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Antwerp Elegance

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.

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