Brussels Sprouts

The once drab Belgian capital blossoms into an international contender.

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WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008
Paris has the Eiffel Tower; London, Big Ben; Milan, the Duomo. And Brussels? Manneken Pis, a small, incontinent bronze fountain sculpture tucked in a quiet lane.

It is not meant as a slight. In fact, the diminutive figure is an apt symbol for the capital of Belgium and the European Union, for it is not an obvious or showy place. But Brussels is certainly quirky, charming and international—a magnet for creative types and adventurous tourists who value eclecticism.

Contrasts abound, from the staggering Baroque architecture of The Grand Place to the looks-like-it-just-landed-from-Mars Atomium, a kitsch structure resembling an iron molecule built for the 1958 World’s Fair that glints from the outskirts. There’s a warren of charming cobblestone streets to explore in the town center, and dense, verdant parkland ringing the suburbs.

“It’s a dramatic city in terms of urbanism. You have the best and the worst at the same time,” notes Nina Ricci designer Olivier Theyskens, a Brussels native who attended the city’s famous fashion school, La Cambre. “When I was a child, it was really trash. Recently, it’s been a little cleaned up.”

“It’s quite a dull place when you look at it at first,” concurs fashion designer Jean-Paul Knott, another of the city’s sons, alluding to the often-leaden skies and a hodgepodge of sublime and horrible architecture from every era, thanks to the sprawl of European government buildings. “But it’s quite calm,” he adds. “People are very nice. Somehow I feel at home.”

To be sure, the city’s multicultural mix, vibrant cultural scene and stylish shops and restaurants keep things interesting. Brussels is home to some of Europe’s most acclaimed contemporary dance and theater productions, along with budding film and contemporary art scenes. Last year, the Wiels art center opened its doors in a striking industrialist building from the Thirties, and now a stream of well-known international galleries and artists is arriving. Residents and newcomers alike are attracted to the low rents, affordable living—where else in Western Europe can you get change for a 2 euro coin when you order a beer in a trendy cafe?—and a deep history of art collecting. It also doesn’t hurt that most of Western Europe— including Paris, London and Cologne, Germany—is a quick train ride away.

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