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The Rise of Belgian Fashion in the 1980s

Written by Noortje de Meyere. Reviewed by Marthe Bonnez.


The 1980s was a very creative and fertile period in the world of fashion, especially in the Belgian fashion scene. Fanatical individualism, autonomy and fiction are central concepts in this decade. One of the defining characteristics of Belgian fashion in the 1980s was its avant-garde nature. The Antwerp Six played a significant role in shaping the Belgian fashion scene of this era. It involves six Belgian designers who all graduated under the guidance of Mary Prijot (1917-1998) – the founder of the Fashion and Costume Design Department at the Academy in 1963 – from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1980-1982.

In 1986, the designers went to the British Designer Show in London. There they achieved international success because they were noticed for their avant-garde fashion. The group included Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten, Marina Yee, Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, and Dirk Van Saene. The Belgian cult designer Martin Margiela (b. 1957) often associated with these designers, was not part of the Antwerp Six, but was part of their close group of friends. All were responsible for putting Belgium - a country with no history of internationally renowned haute couture houses - on the map of the fashion landscape. Throughout their studies, the six designers developed a sense of solidarity by rebelling against several teachers, among which Mary Prijot. Prijot was a very strict teacher with a classical approach on fashion which is why she was often called the Belgian Coco Chanel. She thought jeans were for poor people, hair had to be put up in a French twist and knees were unaesthetically pleasing and shouldn’t be shown. The strong bond and experimental character of the Antwerp Six was developed by their encouragement of one another to revolt against her and other teachers.

The name of the Antwerp Six, was given to the group of young designers at the trade show in London because their names were too hard to pronounce. Although they all had their unique individual styles, these designers shared a passion for experimentation and unconventional fashion.

Walter van Beirendonck’s (b. 1957) designs are known for their avant-garde and theatrical qualities. His main sources of inspiration are literature and visual arts. The designer frequently explores themes of gender, identity, and social commentary through his colorful and bold creations with controversial slogans. He is best known for his collection W.&L.T./Wild and Lethal Trash, which came into being in 1983. In 2006, van Beirendonck became head of the Fashion Department at the Antwerp Fashion Academy. In 2022, he retired from the Academy, yet he continues to design his own collections and engage in other projects.

Dries van Noten (b. 1958) comes from a family of tailors and started his fashion label in 1986, after working as a freelancer for a couple of years. Van Noten's designs are characterized by their sophisticated prints, bold colors, and luxurious fabrics. He draws inspiration from diverse sources, such as nature (e.g. his own garden), traditional African textiles, and vintage clothing. He reinterprets them in a contemporary and refined way by making feminine and romantic designs with flowing silhouettes and delicate details.

Marina Yee’s (b. 1958) designs often feature intricate craftsmanship and unique construction techniques. She has an eye for blending different fabrics, textures, and shapes, resulting in visually striking and unconventional garments. She is most known for her theatre costumes. Her garments are often made from recycled clothing she finds at flea markets. Yee is the least known designer of the group. She is now a teacher at KASK in Ghent and in Den Hague and occasionally launches a small collection of clothes.

After his graduation, Dirk Bikkembergs (b. 1959) won the Best Young Fashion Designer prize. With the money, he could realize his first collection in 1986. The designer initially focused on menswear, particularly sportswear and athletic-inspired designs. Bikkembergs’ innovative approach to incorporate sportswear elements into high fashion gained him international recognition. In 2020, he started a new fashion brand called Bikkembergs, after his fashion house was sold to Zeis Exelsa in 2011.

Ann Demeulemeester (b. 1959), who also started her label in the 1980s, is known for her dark and androgynes aesthetic. She was the first one to win the Gouden Spoelwedstrijd, an award handed out to promising young fashion designers in 1982. Her designs feature long, flowing fabrics, asymmetrical cuts, and dramatic silhouettes. Demeulemeester often uses black as a base color and incorporates leather and metal details into her designs. Her clothes are edgy and rebellious, with grunge influences. She often plays with ‘high’ and ‘low’ fashion and oppositions like feminine and masculine, which are inspired by her love for the American singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith.

Short after his graduation, Dirk Van Saene (b. 1959) opened a store ‘Beauties and Heroes’, later known as ‘DVS’, where he sold his own designs and that of other Belgian designers such as Walter van Beirendonck. His style is known for its wearability and his attention to unique prints. Next to designing, Van Saene also paints. He takes his paintings and prints them onto silk fabric, which he subsequently incorporates into his collection.

To put it differently, they were designers who, such as Thierry Mugler (1948-2022) and Vivienne Westwood (1941-2022), departed from conventional norms and explored the realms of form, gender roles, and the juxtaposition of 'high' and 'low' fashion. They were not interested in creating commercial or mainstream fashion but instead focused on pushing boundaries and exploring new forms of expression. They incorporated unusual fabrics, asymmetrical shapes, and unconventional cuts into their designs, which challenged traditional notions of fashion and beauty. They attached more importance to creating an artistic vision and autonomy than short-lived trends.

At that time, the Fashion and Costume Design Department at the Academy in Antwerp had their ateliers and classrooms next to the spaces of other artistic disciplines such as graphic design, photography, jewelry design and sculptural art. The fusion of these various disciplines is palpable in their designs. From the very beginning, their success was stimulated by fruitful creative partnerships with diverse photographers (such as Ronald Stoop and Willy Vanderperre), stylists (like Olivier Rizzo), graphic designers, make-up artists and scenographers. It is fair to assert that the renown of the Antwerp Six emanates not only from the individual accomplishments of the designers but also from the collective synergy within the group, as well as their collaborations with other talented individuals.

In 1985, the designer Linda Loppa (b. 1948), a former student of Mary Prijot, succeeded the position of head of the fashion department at the Royal Academy after teaching there first for a couple of years. Loppa was one of the teachers of the Antwerp Six. She was more progressive than Prijot and stimulated her students to look for inspiration in artistic fields. Utilizing her international network, she assisted in promoting graduates to potential buyers across London, Japan, and the United States.

The experimental nature of the Antwerp Six’s fashion, coupled with Linda Loppa’s mentorship, sparked a wave of inspiration among a new generation of designers, including Veronique Leroy (b. 1965), Raf Simons (b. 1968), A.F. Vandevorst (b. 1968, 1971) and Veronique Branquinho (b. 1973). Their influence continues to resonate in the fashion world today. Remarkably, in the 1990s, Antwerp ascended to the status of a fashion capital despite never having hosted a Fashion Week, owing to their profound impact on the global fashion scene.

Caption: The Antwerp Six, from left to right: Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Marina Yee, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, ca. 1981-1990. © Philippe Costes / WWD


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