This week, a look at the burgeoning Belgian design scene and the enduring appeal of the Antwerp Six, and their current impact on American fashion. Scroll down to use Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics.
Belgian fashion is having a moment.
Belgian designer Igor Dieryck won three of the five available prizes at the prestigious Hyères International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Accessories in France on October 15 for his “Yessir” collection inspired by hotel uniforms. The festival has been a growing incubator for fashion talent, including designers Anthony Vaccarello, Felipe Oliveira Baptista and Julien Dossena.
Dieryck is young, at 24, and he is not the only Belgian designer to have made his mark early on. Belgian designers like Raf Simons and Diane von Furstenberg have long been championed by the industry, with Simons shutting down his namesake brand last year to focus on Prada. Dieryck, for his part, graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 2022 and currently works in Paris as a junior menswear designer at Hermès.
The Antwerp-based fashion school helped develop the famous Antwerp Six designers, who were known for pushing Belgian fashion design in the 1990s. They include Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene. It has since been a draw for promising young talent. Glenn Martens, the current creative director of Diesel and Y Project who has been instrumental in revitalizing both brands, also went there.
“Belgium — and, more specifically, Antwerp — has historically been a hotbed for fashion disruption and avant-gardism,” said Marta Indeka, senior foresight analyst at strategic consultancy The Future Laboratory. “What we are witnessing now is a greater awareness of that from the wider public. While the huge success of Glenn Martens at the helm of Diesel and Gen Z’s love for Haider Ackermann certainly contribute, there is another factor at play in the changes of the audience itself.”
Indeka said that Gen Z’s knowledge of fashion history is more encyclopedic than that of previous generations, due to the fashion content they watch on Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest. As such, more niche brands and fashion capitals are finding themselves in the limelight. Also bubbling up due to social media are Tokyo and its fashion scene, as well as Seoul. Revenue generated by Begium’s apparel market totaled $10.06 billion last year. Belgian brands like Essentiel Antwerp and luxury bag brand Kaai are seeing a growth in interest and purchases among younger demographics and are actively expanding to the U.S.
The success of current Belgian designers can also be attributed to their recognizable, yet logo-less designs and slow approach to growing a brand. Dries Van Noten recently said that, at times of economic instability, growing slowly is ideal. Belgian fashion has long been focused on maximalist print and color, as well as easily recognizable, practical designs.
“Belgian brands are well-known for being recognizable,” said Ine Verhaert, co-founder of Belgian luxury bag brand Kaai. “You don’t need a logo to recognize Dries Van Noten.” For its part, Kaai only features a small logo on its bags to not detract from their angular shape.
Founded in 2018 in Antwerp, Belgium by retail veterans Ine Verhaert and Helga Meersmans, Kaai was designed for female shoppers wanting durability and functionality — the bags famously feature many compartments to accommodate a woman’s lifestyle. Retail prices range from $95-$799, and customers range in age from 20-60. The brand is popular with Belgium’s royal family. When the Princess of Belgium was seen wearing the brand earlier this year, the brand’s sales for the month grew to 40% of its projected annual revenue.
Kaai has taken a slow and steady approach to growth. The company first focused on growing in its local Belgian market with 15 stores, before venturing out to the Netherlands, France and Germany through luxury wholesale retailers. In the Netherlands, its online sales have grown 3x this year. The company was initially self-funded by the founders until a Belgian investor came on in 2020. The founders have so far self-funded the brand’s launch in the U.S.
Kaai introduced its U.S.-exclusive e-commerce site in October. Prior, it launched its U.S. wholesale presence at the luxury store Flying Solo in NYC based on high interest among U.S. consumers who shopped its shared European and American e-commerce site last year. While the brand does not disclose its overall revenue, it has grown its online revenue in the U.S. 4x every month since launching.
Belgian design has mass appeal in the fashion industry, which works to the advantage of brands targeting U.S. expansion — but retaining that interest requires originality. “The industry is always talking about Belgian fashion because of the Antwerp Six, but in the end, they were all different and they all had a different image and creative style,” said Inge Onsea, co-founder and creative director of Essentiel Antwerp.
Essentiel Antwerp established strong retail roots in Belgium by opening 20 stores before considering expansion. The brand opened its first U.S. store on October 25 in New York, bringing its signature colorful designs to the states. