AMSTERDAM — Better recognized for tulips than fashion, this city sitting among a network of picturesque canals has yet to rank among the world’s style capitals.
But the Fashion Institute Arnhem, which marked its fifth anniversary last week with a blowout black-tie fashion show and gala, is working hard to put Dutch fashion on the map. And it’s doing it by tempering the nation’s homegrown conceptual sensibility with a dash of international pragmatism.
After all, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren are the city’s favorite fashion sons. Their formula, blurring the lines between the outrageous and the commercial, has helped make their quirky sensibility familiar to fashion followers globally. It also has given Amsterdam a boost, inspiring many of the young designers who call Holland home to follow their trailblazing steps.
But Viktor & Rolf are hardly the only designers here to have made a splash internationally. A few years ago, the Paris runways were awash with intriguing Dutch talent. Arnhem graduates Oscar Suleyman, Niels Klavers and Keupr Van Bentm all generated a fair amount of buzz.
Their names vanished as quickly as they appeared, though, victims of poor commercial strategies and the sudden nosedive of the economy.
Yet there is a never-say-die mentality here and designers have begun to reevaluate their goals. Last April, an Arnhem designer, Hamid Ed-Dahkissi, garnered one of the top prizes at the prestigious fashion competition in Hyeres, France. He insists he’s not interested in pursuing mere fantasy. “I want to sell real clothes to real women,” he said. “I’d like to work for an established Paris house, and learn the tools of the trade before I launch my own line.”
Meanwhile, Michiel Keuper, part of the Keupr Van Bentm duo, is working for Clements Ribeiro in London, while his former partner, Francisco Van Benthum, will this season launch a men’s wear line, Wolf, in Paris. Oscar Suleyman now designs the commercial Dutch women’s and men’s line called Oilily.
“When I started five years ago, I looked at the fashion system very differently,” said Keuper. “Now, if I were to go at it all again, I would think more about salability. It would be one of the first things in my mind.”
He continued: “Fashion was all about hype. It was a dream. Then the world changed and the reality hit home. Now it’s clear that we’re in a serious phase. Now what counts is the product and how it’s positioned. It can’t just be about fun.”
A lot can happen in five years, as the Fashion Institute Arnhem has discovered. While its first graduates were obsessed with exerting their creative difference, the newest generation thinks a lot about tailoring its collections to the consumer.
Chalk up that shift in mentality to the school’s energetic director, Angelique Westerhof, who helped found Arnhem. At its inception, Westerhof’s idea was to create a one-year post-graduate course to help young designers hone their talent to the fashion world at large.
Doing that proved a formidable task. “We started from nothing,” Westerhof said. “No one was looking to Amsterdam for the next big thing. With time, we had to start assembling the tools it takes to succeed on a broader level. The creativity has always been here. Learning how to harness it has needed time.”
Last year, she brought in Monserrat Mukherjee, a former buyer at Browns Focus in London, to help students understand what makes the retail mind tick.
“The problem, and the blessing, is that the government subsidizes fashion here greatly,” said Mukherjee. “Students believed there would never be a need to sell. They discovered differently. One of my jobs is to give them a wake-up call and help push them into the real world.”
In September, Westerhof also will inaugurate an unusual distribution model. Arnhem has a deal with Sotheby’s, the auction house, to do so-called salons all over Holland in which its designers will sell their wares.
“Many young designers run up against a wall when it comes to distribution,” said Westerhof. “Stores don’t want to take the risk. Doing this with Sotheby’s is a way of creating our own distribution.”
It also will afford designers an opportunity to meet the buying public face-to-face. “It’s important that a designer know who his client is,” said Westerhof. “Interaction is important. This is a way for a woman to say that she doesn’t like a certain thing, or that she likes another. It creates a dialogue that is not unlike a couture salon. Designers can’t learn if they don’t get distribution.”
Without discounting the importance of creativity among Arnhem’s students, Westerhof said she recently has focused most on bringing reality to high concept.
“It’s very Dutch to be cerebral,” she said. “But fashion is also an industry. I believe in the economic value of fashion.”
So how long does she think it will take before Amsterdam grows in stature to match burgeoning fashion capitals such as nearby Antwerp, Belgium?
“Some designers will rise and others fall,” said Westerhof. “But the important thing is building a knowledge center. We started from nothing. Now we’re building a framework for the future.”
She added: “Viktor & Rolf are a great example. They are important for young designers because they go to work for them. They gain experience that way. Viktor & Rolf have set a big example for Holland. We need more designers here with real businesses to support the future growth of Dutch fashion.”