PARIS — The Belgian invasion continues. Just when it seemed that the wave of Antwerp design talent had crested, a new generation of designers from that city is out to make its mark on Paris this season. Here, some of the key players making their ready-to-wear debuts.
Tim Van Steenbergen: This designer might have his head in the clouds, but he can also design for women who have their feet on the ground. That’s why his first collection spans “fantasy dresses” and great-fitting pants. “I wanted to do ready-to-wear that is stable and livable,” said Van Steenbergen, who is 24. “The collection is pretty classic — yet modern — with a lot of color. But there’s another side to me that likes living in dreams. I don’t want to forget the experimentation of fashion. That’s why I did the other dresses.”
Van Steenbergen graduated from Antwerp’s fashion academy two years ago with top honors. Since then, he has worked as an assistant to fellow Belgian Olivier Theyskens. Last fall, he curated an exhibition of extravagant dresses he had designed — many to be featured in his show on Sunday — by the fine arts museum in Bruges.
But then he got practical. “I started by asking all my girlfriends what they didn’t like about the clothes in the shops,” he said. “Most of them replied that there were not enough pants — and that the pants that they could buy just didn’t fit.”
To wit: Van Steenbergen spent a long time perfecting the cut of his pants. “It has a slight curve in the leg that follows the line of a woman’s leg,” he explained. “My idea is to create a couple of pieces each season that are my classics — pieces that I update but that basically stay the same.”
Bruno Pieters: With two conceptual couture collections under his belt, Bruno Pieters is ready to design for reality. “Doing couture was like a dream for me,” said the 26-year-old designer. “It was a learning process, too. But, at the end of the day, I need to sell clothes. I didn’t sell a piece of the couture. No regrets, but that’s not real life.”
Pieters’ couture shows were based on a three-part concept: showing a single item of clothing in each show in various fabrics. The first was devoted to the suit; the second to the blouse. He nixed plans to do a show in July devoted to the coat. “Ready-to-wear is hard enough to manage,” he said.
After graduating from Antwerp’s fashion academy four years ago, Pieters freelanced as an assistant for Martin Margiela, working on the women’s collection. After that, he worked for a season in the couture atelier of Christian Lacroix and then with Josephus Thimister.
He said the collection he will show on Thursday was conceived as a “perfect wardrobe that fits a woman’s daily needs” with an accent on casual luxury. “Now I have a type of woman who I’m designing for,” he said. “Before, she was a disembodied idea. I think a lot about a woman resembling Joni Mitchell: Someone who likes to wear cashmere and silk in a subtle, but super-sophisticated way.”
Haider Ackerman: This 30-year-old French-born designer is a real risk-taker. “I’ve put everything I have into this collection,” he said of his debut effort, which will be shown today. “If it doesn’t sell, then it’s bye-bye, Haider.”
Ackerman, who lives in Antwerp, gave up a steady job with a Belgian women’s clothing company last year for what he thinks will be a more creatively rewarding solo adventure. But since Antwerp is a small place — and probably counts more designers per square foot than any other city on the planet — he got a little help from friends.
Ackerman hesitantly showed his sketches to the men’s wear designer Raf Simons, who called his Paris press agent, Kuki de Salvertes, and convinced him to help the younger man make a Paris debut. Bernhard Willhelm also lent moral support. “When you live in Antwerp, and you see all of your friends pursuing their dreams, it makes you want to do the same thing, no matter what,” Ackerman said. “So I started saving all my money, and I am putting it into this.”
Ackerman describes his style as influenced by such icons as Francoise Hardy, Charlotte Rampling and Loulou de la Falaise. “It’s a very sophisticated look,” he said. “But it’s also very mysterious.” He added that he favors an elongated silhouette inspired by the elegant lines of an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. “The designs are based on an image I’ve had in my head for a long time,” he said, “a thin woman framed in a Moroccan doorway.”
Dirk Schonberger: Best known for his tailored men’s wear, Dirk Schonberger, a 35-year-old German based in Antwerp, launched his first women’s line at the Paris men’s collections in January. It featured the tailored shapes Schonberger likes for men, but adds soft, romantic flourishes. “There’s nothing sloppy or too sporty about it,” he said. “But it mixes soft and strict.”
Since he made his debut in 1996, Schonberger has been a strong presence on the men’s designer circuit, managing to be adventurous and salable. “Dirk has a great approach,” said Armand Adida, owner of the Paris men’s and women’s boutiques, L’Eclaireur. “His designs are intellectual and hugely creative, but they aren’t pretentious. They have been easy for the customer to approach and great sellers.”
Although he won’t do a runway show this season — if all goes according to plan, he’ll do his first show for the women’s line next March — Schonberger will wholesale the collection here during fashion week at the Espace Saint-Martin, 199 bis Rue Saint-Martin.