Newsweek - The World's New Culture Meccas
September 2, 2002

Antwerp, Belgium: Beyond Fashion

Haider Ackerman used to toil at one of those typical starving-artist jobs. He spent his weekends outside a nightclub restroom collecting 50 cents from each patron. Now the 31-year-old fashion designer is one of the hottest names in Antwerp. Last season his first collection was a hit in Paris. Now he's selling clothes at boutiques like Colette in Paris, Louis in Antwerp and Corso Como in Milan, and has been asked to head up design for the esteemed Italian leather label Ruffo Research.

Ackerman joins a growing roster of Antwerp-based designers--including Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons and Wim Neels--who are enjoying international success with their labels. It all started in the late 1980s when the so-called Antwerp Six, all graduates of the now famed Royal Academy of Fine Arts, stormed through London with their avant-garde "deconstructed" designs that featured frayed edges and exposed seams.

Since then, the city's fashion scene has only continued to blossom. What's new today is that the phenomenon is spreading to other industries. The cafes along the Scheldt River are abuzz with filmmakers, photographers and graphic designers, all talking about their latest projects. Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the Antwerp Six, has started a funky new fashion magazine, which is renamed each season after the next letter of the alphabet. Tom Barman, lead singer of Antwerp-based rock band Deus, is shooting a film here with each character dressed by a Belgian designer. A handful of trendy bars have sprung up in the once desolate docklands to the north, music promoters are taking over enormous warehouses for weekend gigs and the Royal Ballet of Flanders has moved into the neighborhood.

The influx of talent has fueled a fierce competition for real estate--along the river, property values have doubled in the last five years--and the city's government is actively regenerating run-down areas. In the south, a London architecture firm, the Richard Rogers Partnership, is designing a new courthouse that will be the first glimpse of Antwerp for travelers arriving by a new high-speed rail network. By the train station, a new design center opens next month to support start-ups--mostly by graduates of the city's industrial-design and graphic-design schools. Already, more than a quarter of the work-shops are rented, and the center hasn't even opened yet.

RAFA is also continuing to expand. Next month its fashion department will move into a stunning new building in central Antwerp called the ModeNatie (or "fashion warehouse"), which will also house a fashion museum and a classy brasserie. As if artists didn't have reason enough to move to Antwerp.