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The Antwerp Six

Posted on 05 December 2016

The Antwerp Six

At the start of the 1980s, six graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp established themselves as a fashion collective known iconically as the Antwerp Six. In the last 30 years, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee have changed the face of the fashion industry. They have brought a radically distinct aesthetic to catwalks worldwide, pioneering the deconstructionist movement. 

But why did they become such an overnight success? Coincidence of course played a role, but the talent and personalities of the group and those around them informed every detail of each designer’s collections alongside the culture of the time.

 Work by The Antwerp Six, displaying their use of masks

Above: Some of the Antwerp Six’s work, displaying their use of masks.

Even as students they had their eye on international success, inspired by cutting-edge designers such as Comme des Garçons, Mugler, and Gaultier. They pushed to bring this spirit into their work at the Academy - to the horror of their professors.

The Antwerp Six  

The Six were frustrated that whilst they could work within the industry, they were unable to do what they wanted or express themselves. Many of the designers originally came from an art background meaning they took a different perspective to fashion design, often using obscure references to marry the worlds of art and design in a way which hadn’t previously been done.

The Antwerp Skyline 

Above: The Antwerp Skyline

Prior to the rise of the Antwerp Six, the city of Antwerp was outside the realm of the world’s premier fashion capitals. Antwerp was a far cry from the likes of Paris or Milan in terms of offering the kind of groundbreaking fashion innovation that puts a city on the map.

The Six burst onto the international scene at London Fashion Week in the late 80s and in turn set a solid base for the further growth of fashion in Antwerp. The Antwerp Six – a label created by the press, partly for ease and partly due to the difficult pronunciation of their names – crammed themselves into a small van and set off for London Fashion Week to present their collections. Within just three days, they found themselves stocked at Barneys, Bergdorf and Liberty of London, and propelled into the media stratosphere.

Ann Demeulemeester A/W14 Collection  

Above: Ann Demeulemeester A/W14 Collection 

The Antwerp Six remain memorable - not necessarily because of the designers’ individuality - but because they represent the rare phenomenon of a group making a profound impact on the international stage simultaneously.

Though the culture in which the Six developed has changed immeasurably, their history still provides lessons for designers today. The group identity promoted through the 80s fell away in the following decade, with each of the designers developing their own identities and signatures. Their reputations were built not just through their collections, but also through their business practices; the designers avoided faceless advertising strategies and worked to their own beat. A sustainable approach was adopted, with an appreciation for less-is-more.

A rare reunion for The Antwerp Six 

Above: A rare reunion for the Six.

Many have argued that the digital age has removed the opportunity for new and emerging designers to create anything truly new and innovative, as our current society encourages the recycling of ideas. “The way we lived will never come back,” said Nicola Vercraeye, a close friend of the Six. “I wouldn’t say fashion is dead, but it’s not as alive as it used to be. People will always need something to wear, but the industry will be different. I like to see this positively. We’ve reached peak internet. Even if you pick up old ideas you can make them new, and more for now.

This in itself is a new challenge for emerging designers who face an industry that appears to have seen it all and we’re excited to see what the future holds.


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