Something strikingly eccentric about Europe’s historic harbor cities. Perhaps it’s the centuries of trade and exposure to objects and people from afar; maybe there’s something in the water. But whatever it is, Antwerp, a small Belgian city about 40 miles southeast of the North Sea, with expansive docklands along the wide Schelde River, is a place where — amid the postcard-ready quaintness of old Europe — one finds corners of unusual idiosyncrasy and surprise.
It was at one such charming outpost that I recently found myself eating dinner. The space was long and narrow and looked and felt like a children’s fort, with mismatched wooden tables and chairs. Metal shelves filled with books and leafy plants rose against the walls; to the right of the open kitchen there was a sort of bunk-bed-style seating area accessible only by ladder.
In contrast to the slapdash décor, the patrons scattered among the six or so tables were scrupulously dressed in either well-fitting black or artfully clashing colors — all eating the same simple home-cooked two-course meal of salad and white fish alongside artichoke- and dill-spiked rice. Once in a while one of the diners would hop over to another table to visit; almost everyone lingered, conversing animatedly, long after the last course was served.
The unusual meal is known as Villa Vilekulla, a weekly dinner party at Ra, a year-old concept store in whose cafe the dinner was taking place. Inspired by the impish spontaneity of the children’s book character Pippi Longstocking and orchestrated by Hadas Cnaani, a former design student who had recently decided she preferred making food to making fashion, the evening captured the energetic and optimistic experimentalism that is bubbling up in Antwerp.
Not that fashion and style are new to the city. Anchored in creativity by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which opened up its fashion school in 1963, Antwerp has long been an incubator of style. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it made its relevance known, when half a dozen designers including Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Notenand Walter Van Beirendonck — all graduates of the Royal Academy — made their debut to much admiration on the international fashion scene and became known as the Antwerp Six.
What’s happening now is different, though. The Antwerp Six made the Royal Academy a lure for students around the globe, and many of today’s graduates, rather than take their skills and decamp to Paris or New York, are opting to stay in Antwerp, where they are reinterpreting Flemish ideas. Thus a place like Ra, which, when it isn’t hosting dinner parties, is a two-story space filled with avant-garde fashion and art pieces such as elaborate dresses, handspun from raw silk by the Australian designer Narrelle Dore, and an enormous white bust of a gorilla.
Its owners, Anna Kushnerova and Romain Brau, both in their late 20s and former students of the Royal Academy (she is from Siberia; he is from France), said that they saw untapped opportunity in Antwerp that did not exist in other fashion capitals.
“The city is filled with so many interesting people and talent, but there wasn’t one central point or hub bringing everyone together,” Ms. Kushnerova said. Their aim, she said, is for Ra to be “more than a concept shop,” to be a platform for emerging designers and artists.
Ra had come up several times in conversations with European fashion cognoscenti, but it wasn’t the only place in Antwerp I needed to see. Hunting down names and addresses before my visit, I realized that though the place itself is quite small — fewer than half a million people live there — it would still take some legwork to find the most interesting new shops. So I e-mailed Tanguy Ottomer, a person described in several different blogs as someone who, for about $430 an afternoon, could give visitors an insider’s perspective. Part tour guide, part personal shopper, Mr. Ottomer belongs to a new breed of guide popping up in various European cities (see sidebar) who, through personal connections and experience, can introduce clients directly into the center of a city’s fashion scene.
“No one wants to sign up for a traditional tour group and follow an umbrella around anymore,” Mr. Ottomer explained when we met. A dapper 30-year-old wearing a slim-fitting dark gray suit and a Clark Gable-esque mustache, he was easy to spot at our meeting place, the minimalist Italian restaurant inside the trendy store Renaissance.
After giving him my short list of priorities (new concept shops, unique designers and vintage), and doing a quick lap around Renaissance, an all-white temple of high-end insider brands like Rick Owens and If Six Was Nine, we were off.
ANTWERP is small and fairly easy to navigate, so directions to newcomers are given in relation to the city’s center — an intimate mix of well-maintained medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Its two mainstays are the Grote Markt, an expansive historic town square lined with elaborate, perfectly maintained 16th- and 17th-century guild houses, and the Groenplaats, a tree- and cafe-lined square right off the Gothic Antwerp Cathedral.
Beginning in the late ’80s cars were banned on many of the streets in the historic center, so it is a marvelous place to spend an afternoon and be reminded of why the 16th-century Italian merchant and historian Florentijn Lodovico Guicciardini described Antwerp as “the loveliest city in the world.”
The center is also the place from which both of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares extend. The Meir, heading east, is a wide pedestrian boulevard lined with grand patrician mansions out of which global brands like Esprit and Diesel sell their wares. Heading to the south is Nationalestraat. It, and the streets around it, which include the trendy Het Zuid neighborhood, are Antwerp’s answer to SoHo.
To the south we went. As we made our way down the street (which at some point turns into Volkstraat), Mr. Ottomer offered up colorful bits of local history and asides about this and that shop. At some point I realized what was so different about Antwerp: It can look and feel like one of those towns riding along on its picturesque and historic past, but it is actually a place of energized and creative enterprise. And unlike a city like, say, Berlin, where one usually has to brave garbage-can-filled alleyways, unmarked graffiti-covered doors and major attitude in order to find the interesting bars and galleries, Antwerp’s edgy shops and cafes reside behind Old World facades, with very little hipster posing.
