In the 1980s, a group of students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium attracted international attention for their innovative, agenda-setting fashion: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee. Now, as Van Beirendonck retires from his post as head of the Academy’s fashion department, five of the “Antwerp Six” gave straight answers to questions from current students, covering the pressures of being a designer, how the industry has changed and staying true to yourself.
Victoria Lebrun, 3rd year: What is your best memory of the Academy?
Ann: “Mary Prijot, the woman who founded the Fashion Academy, is someone I will never forget. She was very strict, but I liked that. You really had to prove yourself. Being good wasn’t good enough, and if she didn’t agree with your ideas you had a problem. For four years I had to convince her that I was right. Moreover, she was very classical: when I came to classes with my hair down, I was sent out to put it in a French twist. That made me revolt: I had to do my own thing. It gave me incredible strength.”
Dries: “That kind of thing created a feeling of solidarity. According to me, we have learned most by rebelling against the teachers, trying to find out how far we could push against the limitations they set. Prijot had her own strict vision: jeans were for poor people, Chanel was the best fashion designer in the world and knees were the ugliest part of the female body and shouldn’t be on show. It was interesting to revolt against this, and encourage each other to do so. We also always had each other’s back. When someone couldn’t finish on time, everybody rallied round to help complete the collection.”
And for you, Walter?
Walter: “The synergy between the Six was fascinating. We all came from different parts of Belgium, each with our own background. It was interesting to combine our different styles and tastes or do the opposite and create confrontation. Our group came about in a very spontaneous way. Without the Six I would never have become what I am now, and I think that this goes for the others as well. Therefore I find it sad that the bond is not as strong between all of us as it used to be. To me, it was a very important time in my life and I still cherish it. We have been on a journey together, with lots of trial and error, with great ambition and frustration. Our story is simply so unique, and so random. This kind of bond can never be recreated.”
Ann: “Everybody was totally committed, and when someone did well, the other ones wanted to do even better. We didn’t always agree, we all had our own style. But you’re right: the energy we gave each other cannot simply be created.”
Dirk: “My best memory of the Fashion Academy is meeting Walter.”
Jejung Park, Master: What was your favourite spot to hang out in Antwerp?
Ann: “We were always working. (laughs) But when we had time, we went to Cinderella’s Ballroom, a cellar on Stadswaag that played alternative music. The energy there was incredible. It was the ‘seventies, the early start of punk, and people came from all over to dance, from the Academy students to the prostitutes from the Schipperskwartier. I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could.”
Marina: “Authentic, raw, mind-blowing and totally unforgettable. You don’t know what you’ve missed!”
Walter: “The Cinderella was punk, glam rock and Bowie. We all went there every weekend. We’d spend hours getting ready, dressing up for it. We rocked a different look every week.”
Dries: “It was the place where all Academy students came together. We often were with Martin Margiela and Bob Verhelst (scenographer of national and international fashion exhibitions). We usually went out on a Sunday night, and, on the Monday, we often didn’t get to school until eleven thirty because we were simply too tired. We had to devour a large bag of Danish pastries before we could start the week.”
Lars Mertens, 1st year: What do you think of the Academy as it is now? What has changed for the better and what do you miss?
Dries: “The biggest change for me is that it used to be a real Art Academy. We shared a corridor with Photography and Graphic Design, in the canteen you sat with people who were studying sculpture, painting and jewellery design … The various disciplines mixed more. Today, you are really a student of the Fashion Academy and there is less contact with other fields of study. To me, that is a pity, because you’re more on an island.
On the other hand, the scale and level of teaching have improved tremendously, of course. Just to give you an example: our library was our teacher’s subscription to the French L’Officiel. (laughs) Every month the latest issue was passed on from one student to another. Now, all you need to do is open your laptop and you find whatever you are looking for. And the number of teachers, the specialists for each part of the course, is a great improvement”
Rohan Kale Steinmeyer, 3rd year: Do you need to be a bit of a narcissist to give a brand your own name?
Ann: “I don’t know why that would be narcissistic. You don’t ask a musician or a writer whether he should use his own name.”
Walter: “I have always put myself and my image in the limelight, a bit like a rock star. The way I cultivate my look, my rings … it is a persona I consciously create. Whether that is narcissistic, I don’t know. (laughs) The logo of my brand is an image of me, naked. That has to do with ego, but also with honesty. I lay myself bare and give 100 percent of myself. My work needs to say something, but I as a person also want to make a statement, albeit in a humorous, relativistic way. According to me, that best suited my fashion, which is also direct, expressive and loud.”
