The Belgians are frustrating Laura Lusuardi. For the last 34 years it has been her job to find new talent to come and work at Max Mara, the successful Italian label known for mixing fashion with practicality. So far she has fared pretty well: Karl Lagerfeld did a stint in the early 1970s; so did Dolce & Gabbana 15 years later. Today the fashion director scouts the fashion schools because, she says, young designers are already too commercial to be interesting to her. The Flanders Fashion Institute in Antwerp is famous for turning out some of the most creative minds in fashion. But she can't get them to Italy, not even for a plum job like this. Complains Lusuardi: "The goal of the school is to train them to work only with their own name." Most of the graduates do just that, and a surprising number of them choose to do it not in Paris or Milan, but in Antwerp. Of the original Antwerp Six, the avant-garde talents who first put the school and this city of 452,000 people on the fashion map in the early 1980s, four of them-Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck and Dirk van Saene-remain based in Antwerp. A fifth, Dirk Bikkembergs, left just last year. The sixth switched to theater design.
Recent students, including Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons, Bernhard Willhelm and the duo at A.F. Vandevorst, also set up shop in Antwerp; they travel the 400 km to Paris twice a year to show at the Prèt-à-Porter collections. This isolationist instinct doesn't end at the choice of headquarters. The graduates from Flanders also shun mainstream publicity, rarely granting interviews and often refusing to be photographed. The reason? They say they want their work-the image of their designs-to speak for itself.
But if an image grows in Antwerp, does anyone see it? Not really, outside hard-core fashion circles. The clothes of these freshly minted designers are, for the most part, amazing. And surprisingly wearable. But big retailers are scared off, fearing these designers cannot develop a large following under their own, little-known names. "The problem with the Belgians is that they won't do press, they won't talk to anyone, they're so shy they'll barely come to meetings," said an executive in charge of filling top design jobs at established fashion houses. "I really respect them for what they do. To be a good designer you have to have a good fashion sense, but you also have to go to parties and say hello to everybody."
So one would think that given $5 million by the regional government to put on an exhibition to showcase Antwerp design, Van Beirendonck, a lecturer at the Fashion Institute, would have as his primary aim the promotion of the school's talented graduates-to get them some of the top posts at major fashion houses and attract shoppers to their labels. In fact, he's going about it the other way round. He says his goal is not to promote designers, but to bring the over-commercialized world of fashion around to his way of thinking. "I want to underline the way we feel about fashion and the way we work with fashion. It's definitely different from the way Milan works. There are things that are more important than fashion shows or glamorous campaigns."
The result, Mode 2001 Landed-Geland, a series of four exhibitions staged throughout Antwerp until Oct. 7, is a means of exploring where the creative energy of the Antwerp designers comes from. The series of exhibitions includes things not normally associated with fashion shows, like helicopter rides, videos and slogan-less billboards. The most popular and the largest of the exhibitions, "Mutilate," is housed in the city's contemporary art museum, muhka. Visitors are, says Van Beirendonck, confronted with examples of the way people in cultures around the world alter their bodies in the name of fashion. There's an image of skinny Twiggy, the '60s model who inspired fashionable women in the West to give up food, but there are also representations of foot-bound Chinese women and lotus shoes. Upstairs are examples of undergarments worn though the years to enable women to fit into the fashions of the day (no big Bridget Jones panties, though) and modern designs that attempt to change the body structure. Think a Comme des Garçons' pillow dress, which for thousands of dollars contrived to make the well-dressed woman look as if she had been mysteriously inflated in all the wrong places.
In the Antwerp police tower is "Emotions," a series of videos with famous artists, designers and such talking about the strongest emotions that clothing ever created for them. "One day I was backstage at one of my shows," says designer Vivienne Westwood. "I discovered Naomi [Campbell] behind a huge pile of clothes. She was trembling and trying to hide because she had to wear some of those terribly high platform shoes again. It was not the show she fell in-it must have been the following season. When I saw her face, saw her radiance, I realized she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. We both had tears in our eyes."
The exhibition called "2 Women" is devoted to two design icons who, in different eras and on different continents, radically changed the way women dress: Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese woman who founded Comme des Garçons in 1969 and showed it in Paris in 1981, and the legendary Coco Chanel. Kawakubo will be staging different runway shows around the city over the course of the festival's run. "Rei didn't want something static," said Van Saene, who curated this exhibition. Chanel, who died in 1971, didn't have a choice. She gets an exhibit in the former Royal Palace. It features not only revolving samples of her trademark suits, but also a room devoted to her jewelry-faux when everyone else was wearing real, and real in 1932 when economic depression was forcing everyone into faux. There's also a room devoted to Chanel No. 5 and a room dedicated to her persona, including a 15-min. interview that first aired on French TV. "Sometimes we Belgians are a little too serious about fashion," says Van Saene. "Coco has the French flair-you know, gesturing with her cigarette. She's always so frank." The French may have the flair, but in fashion the Belgians believe they have the integrity.