When clothing fashioned by young Belgian designers attracted international attention at this spring's Paris shows, the success surprised some.
To others--especially couture watchers following the ascending reputation of the clothing design program at Antwerp's Koninklijke Academie Voor Schonen Kunsten (the Royal Academy of Fine Arts), Mutsaertstraat 31, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium--the applause was earned.
A tradition of excellence at this respected fine arts school goes back about 325 years. The academy's student roster includes famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh being the best known.
These days, however, it is the academy's avant-garde fashion institute that is inspiring acclaim.
The institute is producing some of Europe's hottest young designers, and they've turned the charming port city of Antwerp, about 30 miles north of Brussels, into a thriving center of haute couture .
Six Top Designers
The top six Belgian designers riding the crest of the wave were graduated from the academy in 1982. They are Anne Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dries Van Noten.
They, along with others who were graduated in subsequent years, have established headquarters and/or boutiques in Antwerp, although they also sell in boutiques in Brussels and other cities.
Most famous and sought-after is Anne Demeulemeester. She shows at Louis (Lombardenstraat 2), an Antwerp boutique dedicated to Belgium's haute designers. Demeulemeester works in wools, in rayon and acetate fabrics.
Black is her favorite color, but she also uses earth tones and splashes of bright highlights.
Her collection includes finely tailored culottes (about $300 U.S.) to be worn with form-fitting backless jackets (about $450). Attractive culotte dresses (about $450) are made of eyelet knits in unusual patterns. Short black or maroon sweaters (about $250) are designed to reveal midriffs and fit like a glove.
Demeulemeester also designs fabulous accessories, including leather handbags, from roomy, well-tailored envelopes to large, unusual and asymmetrical boxlike shapes (about $300 and up). Broad and narrow belts come plain (about $70 and up) or with convenient hard-sided pouches (about $200). Demeulemeester's hats, straw helmets to bonnets, are perfect for topping off her chic and sassy ensembles.
Louis also is the Antwerp outlet for Dirk Bikkembergs' trendy, sometimes exotic men's fashions. His cool, woolen double-breasted jacket (about $800) is emblazoned with a dragon applique. Another jacket has tuxedo elements imposed on its otherwise straight lines (about $760), and an unusual red tuxedo jacket with fringe (about $780) can be worn with white linen trousers with a red elastic waistband (about $260) for dress-up or with jeans for attitude.
Two-tone shirts in blue and maroon (about $230) have oddly asymmetrical styling, and a light blue raincoat (about $550) is a handsome cover-up for rain or shine.
Dirk Van Saene's elegant women's wear, also in stock at Louis, includes distinctively silhouetted bell-bottom slacks (about $200) to be worn with white or purple cotton blouses with gauze sleeves (about $200), or form-fitting jerseys in bright solid colors or stripes (about $100).
Walter Van Beirendonck, known simply as Walter and considered the most avant-garde among Belgian designers, makes eccentric sweaters, shorts and pedal pushers.
His collection is available at Closing Date (Korte Gasthuisstraat 15), a boutique specializing in knitwear and jeans by top, trendy international designers (including Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood, among others).
Especially popular are Walter's vibrantly-colored and sculptural fish-scale, snake or brick-patterned bulkies and King-Kong theme sweaters (about $180 and up). Matching pedal pushers (about $140) have bright red knee patches. There are also wild-looking striped shorts and T-shirts covered with hand patterns.
Dries Van Noten has his own boutique at Nieuwe Gaanderij 63, with men's and women's styles shown on opposite sides of the shop. Men's ensembles feature jackets with striped sleeves (about $560), contrasting vests (about $30) and striped cotton trousers (about $200).
Men's wash-and-wear silk sport shorts (about $250) can be worn with wash-and-wear silk shirts (about $300) that are fastened with silk frog clasps, and/or cardigan-like sweat shirts that are fastened in front with shoelace ties (about $135).
For women there are bolero jackets (about $440), high-waisted culottes (about $250), comfortable and easy-to-wear washable silk pleated-front trousers (about $300) and matching long-sleeved shirts (about $250) with brass buttons. Navy and white are favored colors.