Compared to fashion centres such as New York and Paris, Antwerp feels positively quaint, sleepy even. Its luxury boutiques line intimate laneways instead of grand avenues, while the avant-garde looks associated with the city are more likely to be spotted hanging on a rack in a hidden-away studio than on the backs of the throngs of Belgians who stroll from shop to shop on sunny Saturday afternoons. That low-key feeling also marks the collections of the city's many designers. Rather than committing to an identifiable Belgian style, the only common denominator among them (including big names such as Raf Simons, Kris Van Assche and Ann Demeulemeester) is a resolute individualism.
This, of course, is what makes Antwerp such an intriguing fashion destination. Thanks to its prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the legacy of the Antwerp Six, a group of designers (including Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs and Walter Van Beirendonck) who banded together in 1986 to launch their idiosyncratic collections in London, Belgium's second-largest city has become a must-stop on the grand garmento tour.
"Back then, we were really convinced that you could tell a lot through fashion," says Van Beirendonck, reflecting on the mid-eighties rise of Antwerp's fashion industry. The designer, who continues to present his collections in Paris, has been the director of the Royal Academy since 2007.
We are sitting in one of the school's airy studios before one of his classes. Two floors below is ModeMuseum (or MoMu), Antwerp's fashion museum. The entire building, known as ModeNatie, also houses the Flanders Fashion Institute and the museum's extensive library, plus a restaurant and shops at street level. It's a unique fashion ecosystem where academia, culture and retail all feed each other.
Just up from ModeNatie is Van Noten's flagship, located in a beautiful belle époque department-store building dating to 1881. There are sneaker shops and streetwear outposts in one direction and artisanal jewellery boutiques in another. Head south and you'll find independent shops, Demeulemeester's minimalist, multilevel outpost and the atelier of emerging designer Izumi Hongo.
Hongo graduated from the Royal Academy in 2010 and showed her first collection of delicate knitwear and printed-silk pieces two years later. After studying architecture in Tokyo, she chose Antwerp for her fashion education because it offered a more personal approach than other options. And she stayed on in the city, not just because her partner is based here, but also because, in her words, "it's peaceful; there's no unnecessary information."
That's a sentiment echoed by Karen Van Godtsenhoven, one of the MoMu curators involved in the recent exhibition timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Royal Academy's fashion department. "Antwerp has a bit more space to develop your universe and it is a quieter place to focus," she says.
Back in the golden age of the Antwerp Six, the national government was grappling with the reality that its textile industry was moving elsewhere. The Royal Academy created a Golden Spindle Award to foster fresh talent, and Demeulemeester was the first to win it in 1982.
Like many other graduates, Glenn Martens (class of '08) credits the vision of former Royal Academy director Linda Loppa for the program's success. !"They really push personal development," he says. Martens now oversees the Paris-label Y Projects and jokes that Antwerp is a "fashion academy island."
The fact that so many designers stay in the city to start their businesses is a testament to its appeal. Damien Fredriksen Ravn, who graduated the same year as Martens, worked for three years on the design team of a commercial label before concentrating on his own line (his showpiece for spring, pictured on these pages, consists of a vest with oversized pockets that has the spongy feel of neoprene, only with better breathability).
A Norwegian, Ravn says he appreciates that there isn't a single specific aesthetic shared among his peers even if, on closer inspection, you can detect a technical similarity or two. "I think you can always recognize how the silhouettes are constructed or the thought behind the concept," he says. "Everyone is taught to think for themselves."
Van Godtsenhoven uses Van Noten and Demeulemeester to illustrate the industry's sense of independence.
"The colour use, the importance of shoes, the playing with masculine and feminine codes – all of this is there, but comes out in very different ways." When Demeulemeester recently decided to step away from her own label, she shared the news via a handwritten note, circulated by e-mail, that included the line, "I always followed my own path."
Over time, the city has gradually realized that it can leverage its free-spirited fashion reputation beyond students. Antwerp Tourism & Conventions has created a Fashion in Antwerp app that includes a local shop directory and a variety of thematic walking routes. For Luddites, there is also an Antwerp fashion map marked with essential retail stops.
"They're not blind," Van Beirendonck says about the tourism initiative. "They see that chocolate is working and diamonds are working, so it makes sense to play that card."