Understanding the Antwerp Six

Between 1980 and 1981 a group of six designers, educated at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts by Linda Loppa, graduated from school and emerged as one of the most significant fashion collectives in the history of modern design. With the Antwerp 6, Belgium became a fashion capital in its own right. Before then, they had been overshadowed by the leading lights of 20th century fashion: Paris, Tokyo, and Milan. But in the wake of their graduation and the ascendance of the young Martin Margiela, who was not himself part of the group, but might be considered an honorary member, Antwerp would become known as an incubator for fashion’s new visionaries. 

The designers who comprise the Antwerp Six include Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. Since then, some of these names have garnered more acclaim than others, but in the 1980s the group exuded a new creative energy that transformed the direction of fashion history. 

Geert Bruloot, the owner of an Antwerp shop called Louis, reflected on bringing the designers together,

London had a vibrant fashion scene in the mid 80s, with designers like John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett gaining prominence. I got Dirk to come with his shoes, Walter to design a new collection and Dries phoned me to ask if he could join us. Then I had the idea that it should be six of them and I contacted Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Van Saene who accepted to go to London, too

He also brought the new graduates to Tokyo, where they had a chance to showcase their designs and get a taste of the vibrant Japanese fashion scene, which was also shaped by a tight-knit group of designers who traded ideas and inspirations frequently. 

As a closely group of designers, the Six have a unique identity in the history of fashion. Rarely has a group of designers with such divergent and far-reaching creative impulses, been comprehended in so unified a way. In many ways, the idea of a ‘fashion collective’ that has emerged around modern streetwear culture could be indebted to the Six, who showed that it was possible to contain and channel insurgent creativity within a unified structure. Recalling the group’s name, Bruloot admits that it was chosen, in part, because the designers' actual names were so difficult for foreigners to pronounce. 

And yet, the group did share a unified mentality that was perhaps more affective, or communal, than it was thematic.  Reading about the Antwerp Six, it is impossible not to be left smiling at the friendship that undoubtedly lay at the crux of these six students’ shared passion. Like Issey Miyake, whose creative evolution in the 1980s was shaped, in part, by the words and thoughts of close friends, the Antwerp Six reveals the way that close relationships, where ideas can be exchanged and inspirations shared, is an essential force of movement for the history of fashion. 

Even though the clothes produced by the Six vary dramatically from designer to designer, the collective’s products should not be understood in isolation. It can be easy to note strong aesthetic overtones to each designer’s work. For Dries Van Noten, meditation on solitary colors became a window into dense webs of reference in the history of painting. For Ann Demeulemeester, gothic austerity was met with equal parts post-punk luster. In the work of Van Saene, the weight and drape of textiles acquires a central aesthetic focus, becoming a vehicle for novel approaches to tailoring. For Walter Van Bierendonck, childhood and the aesthetics of play were an essential creative axis. And for Marina Yee, one of the lesser known members of the Antwerp Six, secondhand apparel became the canvas for the construction of new materials.

Amongst the whole crowd, the originally Japanese trend of ‘deconstructionism’ was an overriding influence, as each sought to creatively pull apart and piece back together the materials of fashion history. But even this emphasis can overshadow the importance of the personal connection, community, and shared space of inspiration that the collective provided for its young members. To understand the Antwerp Six one must go beyond the general themes that unite them, and the specific qualities of each member’s finished work, hesitating on the moments of interpersonal connection that afforded the space their creative growth.

Sitting in Van Noten’s apartment one day in 1986, Beirendonck suggested renting a mobile home to show at a show held by the Pitti organization. The crew ended up driving two mobile homes packed with clothes through the Alps to Florence. In moments like this, the singularity of a young group of artists’ personal connections and emotional world emerges as a fundamental context for understanding their creative contributions to fashion.

For fashion journalists and historians, many of the materials that explain the choices designers made may not be immediately apparent—they may be submerged in the work itself.What at first appears obvious can seem more muddled and thorny when one considers designers not just as assemblages of ideas and training, but as living people whose emotional lives and relationships were equally impactful for the way they chose to make clothing. 

When apprehended in isolation, it can be easy to interpret the work of a designer like Dries Van Noten in terms of a set of aesthetic references, but one must be careful not to allow the salience of these reference points to reduce the work to a simple story about one man’s inspirations. When considered more deeply though, these reference points, sources of inspiration, the gravitational pull of particular motifs—these contextual elements can only be grasped by understanding the social network of shared knowledge and feeling that conditioned the work of each independent designer. For this reason, when thinking about any one member of the Antwerp Six, it is fruitful to set the work in relation to the group’s other members. Despite the independent career trajectories they each took, their work can be grasped as the outcome of an interconnected history. 

When the group ultimately split some of its members had achieved more acclaim than others, with names like Ann Demeleumeester outshining the rest. Despite the ascendance of these solo careers, it is still vital to understand the work of each artist in relation to the initial nucleus of creativity that formed them in the Belgian Academy.  

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