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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Some younger designers have forged industrial partnerships. Branquinho, for example, sold a stake in her company to Gysemans. Simons and Tim Van Steenbergen, one of the last Belgians to launch his own line, have similar agreements with Gysemans.

Gysemans said that the bad economy has reined in growth. “We’ve had to work with less money,” he said. “We have to control costs. We can’t spend as much on shows.”

But others have begun to feel the limitations of going at it alone. “We’re looking for a new model,” said Filip Arickx who, with An Vandevorst, designs the AF Vandevorst brand. “I’m interested in having a business plan and finding the right way. But we’re not a mass product. And that poses certain challenges.”

As a teacher at the Royal Academy, the school that has given birth to three generations of designers here, Van Beirendonck has been among the most solid supporters of youngsters trying to set up on their own. He has carried their collections in his shop and he has instructed them in the nuts and bolts of running a business.

“There’s a new attitude among the designers graduating from the academy,” he said. “Before they wanted to be experimental as soon as possible. They wanted to have their own collections. They were interested in making a statement. But that doesn’t interest them anymore.”

He continued, “The ambition to start straight up with a collection no longer exists. When the economy got bad, they saw that it wasn’t that easy. Before, everybody that came out of the school was having tons of success right away. They all wanted to follow in their footsteps. But when they started closing down or having real difficulties, they started to have second thoughts.”

But that development hardly signals the death knell for Belgian fashion.

“For a boutique like mine, Belgian designers have become the bread and butter,” said Poumaillou. “They give the added value and individuality that you don’t find in Milan or London. They may be out of the spotlight for the moment. But they’re still there. They are still strong.”
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