12 Most Fashionable Stops in Europe’s Trendiest City
My father loved Antwerp from the moment he saw it as a soldier during World War II. Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens loved it, called it home and operated one of Europe’s most famous art studios here in the 16th century. Vincent van Gogh studied painting here and probably loved it too.
In the 1980s, in the tradition of this beautiful port city dedicated for centuries to the visual arts, Antwerp gave birth to a group of six influential avant garde fashion designers known as the Antwerp Six who went on to establish their own labels or work in houses like Jean Paul Gauthier and Christian Dior. The six — Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee — helped renew Antwerp’s reputation as a cultural and fashion mecca and today the city continues to attract young talent from throughout the world. Thousands apply for the few coveted spots in the city’s famed Fashion Department of the Royal Academy and Flanders Fashion Institute which hold an annual show drawing more than 6,000 international visitors, photographers, media, buyers and models to the city each June.
I prefer a more laid back approach to fashion studies that involves shopping, visiting museums dedicated to design or just sitting with a Kriek (Belgium’s cherry beer) and watching the fashion show stroll by. So, grab an Antwerp Fashion Map from the tourist office or just visit the places below, all of which can be reached by bike and on foot. In Antwerp, you won’t have any trouble finding great destinations of your own.
1. Fashion Museum
Opened in 2002, the crisp, light ModeNatie houses the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy, the Flanders Fashion Institute and the Fashion Museum with rotating exhibits that are intimate and beautifully displayed. I saw a gorgeous show of women’s fashions from 1750 to 1950 in a gallery that was nearly empty. Next up is a show on the sculptural, elegant designs of Madame Grès, who produced haute couture designs for an array of fashionable women, including the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy.
2. The Mas
Worth the trip just to see the building, The Mas is Antwerp’s artifact “warehouse” designed by the Dutch architectural firm of Neutelings Riedijk Architects to hold a giant collection that tells the story of this city and, through its port, Antwerp’s connection to the world. The Visible Storage rooms allow you to browse through the drawers and gated cabinets where artifacts are on stored when not on display. Café Storm on the ground floor serves yummy, inexpensive lunches.
3. Copyright Books
Housed on the ground floor of the ModeNatie, this small shop is packed with stacks of books on architecture, photography, graphic design, industrial design, antiques and antiquities and, of course, fashion. For anyone interested in visual arts and designs, this is a place where it’s easy to get stuck browsing and reading for hours.
4. Ann Demulemeester
Opposite the Museum of Fine Arts, Ann Demeulemeeter’s store looks like an artist’s workshop: a raw open space with an unfinished feel filled with clothes that are at once stark and ethereal. The 19th century building housing the white, open shop is situated in the hip “Het Zuid” (south docklands) district. In contrast with the poetic blank-canvas of a space, the staff could not be any warmer or more helpful, guiding customers to upper floors where men’s and women’s clothes are on sale.
5. Dries Van Noten
His store is called the Mode Palais (Fashion Palace) and if you don’t think this is a mecca, just wait a few minutes and you’ll see stylish Japanese tourists arriving just to snap Instagrams out in front of the elegant shop. Van Noten has dressed Cate Blanchett for the Academy Awards and Maggie Gyllenhaal often, but he does not design haute couture. All of his elegant, subtle designs are available in ready to wear and for sale in this beautiful store. He does not advertise, because he doesn’t need to.
6. Noa Noa
At less lofty prices and with styles more suited to mere mortals, Noa Noa is a Danish company designing for women who appreciate a more feminine style or bohemian take on fashion. The small and cheerful store is filled with women trying on sumptuous silks, light linens, cool cottons and voluptuous voiles. The prices are low, the quality is high and I bought a white linen dress and tan leather belt that I’ve lived in all summer. Noa Noa is not much seen in the United States, which is too bad but makes a trip to this delightful boutique a must.
What could be better for a little shopping therapy than a store called Clinic? Antwerp’s answer to Urban Outfitters or Collette in Paris, Clinic’s 1100-square feet is a fashion and stuff supermarket filled with denim, quirky T-shirts, high-end sportswear, low-rider and cruise bikes, beauty products, music and DVDs, watches, home accessories, skeletons (yes, skeletons) and medical equipment on display. Clinic owners also are behind the beautiful, multi-brand store Hospital, across the street, that stocks high-fashion names like Viktor & Rolf, Neil Barrett and Jill Sanders. Located on De Burburestraat, also in Zuid.
A mile-long stretch of quirky, affordable antique shops, all-day cafes, ethnic restaurants, milliners, vintage clothing stores and daylong parties, this is the place to both window shop and watch the fashion party cruise by. At No. 54, for example, is Old and Beautiful specializing in Swedish antiques. On Sunday morning, there’s a small flea market on this street where most stores around 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
9. Diamond District
If you arrive by train at Antwerp’s Central Station, be sure to walk first through the fabulous old section of the station. Stepping outside, you’ll be in Antwerp’s famous Diamond District. More than 12,000 gemcutters and polishers work here and about 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through. It is the largest diamond center in the world with 380 workshops and sparkly windows everywhere you look. But complaints of fake diamonds and rip-offs abound, so if you plan to buy something, do your homework before you come and beware of offers that are “too good to be true.”
10. 100gr Design
Also located near the train station in a striking glass building, this is the place to buy little gifts to take home rather than some crummy souvenir. Located in the design center “De Winkelhaak,” 100gr shares the building with a variety of creative agencies. Objects in the store come from individual designers as well as larger companies and are constantly changing. I saw some beautiful gift boxes, unusual post cards, a wishing candle and a magnetic key holder that can be stuck on a fridge. All very affordable.
11. Monique Stam
Coming back from having filed for bankruptcy, Dutch-born Stam now has a shop for edgy-chic fashion at Kammerstraat 54, a street lined with shops around the corner from the fashion museum. She mixes colorful, bold, daring clothes with a singular approach to business — Stam has no real website but rents out her shop for VIP evenings. Worth a stop and a walk on the street to window shop.
The firm of Sculp(IT) Architecten was hired to design one of the world’s biggest floating swimming pools, scheduled to open this month. A 120-meter long (394 foot) barge, docked on Antwerp’s Scheldt River can accommodate 600 people in a huge open-air swim basin, two events venues, several floors and a restaurant with a terrace. This will be a great place to take a dip and chill after a day or touring and shopping. The near-Olympic size swimming pool will remain floating on the Scheldt even after summer ends, transforming into an ice skating rink when the weather cools. Cool.
At every stop, the people here are friendly, funny, helpful, laid back and stylish. A sweatshirt I saw in the gift shop at The Mass seemed to sum up, tongue in cheek, their attitude: “We’re from Antwerp, so we’re cooler than you.” Are they? Does Antwerp make the cut as Europe’s trendiest city?
Featured image courtesy of Tania Ho licensed via Creative Commons.