THE CITY OF ANTWERP in northern Belgium is, somewhat confoundingly, both Europe’s second busiest seaport and located 50 miles inland from the nearest sea. For much of the past half millennium, its character has been defined by this geographical quirk. Sheltered in a nook of the Scheldt River estuary, it is at once quintessentially European — a city of medieval cobblestone streets and Gothic Flemish Renaissance buildings — and directly connected to the globe-spanning shipping routes entered by the North Sea. Accordingly, it has been one of the continent’s essential trade hubs as well as a prolific incubator of the avant-garde.
These two identities developed in tandem in the early 1500s, when Antwerp became, briefly, one of the centres of the West’s rapidly expanding known world. As Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese merchants began travelling to and from newly encountered territories during the age of exploration, up to 40 percent of the globe’s trade passed through Antwerp’s docks, and along with silk from Turkey, peppercorns and diamonds from Africa and silver from America came immigrants and new ideas. “We always know in Antwerp news of everything that goes through the rest of the provinces of the universe,” the Italian merchant Lodovico Guicciardini boasted in 1567. Though this golden age was short lived (the Dutch blockaded the Scheldt from 1585, when Antwerp surrendered to Spain during the Eighty Years’ War, until 1795), it forged the city’s rich and enduring cultural life: The economic boom created a market for art, allowing for printing shops, coffee houses and guilds to form. In 1663, David Teniers the Younger, the master of the Guild of Saint Luke, an association that had been vital to Antwerp’s artistic development during the 16th century, founded the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a school whose alumni, ranging from Vincent van Gogh (1885-86) to the fashion designer Demna Gvasalia (2002-06), have continued to shape the world’s culture.
Clockwise from top left: courtesy of Kati Heck; courtesy of Katrin Wouters and Karen Hendrix; courtesy of Kris Van Assche
A selection of the Royal Academy’s alumni, photographed during their school years, clockwise from top left: the artist KATI HECK, photographed in 2002; the jewellery designers KATRIN WOUTERS (centre) and KAREN HENDRIX (right) with their friend Ad Van Mierlo (left) at an academy party in 1982: “It was a subversive, anarchist world in which everything was possible,” says Wouters of her school years, during which she ran her own radio show called “Pervers” (meaning “perverse”) and Hendrix made jewellery for one of the director Ivo van Hove’s first plays, “Germs” (1981); the fashion designer KRIS VAN ASSCHE’s ID card from his third year at the academy, where he had an affinity for pinstriped ’70s-era suits, he says: “At times, I probably looked more like an accounting student.”
ONCE EVERY FEW generations, there is a college or a workshop, a theater company or a lab that produces a seemingly disproportionate number of influential graduates: In the 1940s, the artists Alex Katz, Roy DeCarava and Lois Dodd passed through Cooper Union in New York; in the mid 1990s, Central Saint Martins in London nurtured Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan. What is less recognised is the influence of the Royal Academy in the early ’80s, when its students made work that would transform the worlds of fashion, art and theater.
Even now, despite its ongoing economic might (to this day, the city is wealthy from its port and the diamond trade), Antwerp “remains a sort of village,” says the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who studied painting at the Royal Academy from 1978 to 1979 and still lives in the city. Perhaps because its growth abruptly ended in 1585, Antwerp never became a metropolis like London or Paris. “There is an atmosphere here of a rather small city in which a lot of people are working together,” says the fashion designer Dries Van Noten. This collaborative spirit, as well as the competition inherent in a close-knit community, is partly what enabled the designers known as the Antwerp Six — Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee — along with fellow alumni Martin Margiela, to transform Antwerp into a capital of intellectual, unconventional fashion. While the six designers were fiercely individualistic — “We each wanted to be different from and better than the others,” recalls Demeulemeester — they were also friends who exchanged ideas from their own spheres of interest and from nearby cities. Antwerp in the early ’80s was, as in the city’s 16th-century heyday, a breeding ground for creativity: It was close enough to the exploding youth subcultures of Berlin and London to feel their echoes but far enough away that those influences could ferment into new forms. “We look at everything with a certain distance,” says Van Noten of his city’s residents. “Not a very far distance, but just one step back. In that way, we can rethink certain things and do things our own way.”
Clockwise from top left: Patrick Robyn; courtesy of Dries Van Noten; Lieve Jacobs
Clockwise from top left: the fashion designer ANN DEMEULEMEESTER, photographed by her then boyfriend, now husband, Patrick Robyn, in 1979; the fashion designers (from left) WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK, DRIES VAN NOTEN, DEMEULEMEESTER and DIRK VAN SAENE getting ready to go to a gig in Antwerp in 1981; the artist ANNE-MIE VAN KERCKHOVEN (left), with two of her classmates in the graphic-design program, Yol De Pelseneer (center) and Mieke Nimmegeers (right), posing in their classroom in theatre costumes in 1973.
Since its belle epoque, Antwerp’s mercantile and artistic communities have converged in its social life. In the ’80s, the city’s abundant warehouses helped cultivate a thriving underground scene. Demeulemeester recalls a favourite nightclub called Cinderella where “people from the academy, from the harbour and punks” danced together. Tuymans remembers seeing Belgium’s first punk group, the Kids, perform in Antwerp not long after they formed there in the late ’70s. Within this milieu, the pioneering theatre director Ivo van Hove, who was then a student in the city, met his future partner and collaborator, the set designer Jan Versweyveld, who was enrolled at the Royal Academy at the time; they later opened a brasserie to fund their experimental joint productions, reinforcing Antwerp’s historic marriage of art and commerce, and making use of the city’s array of affordable, nontraditional venues (in 1981, they staged their first play, “Rumours,” in a disused laundromat). And it was in Antwerp’s cafes at the start of the next decade that the designer Raf Simons met many of his lifelong collaborators, including the photographer Willy Vanderperre and the stylist Olivier Rizzo. Today, the Antwerp-based artist Kati Heck captures the vibrancy of the city’s social world in her large-scale paintings, such as “Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow,” 2017), in which a group of her friends, including the genre-defying cellist Simon Lenski, are depicted drinking in their real-life local haunt, the Cafe De Kat.
“There’s something free and artistic about the life here, if one looks for it, perhaps more than anywhere else,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from Antwerp in 1886: “There’s gusto and people enjoy themselves.” For a city whose culture has depended on trade since its inception, on an openness to whatever innovation comes through its docks, the burden of tradition is less stifling in Antwerp than it might be for young artists in less changeable cities. While there is an artistic legacy — Pieter Bruegel and Peter Paul Rubens both made some of their most important works here — as well as the legend of the Six to contend with, there is also a desire for knowledge that is outward-facing rather than self-contented. Indeed, Van Beirendonck, who has overseen the Royal Academy’s fashion department since 2007, says the most important quality an applicant can possess is that they are, above all, “culturally hungry.”
Alice Newell-Hanson is the senior digital features editor of T Magazine. Pascal Gambarte specialises in editorial fashion work. Hair: Louis Ghewy at Management & Artists Group. Makeup: Florence Teerlinck. Production: Mindbox. Photo assistants: Joe Reddy and Samir Dari. Hair assistant: Marlien Echelpoels. Makeup assistants: Marie Corbeel and Evelien de Keukeleire.
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