The Other Half of the Antwerp 6: Belgium’s Unsung Fashion Heroes

When it comes to Fashion, the Belgians will continue to be a driving, influential force. With a round of fashion weeks upon us in September, there will undoubtedly be a few references to these sartorial geniuses from this unlikely creatively kinetic country. Sure, the Martin Margiela and Raf Simons stars burn the brightest – especially at retrospectives like the one that is on view now at the Bozar Center For Fine Arts in Brussels – but the credit for laying the first fashion stakes belongs to a band of misfit outsiders known as the Antwerp 6. Here, our fashion editor-at-large,  Adam Lehrer, explores the life and works of the more unknown members of this fashion collective that may not be household names, but are just as influential and still worth talking about.

I get really obsessed with radical art collectives and movements. There is something so alluring about a group of likeminded weirdoes banding together to express a uniform idea and fucking up everybody’s pre-conceived notions about what art or music or cinema should be. I can rifle off some of said movements that have all held massive spaces in my Internet search history: the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, Warhol’s factory, Albert Ayler and the early ESP-Disk Free Jazz artists, late ‘70s Los Angeles Punk Rock, French New Wave Cinema, the literary Brat Pack, early New York graffiti, late 1970s New York No Wave, Motown Records, Wu Tang Clan, Lars Von Trier and Dogme95, and so much more. I love learning who the players were, and then seeing where the players ended up. It seems like in all of these movements, some of the people were able to translate their talents and creativity into massive successes, while others were never able to re-create their glory days of being in a badass art collective and waving big ol’ middle fingers to the system. Perhaps this is why in all my interest in fashion, I have never been able to live down my utter fascination with the Antwerp 6.

The Antwerp 6: Walter Van Bierendonck, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee (Martin Margiela was not an official member, despite common belief). Six design students that all attended Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Art, employed an avant-garde approach to fashion, and literally put Antwerp on the map as a fashion city to respect. The other influential fashion designer from Antwerp, Raf Simons, used a drapey black hoodie in his A/W 2001 ‘Riot’ collection emblazoned with the word “Antwerp” and a graphic depicting the Antwerp 6’s members in all of their youthful glory. The sweatshirt looks like a punk rock hoodie you could get on St. Mark’s and that is the point: the Antwerp 6 was one of the first group of fashion designers looking towards the more down-trodden sub-cultures (Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake were also doing this in Japan) to create high fashion. And they just happened to all be friends hanging out, doing drugs (probably, anyways, right?), listening to music, and borrowing clothes from one another.

But, as these things often turn out, only half of the Antwerp 6 achieved international success. Demeulemeester, Van Noten, and Van Bierendonck all translated their visions into massive brands, and the latter two are still designing their brands to this day. Does that mean they were more talented than their compatriots? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Let the rest of this piece be an ode to the ever-unsung talents of the forgotten members of the Antwerp 6: Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee.

Marina Yee showed her first collection in London in 1986 under the brand Marie five years after she graduated from university. Yee often re-designed and structured clothes that she found in flea markets, emphasizing a worry that she held concerning the wastefulness of fashion. Interestingly enough, it is Vivienne Westwood that we most often associate with the eco-conscious high fashion, but it was Yee who expressed concern with such issues as far back as the 1980s, when Westwood was still designing with Malcolm McLaren. Her visibility in fashion in the ‘90s was scarce; she designed with the Belgian brand Lena Lena and with her old friend Bikkembergs. She had a comeback of sorts in 1999 when she participated in the 400 Anniversary Antoon Van Dyck celebrations curating a selection of Van Dyck’s emphasizing fashion. In 1995, Yee briefly launched her MY label and showed 30 pieces at a private event in Paris, again recycling thrift materials to be fashioned into utterly elegant fashion. Yee’s talents are monumental, and her lack of success in comparison with some of her friends may have to do with her resistance to the fashion system. Countless designers now are placing importance on dismantling the fast fashion system. Hiroki Nakamura of the VISVIM label designs hoping people will wear his clothing for a lifetime. Stella McCartney is committed to green fashion. And of course, Westwood has been lauded for her commitment to fashion that has a positive impact. Yee’s output was small, but her impact was massive. In fact, Marina Yee is set to release a new line of scented candles and perfumes in the coming month. 

The Flemish Dirk Van Saene also avoided the fashion system. Though he participated in a group show in 1987 with his five friends, he mainly designed clothes out his small Antwerp boutique Beauties and Heroes. Van Saene’s lack of international recognition can be traced to two arguments. For one, Van Saene wasn’t interested in any one particular aesthetic that his brand could be recognized by. He employs the mindset of an artist: he makes whatever he wants to make. That attitude is admirable, but not exactly business-minded. The other is that he too also avoids the fashion system, and in some ways is downright disdainful of the fashion industry: “ I think there's currently nothing interesting in fashion. It is so boring. The designers never tire of repeating the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. So what? We've already seen everything. I can think of no designer collection, which I really like. And the worst thing is the press, which comes from a designer the next, as long as there is a bag for free.” Van Saene has started creating pottery, and a career as an artist might suit his incendiary talents more than fashion design.

Dirk Bikkembergs might be the most internationally recognizable name out of the “other members” of the Antwerp 6, but his career path is idiosyncratic to say the least. In fact, some people may not realize but his garments are still being produced and sold every day (his website is having a huge sale right now). Awarded the Golden Spindle award in 1985, Bikkembergs launched a shoe line in 1987 and a menswear line launched in 1988. When looking back at those old collections, it is immediately notable that he already was elevating sportswear to luxury long before Ricardo Tisci emblazoned a Givenchy t-shirt with a Rottweiler. But unlike his compatriots, Bikkembergs moved away from the brutal and deconstructed fashions that Antwerp was becoming famous for with the successes of people like Demeulemeester and especially, Martin Margiela. He moved towards soccer, Bikkembergs fascination with sports, and soccer in particular, made him extremely successful financially, but most likely hurt his artistic credibility. But that didn’t seem to matter to him. Bikkembergs continued to use professional football players as menswear models. In 2000, he launched Bikkembergs Sport and used a footballer as a logo. He even became the Sole Sponsor of Inter Milan, an amateur football club. Not exactly highbrow, I know. But one has to admire the strong “don’t give a fuck” attitude of an art school educated fashion designer turning around and designing soccer clothes. When your friends are selling shredded knit sweaters to be retailed at $800, it’s pretty punk to sell a hoodie with a soccer graphic for a quarter of that. I like to think Bikkembergs has fun taking the piss out of his art minded classmates.

So if you have to split the Antwerp 6 into two camps, perhaps you do so by looking at the fact that Van Bierendonck, Demeulemeester, and Van Noten all consciously decided to redefine the fashion system and progress the idea of fashion. But nevertheless, they all decided to exist within the fashion system. Yee, Bikkembergs, and Van Saene all did whatever the hell they wanted.  The Antwerp 6 was a rebel collective, but they weren’t all fashion rebels. 

Necessary reading: 6+ Antwerp Fashion (maybe the most comprehensive monograph on the Antwerp 6) and Belgian Fashion Design (a good history lesson). And make sure to see The Belgians: An Unexpected Fashion Story on view now until September 15, @ Bozar Rue Ravenstein 23, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Adam Lehrer is a writer, journalist, and art and fashion critic based in New York City. On top of being Autre’s fashion and art correspondent, he is also a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine. His unique interests in punk, hip hop, skateboarding and subculture have given him a distinctive, discerning eye and voice in the world of culture, et al. Oh, and he also loves The Sopranos. Follow him on Instagram: @adam102287