ANTWERP, belgium — Belgian designers are at a worrisome crossroads — which means so is avant-garde fashion itself.
The seemingly endless tide of cool young designers with tongue-twisting names and conceptual flash coming out of Antwerp has subsided. For the second season in a row, there are no new Belgians showing asymmetrical flourishes and torn hems on the Paris runways. Highly vaunted names from Jurgi Persoons to Angelo Figus this year shuttered their doors. Others are said to be on the verge of closing.
Certainly, the economy, which has made it difficult for young designers everywhere, is partly to blame.
But as Antwerp, the home of the famous 3Six2, last month celebrated its 20th anniversary on the fashion map with a party and exhibit at the recently minted Mode Museum, designers are now asking a new question: Has Belgian fashion lost its edge? And what does that mean for the avant-garde?
“I think the concept of the avant-garde is outdated,” said Ann Demeulemeester. “It’s a 1980s leftover. Tell me, what’s avant-garde now?”
But for many years, at least to the outside world, Belgian fashion was exactly that. Retailers turned to Milan for sexy marketable collections, New York for cool sportswear and to Paris for couture-level chic. Belgium, and Antwerp in particular, earned a reputation for thought-provoking clothes so complex that at times they were sold with directions on how to put them on.
The hubbub that surrounded the Antwerp brigade has calmed. No longer do Goth groupies clamor for a ticket to a Veronique Branquinho or Raf Simons show. Now those designers are hunkered down trying to grow their businesses and make more wearable clothes.
To be sure, the image of Belgian fashion is changing. Names such as Dries Van Noten and Demeulemeester are no longer considered edgy. Their businesses have blossomed and retailers now cite their brands among their perennial best sellers.
Even Martin Margiela, the Paris-based Belgian long known for his abstract approach, this season launched a line of classic clothes, including cashmere sweaters and silk blouses, which are more geared to the typical luxury client than the alternative crowd.
“The trend is no longer for the conceptual,” said Maria Luisa Poumaillou, who operates the Maria Luisa designer boutiques in Paris. “But the Belgians are no longer conceptual. Ann Demeulemeester is a classic; she’s the Giorgio Armani of Belgium. Martin Margiela’s a classic for me, as is Veronique Branquinho. They remain among my best-selling brands. But if the Belgians aren’t the avant-garde, than the avant-garde doesn’t exist. They still have the extra twist.”
What has changed? As Antwerp settles into its role as an established fashion hub, the mindset shows signs of evolving and the market has matured. Twenty years ago, Belgian fashion hardly existed. Even homespun companies like Scapa veiled their affiliation to Belgium.
“It just wasn’t attractive to be Belgian,” said Van Noten. “A company like Olivier Strelli sounded more French than Belgian. When we started making clothes and vindicating our status as Belgians, it was a departure. We wondered if we shouldn’t change our name. Dries Van Noten isn’t exactly easy to pronounce.”
When the so-called 3Six2 — Margiela, Demeulemeester, Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene and Dirk Bikkembergs — burst on the scene in the early Eighties, they became synonymous with subverting fashion convention.
Margiela, for example, worked with recycled garments and Van Beirendonck’s style shuttled somewhere between Mars and Venus. With her poetic, brooding clothes and wraparound draping, Demeulemeester championed the rebel rocker queen.
But breaking new ground is not as easy as it once was, designers say.
“Most everything weird has already been done,” said Van Noten. “People started to look to Antwerp for conceptual fashion. But you learn that clients aren’t interested in wearing avant-garde garments. Maybe the need no longer exists. The industry has changed; before there was a need to shock. Now it seems more interesting to create beautiful — not experimental — garments.”
Marc Gysemans of Gysemans BVBA, who produces Simons’ collection under license, blames the economy.
“Antwerp designers always did their biggest business in the Far East,” he said. “But the euro is too strong against the yen and SARS hurt a lot. A crisis period is not the best moment in which to make crazy clothes.”
Belgian designers have also had to cope with decreasing manufacturing muscle at home. In the recent past, young designers who would have had difficulty manufacturing abroad found domestic producers willing to bet on emerging talent that only sold hundreds of garments per season.
But Belgian manufacturing is on the decline. Recently, Dries Van Noten moved much of his production to Eastern Europe.
“We needed to get better prices,” said Van Noten. “People no longer want to work in factories in Belgium. It’s a pity. Young designers got a lot of help from the local manufacturers.”
“The situation has become almost impossible for young designers in Antwerp,” said Stephan Schneider, who founded his line seven years ago. “It’s becoming impossible to get anything produced. And for the more established designers the manufacturing situation has made it impossible to grow. If I ask my manufacturer to do 10 jackets, fine. But I can’t ask them to do 100. They simply can’t do it.”
Designers also have to deal with a swing in fashion tastes. As celebrity culture reaches new summits, Belgians continue to shun the roaring publicity machine. Margiela, of course, is the most extreme example, refusing to be photographed or interviewed face to face.
“There has never been one Belgian style,” Van Beirendonck said. “But the designers here share a similar approach to fashion. We’ve been more intellectual and experimental. But that fashion moment is now over. Fashion’s about celebrity and making women look like sex objects now. People are beginning to wonder if Belgian fashion is now out of fashion.”
Meanwhile, whereas much of the fashion industry in the late Nineties was caught in a wind of fusions and acquisitions, the Belgians remained fiercely independent. This has been both a force and a limitation.
Although designers like Van Noten boast that they still control every aspect of their business, from choosing buttons to shop windows, they acknowledge that to grow larger would necessarily change their approach.
“My company remains controllable,” said Van Noten, adding his company generated about $30 million in revenue last year. “But if it gets much larger I’m afraid that I’d have to make decisions that would compromise that control.”
“I wouldn’t like to have to answer to anyone,” added Demeulemeester. “Making my own decisions is the sweet side. But I can’t say that I’ll open a new store tomorrow. I don’t have the resources. This remains a family business.”
Some younger designers have forged industrial partnerships. Branquinho, for example, sold a stake in her company to Gysemans. Simons and Tim Van Steenbergen, one of the last Belgians to launch his own line, have similar agreements with Gysemans.
Gysemans said that the bad economy has reined in growth. “We’ve had to work with less money,” he said. “We have to control costs. We can’t spend as much on shows.”
But others have begun to feel the limitations of going at it alone. “We’re looking for a new model,” said Filip Arickx who, with An Vandevorst, designs the AF Vandevorst brand. “I’m interested in having a business plan and finding the right way. But we’re not a mass product. And that poses certain challenges.”
As a teacher at the Royal Academy, the school that has given birth to three generations of designers here, Van Beirendonck has been among the most solid supporters of youngsters trying to set up on their own. He has carried their collections in his shop and he has instructed them in the nuts and bolts of running a business.
“There’s a new attitude among the designers graduating from the academy,” he said. “Before they wanted to be experimental as soon as possible. They wanted to have their own collections. They were interested in making a statement. But that doesn’t interest them anymore.”
He continued, “The ambition to start straight up with a collection no longer exists. When the economy got bad, they saw that it wasn’t that easy. Before, everybody that came out of the school was having tons of success right away. They all wanted to follow in their footsteps. But when they started closing down or having real difficulties, they started to have second thoughts.”
But that development hardly signals the death knell for Belgian fashion.
“For a boutique like mine, Belgian designers have become the bread and butter,” said Poumaillou. “They give the added value and individuality that you don’t find in Milan or London. They may be out of the spotlight for the moment. But they’re still there. They are still strong.”