the rise of the Antwerp 6+1
The evolution of our group of friends was something of a stroke of magic. It was not that way immediately, from the first day, but it clicked, the way it clicks with someone you’re in love with. You can’t explain it; it just clicks.
We complemented one another in terms of our sense of humour, and temperament: one was timid, the other impetuous…
In the 1960s and 1970s, Antwerp developed an exciting, internationally-orientated art and music scene. Avant-garde galleries like the Wide White Space brought attention to artists such as Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, and Panamarenko.
Situationist actions were also a popular artistic outlet during this time. Pictured here are Ronald Stoops, Rudolf Verbesselt, Jan Janssen and Narcisse Tordoir in their "direct actions", in which they wore business suits and begged at the offices of banks in Antwerp.
Despite the favourable artistic climate in Antwerp, the city had yet to cultivate a distinct artistic identity. This was also reflected in the Belgian fashion sector.
Until the early 1980s, popular Belgian brands including Olivier Strelli, Bartsons, and Cortina, had opted for more exotic names, who were in turn more likely to obscure rather than emphasise their Belgian roots.
But things would change drastically…
At the beginning of the eighties, seven students would graduate from the Antwerp Fashion Department who will instigate a revolution in its history.
Walter Van Beirendonck and Martin Margiela met in 1976 in their first year at the Antwerp Fashion Department. They immediately became friends, sharing similar fascinations and international ambitions.
The other five students joined the two a year later at the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp.
They quickly formed a group of seven hard-working fashion students, striving to be one step ahead of each other.
Through healthy competition, they strengthened each other's drive and creativity.
The contrasts amongst the Antwerp Six brought tensions, but we also reinforced one another, because those tensions generated new impulses. Everyone wanted to show what he or she was capable of. That is also part of the secret of the Six: because of those tensions and cross-fertilizations, we got the best out of ourselves… MARINA YEE
"Work hard, play hard" was the motto of the Antwerp Six+1, and they made the time to go out partying. A shared sense of fun in dressing up and going out strengthened their group dynamic.
They would meet up at Dries Van Noten’s workspace to discuss their costumes, and often created them on the spot: from lavish Marie-Antoinette crinoline gowns to leather SM suits, everything was possible.
Under the leadership of Mary Prijot, the Department of Decorative and Fashion Drawing developed into a fully-fledged training programme in fashion drawing, with a distinct focus on the graphic aspects of the design process.
Mary Prijot was a classically trained artist, and her conception of fashion held French elegance in very high regard. As such, embracing fashion drawings and fashion graphics as part of the investigation into the atmosphere, and image of a collection were crucial components of the Department’s training.
Both in the spheres of fashion and music, new currents and names inspired the young designers in Antwerp. During their travels to London and New York they discovered - among other things - punk and the New Romantic movement. Together they visited clubs like the 'Antwerp OK Club', as well as the famous ‘Le Palace’ in Paris, Leigh Bowery’s ‘Taboo Club’ in London, and Andy Warhol’s ‘Interview parties’ in New York.
They attended live concerts both home and abroad, discovering different musical styles ranging from rock, disco, glam, and punk.
Their desire for experimentation could not be curbed by the rules of the fashion department’s director Mary Prijot, and the international revolutions concurrent in the fashion world were also felt in Antwerp.
After graduation, the seven experimented with different commercial jobs. The money they earned was immediately invested into their own collections, with the dream of establishing their own labels.
During the eighties, Belgian fashion gained real momentum thanks to the Belgian government’s ‘Textile Plan’, which originally intended to breathe new life into the country’s ailing textile industry.
The domestic success of the Antwerp Six in the Golden Spindle (Gouden Spoel) competitions and the campaigns of the ITCB (Institute for Textiles and Clothing Belgium) under the leadership of Helena Ravijst did not go unnoticed, although the Belgian press didn't always ‘get’ the Antwerp designers.
As part of the Golden Spindle competition, professional shows were organised, two of which took place in Japan.
These shows constituted an important stepping-stone for the future solo careers of the Antwerp Six +1, and were inspirational as they allowed the young designers to further explore the work of Japanese designers including Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
In 1981, Dirk Van Saene opened his shop Beauties & Heroes in the Nieuwe Gaanderij in Antwerp:
I graduated in 1981. A year later, I opened a small shop in the Nieuwe Gaanderij: Beauties & Heroes. I had prepared some things, made some clothes - all very naïve. I had a very small studio above the store.
There, I made things against the clock, because there were always just a couple of pieces in the store. Sometimes all I had was something in the window, and if somebody came along to buy it, I refused. But usually, I was very proud whenever someone bought something from me.
The first few times I sold something, it felt terrific.
In 1986, Dirk Bikkemberg started an avant-garde men’s shoe collection that would be sold at Eddy Michiels and Geert Bruloot’s store, Coccodrillo.
It was Geert Bruloot who had the idea of attending a fashion fair in London, with the aim of selling Bikkemberg’s shoes to cutting edge shops in England’s capital.
On the second day, a few but important buyers came by. A buyer from Barney’s was particularly enthusiastic, and ultimately ordered from all six designers.
Because of the impossible pronunciation of their Belgian last names, they were baptised the Antwerp Six.
The international breakthrough of the Antwerp Six happened in an instance of talent and luck, without a commercial strategy or investors on their side.
In the next few days, they received orders from other international buyers.
The Six returned to London each following season with more clothes on their racks.
During their presence at London Fashion Week in March 1988, they had their big break with the English and international press, with i-D and other hip magazines cheering them on.
In 1988, the Antwerp Six switched Paris for London to present their collections.
The Belgians were praised for the way they presented a complete image, how they marketed themselves, and their total control over every detail.
Although each of them developed their own signature, and have gone their own way creatively and commercially, the name ‘Antwerp Six’ has remained a hallmark to today.
Thanks for the kind image loans from:
Stany Dederen (MoMu Collection photoshoots)
Special thanks to the Antwerp 6+1