Meet the Belgian designers with an outsize influence on fashion
Regardless of your opinion on fashion schools, there’s no denying they’ve been responsible for some of the most exciting, innovative and intriguing talent to enter the fashion world over the last few decades. From the likes of Christopher Kane, Matthew Williamson, Erdem Moralioglu and Mary Katrantzou - all Central Saint Martins alumni - to Parsons graduates Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Tom Ford and Donna Karan, just a handful of schools have been responsible for the majority of the world’s great designers.
But there is, perhaps, no single cohort quite so influential as the Antwerp Six. This group of designers - comprised of Ann Demuelemeester, Dries van Noten, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Walter Van Beirendonck - all graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980 and 1982 and, collectively, went on to make an immeasurable contribution to modern fashion. Dubbed the Antwerp Six after attending a trade show in London where no-one could pronounce their names, the group’s work is still referenced by the likes of Demna Gvasalia, Raf Simons and Haider Ackermann. Here’s what you need to know about the Antwerp Six.
Having graduated from the Royal Academy in 1981, Demeulemeester’s rising star was instantly recognised when she was presented with the Golden Spindle Award, a prize created by the Belgian government to reinvigorate its textile industry, in 1982. A few years later she founded her eponymous line, making her Paris Fashion Week debut in 1992 - with a dark, punk-inspired aesthetic incorporating plenty of Gothic influences that immediately set itself apart from the sexy, commercial collections crowding runways at the time.
As time went on Demeulemeester’s style came to be defined as minimalist, with clean, uncomplicated silhouettes and intricate detailing that elevated her clothing beyond the merely functional. However, a long-term career in fashion was not for her and, in 2013, Demeulemeester resigned from her brand with a handwritten letter explaining she needed to “follow my own path”. In 2015 Sebastien Meunier was appointed creative director, continuing to run the business from Antwerp. However, in July 2020 Meunier stepped down and CEO Anne Chapelle sold her majority stake to Claudio Antoniolo, founder the New Guards Group (owner of Off-White), with Demeulemeester’s blessing. The brand will show the first collection from its ‘new start’ in March 2021.
Perhaps the most under-the-radar of the Antwerp Six, despite founding a successful label called Marie, Yee never showed at any of the big fashion capitals and left the Antwerp Six collective in 1988 citing a desire to keep her business small. However, undeniably creative, resourceful and innovative, Yee’s designs from the beginning centred on ideas of sustainability. Throughout her career, much of Yee’s work has focused on upcycling and restoring vintage garments and she still runs a store in Antwerp that repurposes flea market finds into covetable pieces. Also a teacher at the Academy of Fine Art in The Hague and in Ghent, Yee’s recent work includes a 2018 collection for Japanese concept store Laila Tokio.
The last of the Antwerp Six to graduate, Bikkembergs left school in 1982 and was awarded the Golden Spindle three years later. First making his name in footwear, Bikkembergs debuted his eponymous menswear line in 1988 and, in a big departure from his colleagues, found inspiration in his love of football, rather than high fashion.
His athletic, casual designs eventually led to the formation of Bikkembergs Sport in 2000, with traditional show venues eschewed for the likes of Camp Nou - the home of F.C. Barcelona. Bikkembergs would also go on to acquire Italian football team F.C. Fossombrone. In 2012 Bikkembergs sold his label to Italian group Zeis Excelsa and, in 2016, British designer Lee Wood was appointed as creative director to spearhead the growth of the high-end sports brand.
Dirk Van Saene
Another of the Antwerp Six more interested in small scale success than international fame, shortly after graduating in 1981 Dirk Van Saene opened the Beauties and Heroes boutique in Antwerp. As well as developing a fashion line, which was characterised by heavily printed fabrics and avant garde silhouettes and shown at Paris Fashion Week in 1990, Van Saene also expanded his repertoire to include homewares, ceramics and art. In 1992 he caused a rift between himself and the other members of the groups when he created Bambi, an artwork which made fun of the Antwerp Six and, more specifically, Ann Demeulemeester. However, despite this, today Van Saene runs a boutique in Antwerp with Walter Van Beirendonck, as well as creating collections under this own name and teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.