Is it a source of jokes for comedians — to add to the clichés of beer, mussels and fries?
Could it be just a polite imitation of Parisian fashion for the Bruxelloise and the Belgian royal family?
Or the rebel yell of a young, dynamic, Flemish-leaning group who made a statement about fashion in the Eighties?
I think of recycling, raw seams, oversize cutting and a cerebral attitude as a definition of Belgian fashion designers, who offered a modest but forceful vision to face off the extravagant Eighties. But I can barely believe that these designers first appeared almost 30 years ago.
The success of the original Antwerp Six in 1986 seems still to mystify its own country, hence the title of a new exhibition at the Bozar — Centre for Fine Arts — in Brussels: The Belgians: An Unexpected Fashion Story (until September 13).
Was it really such a surprise that a country searching politically for a balance between its French and Flemish sides should produce a youthful urge for change? Wasn’t the rebellion in Antwerp equivalent to the Tokyo designers who challenged Japanese convention during the same period?
The Brussels show — intriguing, occasionally striking, but also confusing and inconsistent — probably tells insiders a lot about the discomfort of the Flemish rubbing up against the Walloons. But to me, it was a missed opportunity to define Belgian fashion as an entity; or even to link the work, in colour or texture, to the influence of early Flemish artists such as Pieter Bruegel.
I walked right past big windows showing symbols of Brussels, from flags to the famous metal Atomium of Expo 1958. I was heading for curator Didier Vervaeren’s best idea: an army of designer outfits, the mannequins’ heads covered with white “hospital” headpieces (perhaps a homage to the lab coats worn by Martin Margiela and his staff).
The first of these fashion “soldiers” are the more traditional designers who dressed class and court and rarely had international recognition. But at the centre of the line-up are the famous Antwerp Six whose names, from Dries Van Noten to Ann Demeulemeester to Walter Van Beirendonck, first triggered interest in Belgian design.
The continuing line-up includes many names, from designer Kris Van Assche through Gerald Watelet and his graceful couture designs to Haider Ackermann, an honorary Belgian because he was at college in Antwerp.
Margiela, the “invisible” designer, who was fashion’s founding father of recycling and deconstruction, is the exhibition’s hero, with a section devoted — behind a “wall” of silver ribbons — to his recycled clothes, including a jacket with three arms and shoes shaped with toes. Margiela was perhaps the first designer to be an activist against fashion waste — the antithesis of today’s fast fashion. Missing was a series of videos or digitalised pictures that could have emphasised that role.
However, there is a strong section devoted to current designers with a commitment to a “greener” fashion universe.
Yet this exhibition seems more like a wistful memory of things past than Belgian designers in today’s dynamic.
Nowhere did I read that Margiela quietly left his namesake label in 2009, after selling his brand to Only the Brave, the holding company of Renzo Rosso of Diesel. Nor the fact that John Galliano has now taken over as Maison Margiela’s designer. Nor was there any mention of the Margiela years at Hermès (1997-2003).
The power of Belgian designers includes the infiltration of Parisian brands. Raf Simons, while continuing his own Belgian-based menswear label, is now creative director at Dior. To coincide with the current film, Dior and I, his couture work might have deserved a showing. But there is a striking display from a Raf Simons men’s show with the bold red, white and blue flag by artist Sterling Ruby.
Similarly, Kris Van Assche has been artistic director of Dior Homme since 2007, putting the quintessentially French house’s design entirely in Belgian hands. A reason for celebration — except that Van Assche has recently decided to shutter his own label, showing that international success comes at a price. That should have been a subject worth discussing.
Another indisputably international designer is Dries Van Noten, whose exhibition of his designs, paired with artworks, has moved from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to Antwerp. Van Noten’s international prestige that enabled him to attract loans from important museums does not receive a mention at the Bozar, although he has a few outfits on display and a small screen showing his collaboration on dance costumes.
The exhibition focuses on various figures in the fashion landscape: notably Ann Demeulemeester with her graceful, dark designs; and Olivier Theyskens, whose poetic vision landed him first in Paris couture and then in American fast fashion. Once again, there is no curatorial comment about the long, hard road to succeed in fashion.
On the bright side is Diane von Furstenberg, born in Belgium, where she spent her childhood. Although she built her brand in America, her colourful wrapdresses and her dynamic presence at the exhibition’s opening brought her contribution to life.
The most effective area displays small “cabins”, where designers have been invited to express their visual personalities: a striking A.F. Vandevorst space has a bed with the designers’ signature red cross; Jean-Paul Lespagnard expresses his look via scarves and funky bottles; Raf Simons shows a single portrait; and Dries Van Noten has a wall with pictures inset with films of his shows.
Education is an important part of Belgian fashion history, with the La Cambre school in Brussels and Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts considered as incubators of excellence. The curator brought in today’s students with their designs and drawings displayed over a large area.
There is also a line-up of the newer design generation, from Anthony Vaccarello to the Vetements team, mostly trained at Maison Margiela.
But my advice to those intrigued by Belgian design would be to follow a path laid by Mad — Mode and Design – to look at the Rue Antoine Dansaert which, along with the surrounding area, has a variety of small shops opened by recently graduated designers.
King of cool in the Dansaert district at number 114 Rue de Flandre is Maison Margiela Brussels, where vintage pieces from the designer’s years at the helm meld with current designs. A collaboration with the neighbouring Dépendance Gallery, at 4 Rue du Marché aux Porcs, produces a fascinating exhibition by a gallery artist known as Linder. She uses iconic pieces, borrowed from the private archives of Maison Margiela Brussels, as multimedia installations — just the artistic and intelligent display I might have expected to see at the Bozar exhibition.