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Antwerp 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.

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