Dries: “We briefly did think of changing our names. The only internationally well-known Belgian brands at the time had names that sounded French or Italian. We wondered whether you could be successful with Flemish-sounding names like Ann Demeulemeester or Dirk Bikkembergs. Would people be able to pronounce them? We were all jealous of Martin Margiela who had a good name to start with. Luckily we decided against changing our names. If people can pronounce Yohji Yamamoto, they will manage Flemish names as well, we thought.”
Sandra Ogiolda, 1st year: What is your definition of beauty?
Dirk: “The houses of Cy Twombly, the paintings of Etel Adnan, the sculptures of Thomas Houseago, the furniture of Charlotte Perriand, the view from our house in Italy and so much more…”
Marina: “Beauty is not just finding something beautiful, nice, tasty or exciting. To me, it is about consciously experiencing something that feels good and loving. Whether it’s watching your pet sleep peacefully, a fascinating piece of art, a stunning blossom, being at the receiving end of a kind gesture or tasting a delicious dessert. It is to watch and really see, to live and feel intensely. It is to enjoy and feel happy, both about the small daily things and about the mysterious intangible things that instil quiet admiration and emotion. I am an incorrigible romantic. Beauty to me is an expression of love in shape, matter and emotion.”
María Alborés Lojo, 1st year: The workload at the Academy is very heavy. How did you handle that? Did you put limits on the amount of work you did?
Walter: “I don’t think you can set limits in fashion. Things constantly happen that are out of your control. And then you can’t say: my workday is finished. You have to continue until you have put things right.”
Dries: “You can hardly say, the day before the show: ‘Sorry guys, I’ve reached my limit, we’ll continue tomorrow.’ That is also the good thing about it: sometimes you have to go to extremes to achieve something, but the result makes you persist. I have always had that kind of drive. As a student, I was already designing commercial collections for other brands, in order to cover my student fees but also because I liked doing it. I went to school during the day and designed collections by night, and sometimes I skived off in order to visit manufacturers. I do everything with great intensity. I work intensely, but when I’m on holiday I do that intensely as well. When we go somewhere, I want to see everything. I don’t want to discourage the student who asked this question, but the pressure at the Academy is nothing compared with the professional pressure once you start working. (laughs) At the Academy, you’re not responsible for the 150 people who work for you. So before you start, you really have to ask yourself: could I cope with that?”
Ann: “To be honest I wasn’t that stressed at the Academy. I liked what I was doing; I found it normal to work deep into the night every day. And like Dries says: once you leave the academy, the workload is ten times heavier. Instead of ten outfits a year, you make four hundred. Of course you don’t need to take on everything yourself the way I have done. You can also work with a team, but I have never managed to do that. I have always worked extremely hard, but I always went home between six and seven p.m. to be with my son. That was our moment. Fortunately I also had a husband who looked after him when I wasn’t there and who understood the pressure of my work. My son doesn’t seem to have suffered from it.”
Eeso, 1st year: Have you ever doubted that you wanted to have a career in fashion? Have you had difficult times and how did you overcome them?
Dries: “I think that every healthy creative person doubts himself from time to time and wonders what he is doing it for. It is part of the creative process; the highs and lows make it fascinating. You can’t live and work in a state of euphoria all the time. Doubting yourself is a healthy way of working, it makes you put things into perspective. And sometimes you flounder, but that’s part of the process.”
Walter: “My career has been a rollercoaster with highs but also many lows. Yet I have managed to come up with a collection every season. Of course you can give up, but I always had enough ambition and faith in myself to keep fighting. My love of the business has also helped. I haven’t always been ambitious like Dirk Bikkembergs, who said he wanted to make the cover of Vogue before he turned thirty. When I started studying at the Academy, I did it for my own pleasure. Everything I liked — clothes, make-up, photography, working with my hands — was combined at the Academy. That has never changed.”
Ann: “I have never thought of doing anything else. When I start something I want to complete it. For thirty years, I have given it my all. Of course I have had difficult times, but you have to see them through. There is only one solution: to work, and it will be all right. Staying in bed has never made anything better. I’m not saying that every collection was good, but it was always the best I had to give at the time. As a perfectionist, I saw things that could have been better in every collection, but then I decided that I would show those next time. In this sense, all the collections are connected like a chain and my best work would not exist without the mistakes that came before it.”
Sofia Hermens Fernandez, 3rd year: What advice would you give the future generation of designers?
