By  on March 31, 2006

ANTWERP, Belgium — Does Antwerp rate as an inspiring city for a New York fashion designer? You bet.

"See that? That's going to be a print," said Diane von Furstenberg, pointing her digital camera at a wrought-iron fence with a curious grid of green zigzags that caught her eye as she strolled along Nationalestraat here earlier this week.

A few blocks later, the bare and bulbous branches on willow trees lining Karel Rogierstraat brought the camera out again. "That's a print, too," she pronounced.

Von Furstenberg, in town to officially inaugurate her new boutique on Wednesday, was also rediscovering her country of birth, raving about everything from the ornate Flemish buildings lining city hall square to the subtle tailoring and atmospheric boutiques of Veronique Branquinho and Ann Demeulemeester.

"They all came up very strongly," von Furstenberg said of her Belgian peers. "Sometimes I'm a little intimidated by them. I would think: ‘They're so fashion serious, and how are they going to look at me?'"

So far, the Antwerp buying public has embraced von Furstenberg's colorful and contemporary style, with a recent Saturday pulling in sales in the five figures. "I think my instincts were right to open in Antwerp rather than Brussels," the designer mused. "It's less international than Brussels…but this place has more cachet."

Born and raised in Brussels until she went off to boarding school at age 13, von Furstenberg said her memories of growing up in Belgium are not all fond ones. With her dark, curly hair, she said she sometimes felt out of place among her many blonde and blue-eyed classmates. And seeing the rows of austere town houses through intermittent showers this week reminded her of how grim the country could seem at times.

"This is typical, typical, typical Belgium," she said, walking around the city's southern neighborhood near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which is becoming hipper by the minute. "I found it depressing. I thought nothing, nothing will ever happen to me unless I leave this place."

Von Furstenberg today sits atop a fast-growing company that is sprouting stores around the globe. Coming soon is a Singapore location, and another in Saint-Tropez, bringing to 10 her network of shops. It's enough to warrant hiring someone to take charge of window displays worldwide, and von Furstenberg recently tapped Belgian designer Bob Verhelst for that task. The first prototype of a DVF mannequin, with no shortage of attitude and a chunky chain bracelet sculpted into the plaster wrist, was being tested in the Antwerp window.

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