(If you’re looking for grit, you might head to the city’s old port area, where the Het Eilandje neighborhood is home to a growing number of new bars and restaurants. It is also the site of the soon-to-be opened Museum aan de Strom, or MAS, an already iconic piece of contemporary architecture that looks like brick Tetris shapes that have fallen from the sky.)
Taking in the various mom-and-pop shops that line the area around Nationalestraat, Mr. Ottomer explained that while much of Antwerp has been gentrified over the last two decades, this area has managed to maintain an authentic feel, with independent butchers and traditional bakeries, as well as upstart design and fashion shops. Entering Leopold de Waelplaats, a grand square upon which the Royal Museum of Fine Arts presides, we passed Ann Demeulemeester’s flagship store — a minimal loftlike interior behind a traditional facade — before arriving at Atelier Assemble, a storefront of happily clashing rolls of vintage patterns and ’50s and ’60s-style dresses made of the same fabrics. Mr. Ottomer introduced me to one of the owners, Jocelyne Van Acker, who explained the concept: “The idea is that someone can come here to the store, pick out a dress style and then choose any fabric they’d like to have the dress made from.”
Next stop was an appointment-only atelier (Mr. Ottomer had called ahead): Cafe Costume, which was started by the descendants of the respected suit-making van Gils dynasty. “We call it Cafe Costume because we offer our clients a menu,” said Bruno van Gils, taking a brief pause from a group of customers. He brought out an example of said menu with a flourish. “You can choose between a fashionable French cut, a sartorial Italian cut or a classical British cut. And then we take you through each detail, from the collar to the buttons and then you can pick the fabric, from a more affordable house wool to a cashmere fabric from Loro Piana.”
I browsed through some of the exquisite fabrics and headed back out toward Nationalestraat, where Mr. Ottomer and I reversed direction and headed north to the eccentric Walter store, headquarters for another Antwerp Six designer, Walter Van Beirendonck, whom Mr. Ottomer described as the godfather of Antwerp fashion.
“He still teaches at the academy and helps promote young talent,” Mr. Ottomer said.
Practically popping with colorful clashing clothing and design objects, the store was recently renovated to half its original size so that the designer could use the rest of his space as an atelier. While we perused the racks, which also included a mix of local designers handpicked by Mr. Van Beirendonck, I noticed that we were being critically appraised by an older woman standing imposingly behind an enormous shiny white Marc Newson-designed doughnut-shaped counter. (“Van Beirendonck’s aunt,” whispered my guide.)
We continued next door to Antwerp’s favorite fashion consignment shop: Labels Inc. The owner, Erna Vandekerckhove, was behind the counter and gave Mr. Ottomer a friendly hug.
“She used to work with Dries from almost the beginning,” Mr. Ottomer said as introduction.
“Yes, that’s true,” Ms. Vandekerckhove said. “I’ve worked in fashion for more than 20 years now. It’s a hard business. That’s why I opened this place nine years ago, to help sell extra stock, give pieces a second life and to make high fashion more accessible to the students. Sometimes the designer items here are the same prices as things you’ll find at H&M and Zara.”
“A lot of the Academy students hang out at Ra,” Mr. Ottomer said, “but they buy their clothes at Labels Inc.”
After a quick stop for coffee at Ra, which was just as appealingly eccentric during the day as it had been the night before, with more light to see the quirky details (like a dwarf-size thatched-roofed cottage on the first floor), we checked out Marcy Michael, a pioneering vintage design store specializing in Pop Art-inspired collectible chairs.
“This was one of the first contemporary shops on Kloosterstraat,” Mr. Ottomer explained, adding that the street is the only one in Antwerp where stores are open on Sundays. He then led me by the Belgium heritage brand Delvaux, where the designer Veronique Branquinho has been recently hired as artistic director, and on to a small home design shop called Magazyn, hidden in a nondescript mall where Dries Van Noten reputedly had his first shop. We made it to our final stop, Graanmarkt 13, about 20 minutes before closing time. It had been opened about a year ago by Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven, a couple with no real experience in either fashion or retail. If wandering through the three-story space (the bottom floor belongs to the store’s upscale restaurant) feels like stepping into someone’s home, that’s because it kind of is. The five-story building belongs to the couple; they and their two sons live on the top two floors.
While the white facade of the grand manor house is original, the entire inside of the building was built from scratch, a project that took three years.
“Everything, from the architecture to the kitchen to the fashion, has a clean back-to-basics foundation but is timeless,” said Ms. Cornelissens, who does the fashion buying. For Ms. Cornelissens, timeless means a multicolored faux fur vest from Isabel Marant, fragrances from Maison Francis Kurkdjian, contemporary porcelain from Nymphenburg and light fixtures made from repurposed headlights by the Beirut-based PSLAB.
Youthful modern spirits concealed behind grand historic facades: That seems to explain at least some of the chemistry behind Antwerp’s current spark.
Mr. Ottomer said goodbye just before an early evening meal at the Graanmarkt 13’s restaurant. I was embarrassed to realize that I had assumed he would come along to dinner; I had obviously started to believe that he was a new friend. Luckily I didn’t have to awkwardly hand over cash.
“You can pay me over Paypal,” he said easily as we parted.
The next day, the morning before I left, I went to check out the blocky MAS building and its already open cafe, Storm, on the ground floor. The airy, modern space, lined with blond wood and cubbyhole shelves, was packed with cappuccino-fueled locals. Although the day was a bit foggy, there was a fresh breeze coming in from the Schelde River and the electric feeling that ships were coming in.
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times