BELGIAN BLOCK

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — All joking aside, Belgium has contributed more to culture than waffles, fries and Hercule Poirot. And in the past couple of decades, the fashion industry has gotten more than its fair share of the country’s creative quotient.
That’s why the Fashion Institute of Technology here is taking a look at the modern phenomenon of Belgian fashion design, from the early days of the so-called Antwerp Six up to the latest generation of Belgian-born and trained designers. And Barneys New York, which has been selling Belgians since the early days of Dries van Noten and Anne Demeulemeester, will install window displays to run in conjunction with the exhibit’s first few weeks.
“I’ve been thinking about doing a Belgians exhibit for a year now,” said Valerie Steele, FIT’s co-curator of the show along with Fred Dennis. “I feel more excited about this than just about anything I’ve seen since the Japanese designs of the Eighties. These designers are approaching this as artists, looking at ideas like deconstruction in new ways. There’s so much creativity at a time when so much fashion is all about recycling and repackaging.”
Steele went to Antwerp last year to sit on a jury at the renowned Royal Academy — alma mater of van Noten, Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela, among others — and came back convinced a show had to be done “sooner than later.”
The exhibit, called “Belgian Fashion: Antwerp Style,” opens Feb. 1, will run through April 14 and will feature 10 designers or design teams, including Demeulemeester, van Noten, Margiela, Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk van Saene, Veronique Branquinho, AF Vandevorst, Olivier Theyskens, Lieve Van Gorp and Jurgi Persoons.
“The names are really hard for people, to say, to spell,” said Steele. “I wanted to give some sense of the range of Belgian fashion, and to make people more aware of it.”
Barneys, meanwhile, has seen its Belgians grow from tiny labels to significant names, said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising. “We’re very simpatico with them,” she said.
The Barneys windows, being designed by creative director Simon Doonan, will feature spring 2001 merchandise from various Belgian designers and will be accessorized with “gigantic papier mache owls.”
“I feel that owls are intrinsically Belgian,” and as such have a lot in common with the designers, said Doonan. “They’re both sort of observers, enigmatic, very contained. The Belgians are determinedly cerebral about everything. You’ll notice there’s no Belgian equivalent of Arnold Scaasi.”
There may not be a lot of color, beading or cleavage, but the clothes are still fun, said Steele, who added that she owns a lot of Belgian fashions and is particularly enamored of the husband-and-wife team of AF Vandevorst.
“Everyone talks about them as being intellectual and it’s true that their clothes don’t emphasize the wearer’s status or sex appeal,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re describing what they do, it sounds really arty. When (AF Vandevorst) talk about being influenced by German artist Joseph Beuys, it’s hard not to think, ‘Hmmm. Felt and animal fat.’ But what no one talks about is that the clothes are also great to wear.”

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