A two-piece peek at the Belgian fashion capital. By Angela Gaimari
Let's bypass the Antwerp Six introduction, as one needn't be a fashion historian to know that this city was built on fashion. Thanks to governmental aid to the craft via the Royal Academy's famed fashion department, and the accompanying revolving ode to mode, the MoMu (Mode Museum, Nationalestraat 28/1, tel. 32 (0)3 470 27 70), designers come out of Belgium with a certain confidence and willingness to take risks—like a child from wonderfully supportive parents.
Two full meandering days in this small city is enough to get a taste of the smorgasbord of local shop options Antwerp has to offer: from well-organized vintage to recently-graduated designer startup boutiques to established heavy-hitters of Belgian descent. Much of the city's shopping closes down on Sundays, so perhaps that would be a good opportunity to head to the nearby quaintly touristy Bruges to give your credit card a day of rest and instead explore postcard-perfect churches and canals.
Antwerp's Fashion District is densely populated with shops of all stripes, so it's best explored on foot. With high-street stores like H&M and international luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci all around, we've selected some of the best, distinctively Antwerpen spots in our first of two loving looks at this shop-hopping city.
• Walter, St. Antoniusstraat 12, +32 (0)3 213 26 44
One third of the Antwerp Six, Dirk Van Saene and Walter Van Beirendonck opened this huge, airy shop in a former car-park, with a front door that opens up automatically and vertically, just like a garage. The massive shop houses a carefully edited mélange of their namesake lines, labels from some of their countrymen, like Christian Wijnants and Bruno Pieters, new undiscovered lines, all displayed atop a selection of modern furniture. Check out at the orbital cash register counter designed by Marc Newson, and say hi to Van Saene, who can be found minding the shop now and again, while Van Beirendonck watches over the fashion academy, just a few blocks away.
• Alex Schrijvers, Everdijstraat 8, +32 (0) 479 71 21 02
This Royal Academy grad hand-makes classic and innovative built-to-last bags upstairs with Australian, Italian, and fish leathers, and he'll make you an espresso, too, if you ask nicely. Smaller leather goods in a wide spectrum of colors include the perfect credit/business card holders, yellow ostrich glasses cases-slash-makeup bags, and misshapen soft skin purses. As if the fresh leather doesn't smell delicious enough, sniff the selection of perfumes from Grasse, which are as tasteful as his thoughtfully crafted bags.
• Labels Inc, Aalmoezenierstraat 4, +32 (0)3 232 60 56
Think of this as the Century 21 of Belgian designer clothes, without the stifling crowd or maddeningly constant loudspeaker announcements. Get past seasons' Stephan Schneider, Christian Wijnants, Bernhard Willhelm, Dries Van Noten, Maison Martin Margiela, and Ann Demeulemeester, along with a selection of consignment vintage designer shoes. Each month a new designer creates the front window display: When we stopped by it was cool Copenhagen designer Abetone Wilhelmson's turn.
• Lila Grace, Nationalestraat 83, +32 (0)3 289 00 99
Hatboxes, picture frames, and antiques line the deco shelving of this girl-centric shop. With their house brand of femme separates, organized by color-family, comprising cozy pastel knits, matching buttery mutedly-dyed leather boots and bags, and simply frilly frocks, the two darling owners keep the homey vibe going by offering Belgian chocolates emblazoned with their cameo store logo to customers. In addition to their own line, they carry other small designers from around Europe, on all of which they have Belgian exclusives.
• Bonaventura, Aalmoezenierstraat 38, +32 (0) 479 26 85 47
Experience reverse sticker-shock at this tiny consignment handbag and accessory shop. There are very few designer names here, save for a Pierre Cardin clutch or two, but who needs 'em when you can get on-trend grass-green leather purses, taupe suede and tweed totes and '80s backpacks for around 15 euros apiece. They're even thrifty with natural resources: "All the wood comes from one tree!" said the storeowner excitedly of the many shelves holding her wares.
Like a cheap thrills trilogy, these three neighboring shops offer flashy clothes at slashed prices:
Episode (Steenhouwersvest 34a, +32 (0)3 234 34 14) sells trés cheap vintage organized not by color or size, but by trend: Think racks of dyed camisoles, nylon anoraks, and woven hippie drug rugs, as well as bins of mohair berets and elasticized belts in all colors. A destination shop for the city's alternateens, Fish & Chips (Kammenstraat 36-38, +32 (0)3 227 08 24) is a multi-level superstore of hot denim labels, Technicolor sneakers, and pop culture goodies. Ringz + Thingz (Kammenstraat 64, +32 (0)3 226 85 88) sells 10-euro hoodies, stripy leggings, and funky cheap accessories.
• Frituur Number One, Hoogstraat 1, no phone
This historic center frites stand is no-frills fried goodness. Top your cone of crispy potatoes off with mayonnaise and curry ketchup, wash it down with a can of Jupiler, and you've got a Belgian treat par excellence.
• Van Hecke, Nationalestraat 88, +32 (0)3 233 19 72
More junk food: These Belgian waffles are no joke. Pair one with the homemade ice cream, and be thankful that Antwerpen designers are more avant-garde than body-conscious.
• Grand Café Leroy, Kasteelpleinstraat 49, +32 (0)3 226 11 99
More substantial (and more expensive) is this upscale café. We tried an outstanding duck, mozzarella, and pink grapefruit salad, and a guacamole and puréed parsley soup. The 16-euro lunch special is a sweet deal, and the free local magazines make it a perfect pit stop during a long shopping day.
• Hotel Julien, Korte Nieuwstraat 24, +32 (0)3 229 06 00
This slice of mod-comfort in the middle of the Old City is a wonderful respite, featuring a tranquil library, green patio, and deluxe breakfast on the house (cappuccino, the bread basket, soft boiled eggs and lox are the perfect fuel for a day on your feet), all served on streamlined place settings designed specially for the hotel. There are only 11 high-ceilinged, crisply furnished white rooms, allowing the friendly staff to give attention to each guest, and keeping the historic building nice and quiet. Perhaps of interest is the hotel's Fashion Special, which includes two nights, breakfast, champagne on arrival, a ticket to the MoMu, a packet of shopping info, and one three-course dinner in town, all for 244-314 euros per person.
Belgian Designer Cheat-Sheet
With so many designers with Belgium birth certificates, we could write a book, except someone already did. Here is a quick look at some of the best Belges with their own boutiques:
• Annemie Verbeke, Nationalestraat 76-78, +32 (0)3 226 35 60
• Dries van Noten, Nationalestraat 16, +32 (0)3 470 25 10
• Ann Demeulemeester, Verlatstraat 38, +32 (0)3 216 01 33
• Stephan Schneider, Reynderstraat 53, +32 (0)3 226 26 14
• Diane von Furstenberg, Steenhouwersvest 44, +32 (0)3 213 14 24
• Veronique Branquinho, Nationalestraat 73, +32 (0)3 233 66 16
• Violetta + Vera Pepa, Nationalestraat 24, +32 (0)3 238 00 21
• Verso, Lange Gasthuisstraat 11, +32 (0)3 226 92 92
This grandly fancy department store, housed in the former Deutsche Bank, carries Euro high-fashion labels galore, and a formidable selection of established Belgians: Kris van Assche, Dirk Bikkembergs, Les Hommes, and Ann Demeulemeester. The chic Verso Café and the well-edited beauty counter make this a splurge-worthy destination.
A two-piece peek at the Belgian fashion capital.