A Rare Reunion for the ‘Antwerp Six’
By Suzy Menkes
Published: June 17, 2013
ANTWERP — They were known as the ‘’Antwerp Six” back in the 1980s, when the idea of Belgian fashion seemed like a contradiction in terms.
Now names like Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dries Van Noten slip off fashion tongues. And last week, Walter Van Beirendonck, head of the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, led a group reunion — 30 years after their own student days — to celebrate their school’s 50th anniversary.
‘’Thirty years — it was a hell of a ride and I don’t regret a minute,’’ said Mr. Bikkembergs, while Dirk Van Saene took a more nostalgic view, saying: ‘’I was never so conscious about it. When you are young, it is different and I regret it now that I didn’t live it 100 percent.’’
The fashion gang, which also included Marina Yee, had loaded its clothes into a truck in 1986 and drove to London, a trip that ended up putting Belgian fashion on the international map of style.
Since then, Ms. Yee remembers only one other occasion when the six got together: To crack a bottle of Champagne at a millennium charity event.
“Lot of memories coming back — but not so much, as we see quite a lot of each other,’’ said Mr. Van Noten, who opened his first tiny store in Antwerp in 1986 and has built his international business from the city. He persuaded Ms. Demeulemeester, who tends to keep to herself in her Le Corbusier house on the edge of the city, to join the group’s celebration this time.
Both admitted to a wave of nostalgia as they walked through a Royal Academy room that had served as a show space during their student days.
‘’I think it was a very exciting moment all together at school,’’ said Ms. Demeulemeester. ‘’It was really nice to go back to the old academy, to feel not much had changed.”
The reunion had a purpose: The established designers were part of a jury viewing the work of students in the four-year master class.
The historic city, with its Gothic spires, grand guildhalls and old wharfs, offered students the chance to select personal environments for their runway shows that could vary from the academy’s underground sculpture room to the opera house, or even a flower shop — more opportunity for self expression than was given to students in the academy’s early days.
The result was a stream of dramatic installations, from the fairground circle created by the Japanese designer Minju Kim to an underground forest of tree-like clothing from Jack Davey.
In September, Kaat Debo, director of MoMu, the Antwerp fashion museum, plans to stage an exhibition to celebrate the fashion school’s 50th anniversary. With the title of ‘’Happy Birthday Dear Academie’’ and an opening date of Sept. 8, it will run in tandem with other exhibitions, events and conferences marking 350 years of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, to be held at MAS, Antwerp’s new city museum, and M HKA, the museum of contemporary art.
Ms. Debo is adamant that the ‘’Antwerp Six’’ were a turning point for the school.
‘’When the fashion academy started 50 years ago, all the students were Flemish — but the ‘Antwerp Six’ made it attractive internationally,’’ Ms. Debo said. ‘’Now there are 27 different nationalities in the 150 students, and it is important to show not only the history of the school but its relevance to the fashion world.’’