When you think of the major European fashion capitals, Paris, London and Milan spring to mind. Antwerp? Not so much. But back in 1986, six young designers jumped in a van headed for London, determined to make their mark on the fashion world. They became a fashion collective known as the Antwerp Six. Over the next 30 years, the designs of Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee changed the international fashion scene, bringing a radically distinct aesthetic to catwalks worldwide. Culture Trip takes a closer look at the history of the Antwerp Six.
Picture 1986. Halley’s Comet narrowly missed the earth’s atmosphere, Oprah Winfrey launched her eponymous TV show and Venus by Bananarama topped the charts. Six former students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp had emerged, under the training of fashion designer Linda Loppa. They were Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee.
The designers had talent and enthusiasm, plus a healthy dose of youthful naivety, that allowed them to believe in their vision of setting the international fashion world alight. But who was looking to Antwerp for avant-garde design? Realising this, the six designers bundled themselves and their garments into a van, bound for the British Designer Show in London. When they arrived, they were given a small space on the top floor, away from designers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano on the ground floor.
On the second day of the show, they realised none of the buyers were travelling past the first floor. Undeterred, they printed flyers and started distributing them. That afternoon, a buyer from Barneys ventured upstairs and was blown away by the designs; this became the collective’s first order. The press caught onto these new fashion stars and, because they couldn’t pronounce their Belgian names, nicknamed them the Antwerp Six.
At the time of the collective’s creation, the work of the six designers represented a radical breakthrough. Their vision was so different and unusual that it transformed Antwerp into a reputable destination in the fashion world. Unlike big names such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, they had no interest in becoming a global sensation; they were proud of their unique, creative designs. They created a limited number of garments with little to no advertising – and wanted to keep it that way.
After their breakthrough show, the fashion collective split to work individually, each developing a distinct style and trademarks. But who were these individuals, and what made their designs so distinctive?
Born in 1958, Dries Van Noten graduated in 1980 from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp to start his career in the fashion industry. He worked as a freelancer for a couple of years before starting work on his own collections. In 1986 he made his breakthrough by presenting his menswear collection in London, and joined five other fashion designers to form the Antwerp Six. He became so successful that he opened his own boutique in Belgium and went on to open others around the world, including in Paris and Hong Kong. He’s known for his expertise in mixing Eastern and Western styles, and his use of folkloric fabrics. His passion for fabrics has led him to designing the most thoughtful collections of clothes made entirely by hand. Van Noten finds inspiration by looking at people walking around his city, Antwerp.
Ann Demeulemeester graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, a year after Van Noten. Shortly after, she joined the avant-garde fashion collective Antwerp Six, before starting her own line of clothing in 1985. Demeulemeester became known for her experimental but wearable designs. These were usually created in brown, black and grey fabrics, which were then slashed and torn to create a punk feel. Her signature womenswear pieces had a masculine feel, a reference to her muse, Patti Smith. The singer created some spoken poetry to accompany the runway soundtracks of Demeulemeester’s shows. In 2013, the designer left her eponymous label and has since created her own porcelain dinner set line from her home in Antwerp.
After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Dirk Van Saene opened his first shop, Beauties and Heroes, selling his designs. His success followed his adhesion to the Antwerp Six, with his first big catwalk show taking place in Paris in 1990. The designer is best known for his creativity, and for his refusal to follow trends; instead using his imagination to remain original. Expect ironic imagery, if any; at this first show, his staff wore t-shirts bearing his name, misspelt in different ways. To this day, Van Saene maintains a small, sustainable production line, stocking his eccentric pieces in just a handful of shops worldwide.
Art, literature and music have provided Van Beirendonck’s inspiration, together with influences from nature and worldwide ethnicities. He combines colours unusually, cuts innovatively and uses strong graphics in his collections. Bold statements – about everything from fashion to politics – are brought together in slogans and prints in his work. In the late 1990s, he designed the outfits for U2’s PopMart tour, and received the honorary title of Cultural Ambassador of Flanders. More recently, he has worked as the artistic director for SCAPA Sports, and has had his own children’s collection, zulupaPUWA, for JBC. Besides working on his collections, the designer also works on theatre, film and ballet costumes, exhibition curation, book illustrations and much more.
Born in Germany to a Flemish father in 1959, Dirk Bikkembergs graduated in 1982 and acquired his reputation as a fashion designer after joining the Antwerp Six on their London tour. Before the trip to London, however, Bikkembergs had won the Canette d’Or award for the country’s best young fashion designer, which led to him designing his men’s shoe collection.
He takes inspiration from his youth, with military basics reflected through his lines, often using tough fabrics. His first women’s collection was identical to his men’s collection, with the size being the only differing factor. Bikkembergs is dynamic and cannot stand in one place for long, so he is always travelling from one fashion capital to another. He once stated, “I am married to fashion and will remain faithful.” He gained further popularity by launching his sports line, designing T-shirts for the Inter Milan football team, and he was the first fashion designer to be allowed to have a show in the FC Barcelona stadium.
Marina is one of the more elusive members of the Antwerp Six. She took a course at the St Lukas Fine Arts Institute in Hasselt, then went on to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After her graduation in 1981, her fashion career took off with her men’s and women’s leather collections, but also with her prize-winning theatre costume collections. She dropped off the fashion world map before re-emerging in 2018 with a small redesign of three class coats: a sailor’s coat, trench coat and parka. She favours simple designs made from natural materials; a typical characteristic to her collections is her habit of reusing and reconstructing old clothes that she finds in flea markets.
The legacy of the Antwerp Six can still be felt today, as they set the example for generations of fashion designers following in their wake, such as Kaat Tilley, Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho and many others at Flemish academies. Antwerp’s fashion scene needed the Antwerp Six to shine the spotlight on the Belgian city, which now has its own fashion centre – the ModeNatie, or Fashion Nation. Today, Belgian fashion remains focussed on small production lines and high-quality garments, as the ripple effect lives on.