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The Belgian Blues: Designers Wonder if Avant-Garde Is Over

Belgian fashion is at a crossroads as the tide of avant-garde designers with tongue-twisting names coming out of Antwerp has subsided.

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Filip Arickx

Photo By Stephane Feugere

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“I think the concept of the avant-garde is outdated,” said Ann Demeulemeester.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.”
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