The Antwerp Six: Belgium’s Most Influential Avant-garde Fashion Collective

Photo of Sarine Arslanian
17 October 2016

At the start of the 1980s, six graduates from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp established themselves as 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 collective history and the varied styles of each of the Antwerp Six.

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The Antwerp Six: A Collective History

The Antwerp Six includes Belgium’s six most influential avant-garde fashion designers: Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. In the 1980s, they all received their diploma from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp. There they learned to create fashion under the supervision of Linda Loppa. At the time of the collective’s creation, the six designers’ work represented a radical breakthrough. Their vision was so different and unusual that it transformed Antwerp into a reputable destination in the fashion world, especially after their participation in the London fashion fair in the late 1980s.

Thereafter, the fashion collective split to work individually, developing each a distinct and unique style and trademarks. Their legacy 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 be put on the fashion map and to start growing. Since 2002, the city hosts an actual fashion centre; the ModeNatie, or fashion nation.

Dries Van Noten

Born in 1958, Dries Van Noten graduated from Antwerp’s Fashion Academy in 1980 to start his career in the fashion industry. Until he started working on his own collections, he worked as a freelancer for a couple of years. 1986 was a very decisive year for Van Noten, as that is when he made his breakthrough by presenting his menswear collection in London, and also joined five other fashion designers to form the Antwerp Six. He became so successful that he decided to have his own boutique in Belgium and then open others around the world, from Paris to Hong Kong. What made him famous is his expertise in mixing Eastern and Western styles, and folkloric fabrics. His passion for fabrics has led him to designing the most thoughtful collections full of clothes made by hand. Van Noten finds inspiration looking at people walking around his own city, Antwerp.

Ann Demeulemeester

Born in 1959, Ann Demeulemeester graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981. Shortly after, she joined the avant-garde fashion collective Antwerp Six, adding a little artiness to fashion. In 1985, she started her own line of clothing, which was soon recognised as experimental but also wearable. Demeulemeester uses various fabrics, usually in shades of brown, black, and grey, that she brings together to then slash and tear the mixed fabrics. At times, she also adds a touch of femininity to her collections. However, when worn, her signature pieces give a masculine look to women, as a reference to her muse, Patti Smith. This singer created some spoken poetry to accompany the runway soundtracks of Demeulemeester. The designer still lives in Antwerp, in a Corbusier designed house.

Dirk Van Saene

Born in 1959, Dirk Van Saene graduated at Antwerp’s Fashion Academy, then opened a shop called ‘Beauties and Heroes’ to sell his designs. His success followed his adhesion to the Antwerp Six. His very first big show was held in Paris in 1990. The designer is best known for his creativity, and for his refusal to follow trends but to instead use his imagination to remain original. Van Saene’s work clearly reflects the extent of his imagination as one piece can be very chic but another deconstructed. Even in his early times, the designer’s originality has been recognised and he has received many prizes, including the ‘Gouden Spoel’ price.

Walter Van Beirendonck

Born in 1957, Walter Van Beirendonck started a career as a fashion designer after graduation, with his breakthrough corresponding to the participation of the Antwerp Six at the London fashion fair. Art, literature and music have been the basis of Van Beirendonck’s inspiration, together with influences from nature and ethnicity. He manages to combine colours unusually, cut innovatively, and use strong graphics in his collections. All his statements about everything from fashion to contemporary society are brought together in slogans and prints on his work. Van Beirendonck is seen as one of the most important trendsetters when it comes to men’s fashion. In the late 1990s he has 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 different projects such a the design of theatre, film and ballet costumes, the curation of exhibitions, the design of objects, the making of images for pop bands, the illustration of books and much more.

Dirk Bikkembergs

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 best young fashion designer, which enabled him to design his men’s shoe collection. He takes inspiration from his youth, with military basics being reflected through his lines, often using tough fabrics. It is interesting to note that his very first women’s collection was identical to his men’s collection, with the size being the only differing factor. Bikkembergs is very dynamic and cannot stand in one place for too long, which means that he is always travelling from one fashion capital to another. In fact, he often states: ‘I am married to fashion and will remain faithful.’ He gained his popularity amongst the youth by launching his sports line, also designing t-shirts for the Inter Milan football team. He was then the first fashion designer to be allowed to have a show in the FC Barcelona stadium.

Marina Yee

Born in 1958, Marina Yee is a Flemish designer with a Chinese background. She took a course at the St Lukas Fine Arts Institute in Hasselt, then continued to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After 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. In 2003, she opened her workshop in the heart of Antwerp. Spirituality, design and respect are elements that are reflected in her work. A typical characteristic to her collections is her habit of re-using and reconstructing old clothes that she finds in flea markets.

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