Marina: “I hope that they may feel happy and inspired, and won’t be afraid. That the future young designers will find a conscious, alert, engaged way to deal with the biggest challenges in a changing world, as rebels of innovation. Maybe not a revolution, but a change towards better values in our thinking and acting, for the climate, for all fellow human beings, for peace. Not a walk in the park, but you cdriedo it.”
Dirk: “Never try to be ‘in fashion’, but develop a personal style you can always rely on and that doesn’t go ‘out of fashion’ in no time.”
Walter: “Be patient, keep going and it will happen one day. Which doesn’t mean that it will all happen straight away. Young people hear success stories of their predecessors who now work for the large fashion houses and they want to do the same, while they still have so much to learn.”
Were you patient?
Walter: “We had to be. When we graduated, Belgium had hardly written any fashion history. There were no examples we could strive to emulate. We as the Six got a lot of attention from the Belgium press, but those newspapers and magazines never crossed the border. It took an enormous amount of time, patience and commitment before we broke through internationally.”
Jaden Li, 2nd year: What is the biggest difference between the fashion world now and when you graduated?
Walter: “It was before the Internet. We grew up in a time when fashion was shown on a catwalk and wasn’t seen in a magazine until six months later. You discovered winter fashion when it was really winter. It had a certain kind of logic. That rhythm has completely changed now. Everything can be seen online straightaway.”
Ann: “Our communication with the world grew organically. The greatest compliment was when people sent you a letter because your message and style resonated with them, and sometimes these were people you really looked up to. Now, you immediately get hundreds of likes or comments on a social media post, while at the time I received maybe one letter a year. Each of us had our own niche and public. Walter, for instance, received letters that were totally different from mine. I really liked that slowness.”
Marina: “Today’s fashion industry has become big business, with 90 percent being fast fashion, maximising profit by buying and consuming in a throwaway culture. Consumerism has grown exponentially with fashion for all budgets, from Primark to Louis Vuitton. It is overwhelming and unbridled. The challenge for both consumer and designer is to be aware of the downside of the industry, the harmful consequences of this overproduction of clothing and gadgets for our community and the environment.”
What would you change in the current fashion industry?
Dirk: “Everything goes too fast nowadays. We need to return to the mystery that used to surround fashion. What we certainly don’t need is more ‘Instagram fashion’ because it devalues it. It evokes reactions such as ‘Okay, we’ve been there, done that … next!’”
Dries: “For many fashion houses, fashion has become a business, obliterating the passion for the product. Luckily there are still independent small designers who put their soul into their work.”
Marina: “What I would do these days, and what I’m trying to do now, is become smaller, consciously slow down selectively and offer a scaled-down collection, partly by up-cycling and creating slow and silent fashion.”
Is it harder or easier these days to start your own label?
Dries: “The most fascinating thing is that there are so many possibilities these days. Whether you want to work for a designer at a big fashion house, or prefer to move to Scotland to sit in a barn, spin wool and sell your hand-knitted jumpers on the Internet, both scenarios are equally respected. After all, every era has its challenges. We were masters in hiding how small-scale we were. In the eighties, you needed allure to be successful, while being small-scale and unique as a designer are assets nowadays. When we set up our labels Antwerp was not on the map at all. Fashion could only come from Paris or Milan, Belgian fashion was a joke. Now, the Academy has become very prestigious. Whether that automatically makes it easier to start your own label, I can’t comment on.”
Walter: “I do think it’s easier for young people to set up a label than when we started, exactly because of that visibility on social media. We had to go to great lengths for the world to start talking about us. For many years, we bombarded everybody with invitations and exclusive stories in order to get the attention of the press. Nowadays, when you want to contact someone, you simply send an email and you often get an answer.”
Sandra Ogiolda, 1st year: What life lesson did you not learn until after your years at the Academy?
Dries: “Everything needs to be in balance, work and your private life, and sometimes that balance may have tipped. If I could do it all again, I would take a different approach.”
Ann: “Delivering good work is the beginning of it all. Once you’ve done that, you have to have faith that sooner or later it will find its way.”
Dirk: “Believe in yourself and in what you do.”
Walter: “Indeed, have faith in yourself. For many years, I was ‘the crazy one of the Six in his colourful T-shirts’, but it has never stopped me from doing my own thing. I have always cherished the feeling of being the outsider. At some point the way people saw me changed. It was replaced by deep respect from the press, the buyers and fans. Many young people are only now discovering me as a designer. I will not go grey with my first generation. I’m glad it all turned out all right, also for my ego.”
This article first appeared in the Belgian lifestyle magazine Knack Weekend. Designer Dirk Bikkembergs does not live in Belgium and could not take part in the interviews.