't Ogenblik, a popular cafÈ on the Grote Markt square in the Old City. "They are perfectionists. Most of them have started very slowly and built up something important by staying small and keeping things under their own control. They could make more money if they thought otherwise and sold out to larger concerns. But they'd risk losing their identity in the process."
After Esch takes off for another appointment, I linger at the café a few more minutes and take in the beauty of the Grote Markt one final time before my flight home. As I admire the massive 16th-century town hall and soaring guild houses gleaming in the late-morning sunshine, Antwerp's essential solidness hits me again. Clearly this city seems in little danger of losing its identity, and its charms should be around for much longer than a moment. What might not be around, however, is that jacket out at Ann Demeulemeester's. I check my watch. If I hurry, I have just enough time to see if it's still there.
Often called the surprise between Amsterdam and Brussels, Antwerp is a short train journey from both cities. It's also an easy shot from London, either via the high-speed Eurostar (changing at Brussels) or on VLM Airlines,which has frequent hops from London's City Airport.
Hotel De Witte Lelie 16-18 Keizerstraat; 32-3/226-1966; doubles from $214.
Hotel 't Sandt 17-19 Zand; 32-3/232-9390; doubles from $126. Charming, inexpensive small hotel in a 400-year-old tollhouse on the Schelde River.
Hilton Antwerp Groenplaats; 32-3/204-1212; doubles from $204. Luxury property with 211 rooms, created six years ago in a 19th-century former market house.
RESTAURANTS, CAFÉS, AND BARS
Euterpia 2 Generaal Capiaumontstraat; 32-3/235-0202. Glamorous dining in an exotic Neo-Greek mansion in Antwerp's architecturally significant Berchem district.
Zuiderterras 37 Ernest Van Dijckkaai; 32-3/234-1275. Strikingly modern restaurant.
Pottenbrug 38 Minderbroedersrui; 32-3/231-5147. Popular French bistro.
Hungry Henrietta 19 Lombardenvest; 32-3/232-2928. Sleek new setting for one of the city's most popular restaurants, specializing in not-so-lean Belgian cuisine.
L'Entrepot du Congo 42 Vlaamse Kaai; 32-3/238-9232. Crowded 't Zuid hangout.
De Foyer 18 Komedieplaats; 32-3/233-5517. A glorious Belle Époque café.
Frituur Erik 35 Waalse Kaai; 32-3/248-2447.
't Ogenblik 10-12 Grote Markt; 32-3/233-6222.
Bar Tabac 43 Waalse Kaai; 32-3/238-1937.
Fair Food 60 Graaf Van Egmontstraat; 32-3/238-9296.
Walter 12 St. Antoniusstraat; 32-3/213-2644.
Lieve Van Gorp 58 Keizerstraat; 32-3/231-1917.
Het Modepaleis 16 Nationalestraat; 32-3/233-9437. Dries Van Noten's shop.
Ann Demeulemeester 38 Verlatstraat; 32-3/216-0133.
Stephan Schneider 53 Reyndersstraat; 32-3/226-2614.
Louis 2 Lombardenstraat; 32-3/232-9872. SeveralBelgian designers under one roof.
Fish & Chips 36-38 Kammenstraat; 32-3/227-0824. A virtual mini-mall dedicated to fashions for the Doc Martens set--plus a cool café and a hair salon.
The Zurenborg quarter of Antwerp's southern suburb, Berchem--blocks and blocks of Art Nouveau and Neoclassical mansions and row houses.