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.
The shop, on Steenhouwersvest, is operated by von Furstenberg’s sister-in-law Greta Helfin, who also sells DVF at her multibrand shop Greta Marta in Brussels. But the Antwerp boutique is a point of pride for the designer as she revisits her Belgian roots. As she strolled around the city, von Furstenberg delighted in seeing “Frituur” signs, indicating restaurants that specialize in the Belgian version of French fries, often served in paper cones. And happening upon a shop where cellos in various states of completion were displayed in the window, she gasped, “Oh my God, this is fabulous,” repeating the phrase when she learned there was a maker of harps across the street.
Craftsmanship and a close affinity to the arts are two qualities von Furstenberg associates strongly with her home country. They’re virtues exemplified by one of her favorite Antwerp places: the house of painter Peter Paul Rubens, part of the Rubens museum complex here. The designer said she’s crazy about its Baroque portico, courtyard and garden.
Yet she is equally smitten with Antwerp’s embrace of contemporary design, reflected as much in the spiky roof of its new law courts as it is in Walter van Beirendonck’s otherworldly fashion boutique, where von Furstenberg marveled at the floating ring of a cash wrap that sways at the slightest touch.
“Doesn’t it make you dizzy?” she asked the employee behind the counter. “Or are you sick of answering that question?”
“Not at all,” replied the women encircled by the ring, flashing a bright smile.
With both her parents deceased, von Furstenberg said she hasn’t spent much time in Belgium in recent years, save for visiting her brother, Philippe, and his family. But last year, she plunged deeply into the country’s culture and heritage, meeting everyone from members of the royal family to city officials, some of whom attended a dinner in her honor Tuesday night at the medieval chateau of antique dealer Axel Velvoordt.
“You see it with different eyes,” she said of her recent trips to Belgium. “Now I see things that I didn’t see. The countryside is so beautiful. The food is wonderful. I think it’s much, much better than in Paris, much simpler.”
At Tuesday’s dinner, attended by a mix of royals, artists and local fashion folk, von Furstenberg finally got a chance to meet some of her Belgian fashion peers, including Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten. “They are so nice and so authentic,” said von Furstenberg. “They don’t care about being big. They’re very, very independent. They don’t compromise.”
Von Furstenberg, who was recognized by New York Mayor Ed Koch in 1986 as an immigrant who had a major impact in America, is returning the favor by getting involved with Red Star Line, a charity devoted to restoring that company’s Antwerp warehouses as a remembrance of its famous ship that ferried millions of immigrants to new adventures in North America.
She also visited Spa, a picturesque resort village in the south of Belgium famed since the 16th century for the healing and restorative properties of its water.
“My dream has always been to help them with their water,” von Furstenberg said, also confessing a desire to aid her Belgian fashion peers and hinting at an exhibition or event in New York some time in the near future.