Travel: Visiting Antwerp

Visiting Antwerp was a real surprise. I had gone to get a feel for a very different type of fashion education at their Fashion Academy and to discuss with the Director of the Fashion Museum whether we could collaborate on projects, that would look at ways of exploring further, some of the current debates about fashion curation. I was also invited to see the “Happy Birthday Dear Academie” exhibition at the Fashion Academy, to mark its 50th anniversary, which is part of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts 350th anniversary which is being celebrated with a series of exhibitions across the city.

I hadn’t anticipated the beauty of Antwerp itself. Known through history as a major trader of goods, it has also been a trader of ideas. It has a reputation as an art city, where philosophers, scientists and artists have converged for hundreds of years. For centuries Antwerp has celebrated and invested in the role that culture plays in our lives, with fashion an integral part, which is reflected not only in its historic museums and galleries, but the large numbers of contemporary art galleries and studios for artists and designers. This approach to culture and ideas has influenced the development and character of fashion as epitomized by the Antwerp 6: Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Norten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee – plus Martin Margiela.

There is a particular combination of art, design, philosophy, science plus a great heritage of crafts and artisans. Both the cathedral and Rubens House flaunt this combination with discrete affluence, no wonder a small city of under 500,000 people has such significant fashion influence.

At the academy itself teaching has remained relatively unchanged since its inception, it follows an atelier model and uses this to draw out the ideas and vision of students who attend from across the world. The sense is of a highly focused fashion education. The work on display in their exhibition reflects a great understanding of construction, material, a sense of the detail of the clothes but also the whole, a couturier’s knowledge of fashion and garments. I would recommend anyone interested in contemporary fashion to go and see it.

A key issue for the academy, as with a number of cities around the world, is how to support and nurture young graduate designers. I have discussed this in Melbourne, New York, Milan and Paris. Here, at the London College of Fashion we have been developing an incubator centre, Centre for Fashion Enterprise, which after 10 years is beginning to gain real experience in growing young businesses. In Antwerp we discussed how we might share this expertise. In a world of increasing numbers of luxury brands and sophisticated consumers who follow fashion weeks, bloggers and fashion experts, there is sometimes little space for new designers. Many consumers are used to fast fashion prices and if they are to spend more, will go only for the main luxury brands. This affects all young graduates and start up fashion design businesses.

All cities interested in fashion and the role it plays in their urban culture and sophistication need to take notice. Can we find new ways of selling the work of young designers? Can we introduce new business models that help the nurturing and support of young designers?
I believe that Antwerp as a city with its great legacy and tradition of trade, culture, businesses, culture and retail could help us all in finding some of the solutions.