Antwerp is famous for diamonds, art, and more recently—thanks to the Antwerp 6—cutting-edge fashion. The medieval port city is a lot like the best style icons who mix vintage treasures with modern pieces to emerge as the arbiter of Cool (think Kate Moss).
In the mid-80s, half a dozen graduates from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts drove to London for the British Designers Show. Their avant-garde, deconstructed looks astounded the international press who dubbed them the Antwerp 6 (because names like Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck don’t exactly roll off the tongue). Martin Margiela is usually tacked onto the group, making them the Six Plus. Seemingly overnight, Antwerp became a global force in fashion, and the rest is history.
To pay tribute to this legendary Belgian cohort, here are the top six things (plus one extra) we saw in awesome Antwerp:
1. Central Station: Talk about a grand first impression upon arrival! This is one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations—and the site of a 200-person-strong flash-mob dancing to the Sound of Music. (Yeah, that really happened.)
Airy stairs: what you see coming up from the lower train platforms. The first thing I noticed was how the people on the down escalator were color-coordinated with the banners. Then I noticed the enormous vaulted iron-and-glass roof.
Going for Baroque: close-up of the exquisite clock in the neo-Baroque entrance hall.
Hello, Hermès? I literally bent over backwards trying to get a good angle for this shot. It’s a view of the stunning domed ceiling in the entrance hall. Wouldn’t it make an amazing print for a square silk scarf?
2. Hotel De Witte Lelie: I had originally booked the perfectly-adequate Hilton to rack up loyalty points, but later canceled in favor of the “White Lily.” Why the switch? I wanted to invest in a boutique experience. What we got was an unforgettable stay in Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Philippe-Starck surroundings.
A modern statement: the hotel is made up of three 17th century white, gabled townhouses and filled with funky yet elegant decor. I love the lobby’s rustic ceiling beams, grand chandelier, and sleek blue sofa.
Surreal sitting area: I remember thinking to myself, “Is this really my life right now? I’m seated on a velvet settee in this quirky gem of a hotel in freakin’ Antwerp, waiting for Andrew, looking at my iPhone while ‘Cell Block Tango’ from the musical ‘Chicago’ is blasting through the speakers.” Pinch me.
How civilized: lovely breakfast served every morning by an equally lovely staff.
Pink dream: the hotel has only ten rooms, each with its own distinctive style. We stayed in Number 14 where Andrew was secure enough in his manhood to appreciate the decidedly feminine finishes. (He chalked it up to fanciful European flair.)
Crystal crown: the rain showerhead in our bathroom encircled by a glass chandelier. The cascading gold tiles evoked a Gustav Klimt painting.
3. The Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS): Located in the revitalized old port district, the “Museum at the River” focuses on Antwerp’s history and cultural heritage. The building’s boxy form vaguely reminded me of the New Museum in Lower Manhattan but its sculptural red sandstone and wavy glass façade is singularly Antwerp.
Boxy beacon on the Scheldt river: an unusual museum for an unconventional city.
4. Grote Markt: Yeah, yeah, just another European town square where you feel like a time traveler. We strolled around, gawked at the architecture, and then left to find dinner nearby. I’m kidding (sort of).
Frozen in time: picturesque panorama at dusk of the 16th-century city hall built in the Flemish Renaissance style.
As night falls: guild houses with their iconic gabled roofs and statues. The original structures burned down in 1576 and were later rebuilt.
Nocturnal splendor: city hall and Brabo fountain.
Gastronomic triumvirate: mussels, fries, and beer at the Grand Café De Rooden Hoed (Red Hat) near the Grote Markt. #AuthenticallyBelgium
5. Museum Plantin-Moretus: With Andrew’s background in newspapers and our mutual love of language, we enjoyed visiting this intimate museum. It’s the former mansion, printing press, and publishing house owned by the great Christophe Plantin in 1555. His business profoundly influenced the spread of typography, and all the artifacts of the metal movable type system have been preserved here. As a way to disseminate ideas faster and wider, it was a precursor to the Internet. (Pretty heady stuff.)
The stately, symmetrical courtyard: a peaceful place for fresh air. Each room in the residence oozes wealth from a bygone era like sumptuous tapestries, rare manuscripts, and gilded leather walls.
Portrait in the courtyard: smiling amid soft light.
Humble piece of revolutionary technology: one of the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world. These machines from the 1600s are one reason why the museum was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
6. MoMu (Mode Museum): This was the pièce de résistance of our trip! The “Dries Van Noten: Inspirations” exhibition knocked my socks off! It honors one of the Antwerp 6 but isn’t your typical retrospective (Van Noten is still alive and kickin’). The show offers a fascinating glimpse into the designer’s creative process and the eclectic sources that inspire his artistry. In a word: brilliant.
Rolling out the floral carpet: welcome to Dries Van Noten’s world of wonder.
Skinny mini: I think my AG Stilt jeans are actually helping me out here. #BetterThanSpanx
The butterfly effect: Damien Hirst’s giant artwork and Schiaparelli’s 1937 silk printed evening gown. Van Noten translated this theme of “capturing beauty” and “transformation” into the idea of “boys becoming men.” The result was a collection of colorful, sporty menswear.
Guitar god: with a cool quotient that’s off the charts, Jimi Hendrix is an obvious inspiration. He’s paired with the textile collection from Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris. I loved seeing these connections from the designer’s mind.
Maximum mix-and-match: 93-year-old style icon Iris Apfel, who loves piling on chunky jewelry and funky prints, inspired the oversized bangle-bracelet necklaces in Van Noten’s spring 2008 collection. (You’d need some strong neck muscles and wrists to wear those contraptions, though.)
Dainty duo: an embroidered organza Dior afternoon dress from 1952 and a Cy Twombly painting. This dress is EVERYTHING. #swoon
Boxed into a corner (or maybe a trapezoid?): I’m awkwardly posing for a photo at Andrew’s insistence. (He’s lucky he’s cute.)
6+: (Yep, this is the Margiela-esque add-on to the list of six.) Here are a few random fashion-related images from around town:
Tall and tasteful: these lithe and effortlessly chic creatures glide through Antwerp, oblivious to how much they up the street fashion game.
Dress to impress: all three looks in this storefront display were screaming my name (especially the middle one). Alas, I ignored their sartorial siren song. #HeadOverHeart #Regrets
Close but no cigar: do you see how close I was to buying a delicious Delvaux bag? But I didn’t pull the trigger in Brussels or in Antwerp, despite this friendly saleslady. After arriving back in the States, I found out that Barneys is their only U.S. retailer, and the purses sell for almost double (e.g. $2,800 vs. €1,200). Next time. There will definitely be a next time…
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