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Focus - Belgian fashion
Times have changed since the Antwerp Six put Belgian fashion on the map. With high-profile bankruptcies making the news, we look at the state of the industry
This month, all the major fashion schools in Belgium will present their graduating shows, turning a new generation of designers out into the world. Some will be destined for greatness, others will make a decent living, but none of them will have it easy. Belgium still contributes more to international fashion than the size of its population would lead you to expect, but in recent times several big names have encountered difficulties. Has the style of designer Belgium produces – the eccentric, brilliantly creative maverick – come to the end of the road? Are those new graduates from the academies going to have to face a very different kind of future from their barnstorming predecessors?
“We try to encourage the students who are coming out of the schools to go and work for the big fashion houses, because they have a creativity they can demonstrate,” says Alexandra Lambert of MAD (Mode and Design) Brussels, an association that provides economic and other support to young Belgian designers, both at home and internationally. “We have a very long tradition of innovation and creativity, and that’s recognised around the world. So we encourage young designers to take jobs rather than to create their own way and try to create a business.” The industry seems open to the idea. “Our schools are recognised all over; Antwerp in the first place, but La Cambre increasingly also. There’s already a steady stream of headhunters for the industry who come looking for young talent in the academies.”
But the news from elsewhere in the Belgian fashion industry is not so good. In the last few weeks, we’ve had reports of the withdrawal from the fashion scene of Christophe Coppens, milliner to the stars and to royalty; as well as the financial troubles of Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the original Antwerp Six and the head of fashion at the Antwerp Academy where it all started. Martin Margiela is no longer involved in the label that bears his name. That’s offset slightly by the news of the appointment of Raf Simons as creative director of the house of Dior, but the overall picture is a gloomy one. Is the Belgian fashion industry heading for the rocks?
Belgian designers have spent the last quarter-century punching above their weight. At Paris Fashion Week last October, the Belgian embassy invited the cream of the country’s designers to an event to mark the 25 years since the Antwerp Six loaded up a truck and took themselves off to London Fashion Week – an event that put Belgium firmly on the map. At the embassy in October, there were at least 50 designers present, from veterans like Ann Demeulemeester to rising stars like Haider Ackermann, who had been born here or studied here – a remarkable total for such a small country.
Walter Van Beirendonck appears to have been the victim of his own success. In February he closed his concept store in Antwerp, Walter Store, and declared the company that ran it, W, bankrupt. Van Beirendonck had taken a rental contract out on the property in 1997, to run until 2016. The former garage was, he said, a “ruin” without floor or roof, in an area that was anything but chic. The agreed rent was just over €2,000 a month, in return for which he would renovate the place. That cost €250,000 and employed the trendy B-Architects, but he considered the sum reasonable, he told De Standaard Magazine, considering he had the property for 18 years on a peppercorn rent.
Until, that is, the landlord demanded a rent increase in 2010. The area the shop is in is not exactly Bond Street, but it has been revived by Van Beirendonck’s presence. Van Beirendonck contested the increase, and won in the first instance, but lost when the owner appealed. A judge in January ordered Van Beirendonck to pay an increase of 250 percent, backdated to 2010. He had no option but to declare bankruptcy. “I didn’t have the money,” he said.
“Walter [the store] was my calling card, a place where I could set out my artistic vision,” Van Beirendonck said. “Other men buy a Porsche or take long holidays in the Seychelles. I ploughed everything I made back into the shop.” But the rent wasn’t the only problem Van Beirendonck had. According to figures from the consultancy Graydon, based on published annual accounts, W made a profit of €10,750 in 2009, then a loss of €15,046 in 2010. In 2011 the loss grew to €43,360. His other business, Big, which is still operational (Van Beirendonck’s winter collection 2012-2013 goes ahead) posted a loss in 2011 of €96,093, for a total of €139,453.
Coppens, whose fantastical hats were coveted by A-listers from Princess Mathilde to Lady Gaga, left no doubt for the reasons he called his business to a halt in May this year. In an emotional letter posted on Facebook explaining his decision, he said, “Things have always been difficult, these last 21 years, and difficult is okay. But the way things have gone in recent years is inhuman and impossible. You become someone you’re not.”
Every link in the chain of the unusual business that is fashion, according to Coppens, is a source of problems. Banks are not willing to extend credit any longer. Manufacturers are not in a position to take risks and demand 100 percent payment in advance. That, with the burden of repayments of previous credit, amounts to “an impossible combination”, he wrote. “Salaries are unaffordable these days in Belgium,” he added, echoing many a business owner. “In these circumstances, decent quality production in limited quantities is as good as impossible.” The market has also changed, he wrote. “Buyers for stores are obliged to play it safe. Shops are looking for either cheap goods or gimmicks or the hype of the moment. None of those descriptions applies to my collections. My ideas are larger than the product that’s in demand these days.” Coppens reportedly had debts amounting to around €700,000.
The financial pressure on designers is enormous, as Brussels-based style consultant Linda Van Waesberge recently explained to Het Nieuwsblad: “The investment that designers have to make every six months to create a successful collection is gigantic. They have to organise an expensive catwalk show, furnish a showroom or give a presentation – as well as making expensive prototypes, of course. In other words, the costs are huge before a single item is sold. Then buyers order garments they never come to pick up. So designers are left sitting with the old collection and a mountain of debt, all before they even start on their second collection. Every six months their whole career is left hanging – quite literally – by a thread.”
According to one point of view, the Belgian designers are too individualistic and control-driven, when the business is now in the hands of conglomerates whose demands are not artistic, but nevertheless cannot be ignored. Simons found his niche with Dior, as has Kris Van Assche at Dior Homme. Perhaps the Romantic days of the eccentric genius are over. Exceptions to the trend include Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, who are still going strong, albeit in a more restrained way these days.
High fashion, big losses
The roll-call of top Belgian designers is a catalogue of these same financial problems:
Nicky Vankets escaped bankruptcy in January this year only by reducing the workforce from 60 to 13, and asking his family shareholders to write off part of a €2.7 million debt burden he was carrying, and convincing them to take part in a new capital injection.
Dirk Bikkembergs, one of the Antwerp Six, was beset by demands from the Italian authorities for back taxes amounting to millions, and sold his business to Zeis Excelsa, with whom he had worked for more than a decade and who already made 60 percent of its earnings from a licence to sell his shoes and bags.
Olivier Strelli was forced to work for a time under the terms of a court-ordered reorganisation agreement with his creditors as a means of avoiding disaster. He now looks to have turned the corner, though it has meant a virtually complete reversal of plans to extend into the French market.
Veronique Branquinho brought her own business to an end in 2009, blaming the economic crisis, and went to work for luxury leather-goods brand Delvaux as creative director, a relationship that came to an end two years later when Delvaux was taken over by the Hong Kong group Fung Brands.
Kaat Tilley broke with the company that ran her shops in Brussels and Antwerp in 2009, for reasons she still refuses for legal reasons to discuss. The shops went bankrupt that year. Tilley now sells from another shop in Antwerp, and from her country home in Asse.
GRADUATE FASHION SHOWS
LA CAMBRE MODE BRUSSELS
June 8 and 9
June 15 and 16
HAUTE ECOLE FRANCISCO FERRER