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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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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.
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