Antwerp is a city rife with culture and history. Everywhere are reminders of its glorious past. Ruben’s Italian-style palace is filled with his paintings and those of his school; more Flemish masters reign at the new MAS museum, which towers over the historical port where merchants once sailed in with sumptuous silks and velvets. Throughout history the capital of the Flemish Renaissance has continued to launch breakthrough talent, and became a center of avant-garde art and fashion in the eighties. From Ann Demeulemeester’s deconstructed rocker dresses to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s conceptual choreographies and Jan Fabre’s multidisciplinary explorations, the diamond hub also became known as an experimental culture haven — shielded from the pressure of larger cities, yet resolutely sophisticated and multicultural.
At the center of this effervescence is Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which celebrates its 350 years, and the 50th anniversary of its fashion school, this year. Initially located in the Academy’s neoclassical building, the fashion department is now nestled in the ModeNatie, an elongated white storehouse built in the 19th century with a dome that rises over the fashion district. The entrance and interior have been redesigned into a pure minimalist space, opening onto a massive wooden staircase illuminated by a large skylight. The ModeNatie is the beating heart of Antwerp’s fashion industry, housing the Academy, MoMu fashion museum, and Flanders Fashion Institute, which promotes and supports emerging talent.
Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Haider Ackermann, Kris Van Assche, Christian Wijnants (winner of this year’s Woolmark Award): these are just a few of the groundbreaking designers who have attended the Academy, which launched its 50th anniversary celebrations at the annual student fashion show this June. As hundreds of journalists, students, and family members mingled at the bar and smoked by the river, all members of the Antwerp Six -- Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Walter Van Beirendonck — sat impassively in the front row to judge the collections of the school’s graduates. Collections included blown-up Vichy patterns on neoprene, massive sculptural hats in vivid embroideries, and futuristic 3-d stilettos suited for a sci-fi heroine.
As for the six designers, all of whom still live in the city, they had not reunited in the last three decades. The legendarily secretive Martin Margiela had once again declined to make an appearance. The Six, feeling nostalgic despite various past feuds, were reminiscing about their days at the academy. Back then, as street protests roared, they rebelled against the institution’s rigid, couture-style teachings, inspired by punks, New Romantics, and the French and Japanese fashion avant-garde. They began to break things apart to create their own visions. Ann Demeulemeester, a petite, thin woman with curly straw hair and fiery turquoise eyes who has maintained the spirit of her youth, said that it was in fact was the Academy’s rigorous curriculum that had provoked her desire to break free. “We didn’t have the weight of the French or Italian tradition,” she added. “I came from the middle of nowhere and worked really hard to break out of this city.” Soon after they graduated, the Six embarked on a road trip to London, where they showed their collections to buyers and press who instantly baptized them the new avant-garde. The rest is history.
Today, partly thanks to the success of the Six and of the constant flow of stellar graduates, the Academy is prestigious for its curriculum, which is copied by schools around the world. Students learn to make patterns, historical and ethnic costumes, and learn techniques from printmaking to fabric conception and leather patching. “They really focus on creative freedom,” explains Demeulemeester. “They push people to find their own voice.” Walter Van Beirendonck, the legendary designer of outrageous creations such as latex body-con t-shirts with printed hair, blown up S&M gear, and phallic headpieces, is the school’s director. He works individually with each student, developing technical expertise, research skills and, most importantly, imagination. “We have a very specific way of raising the students,” says the designer, whose great grey beard has become as iconic as his work. “We try to tell a story, to communicate through fashion. It’s a more profound way of designing.”
“Happy Birthday Dear Academie,” a thematic exploration of the work of the Academy’s most stellar graduates (including rare pieces from the graduate collections of the Antwerp Six) open at the MoMu September 8.