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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“We needed to get better prices,” said Van Noten. “People no longer want to work in factories in Belgium. It’s a pity. Young designers got a lot of help from the local manufacturers.”

“The situation has become almost impossible for young designers in Antwerp,” said Stephan Schneider, who founded his line seven years ago. “It’s becoming impossible to get anything produced. And for the more established designers the manufacturing situation has made it impossible to grow. If I ask my manufacturer to do 10 jackets, fine. But I can’t ask them to do 100. They simply can’t do it.”

Designers also have to deal with a swing in fashion tastes. As celebrity culture reaches new summits, Belgians continue to shun the roaring publicity machine. Margiela, of course, is the most extreme example, refusing to be photographed or interviewed face to face.

“There has never been one Belgian style,” Van Beirendonck said. “But the designers here share a similar approach to fashion. We’ve been more intellectual and experimental. But that fashion moment is now over. Fashion’s about celebrity and making women look like sex objects now. People are beginning to wonder if Belgian fashion is now out of fashion.”

Meanwhile, whereas much of the fashion industry in the late Nineties was caught in a wind of fusions and acquisitions, the Belgians remained fiercely independent. This has been both a force and a limitation.

Although designers like Van Noten boast that they still control every aspect of their business, from choosing buttons to shop windows, they acknowledge that to grow larger would necessarily change their approach.

“My company remains controllable,” said Van Noten, adding his company generated about $30 million in revenue last year. “But if it gets much larger I’m afraid that I’d have to make decisions that would compromise that control.”

“I wouldn’t like to have to answer to anyone,” added Demeulemeester. “Making my own decisions is the sweet side. But I can’t say that I’ll open a new store tomorrow. I don’t have the resources. This remains a family business.”
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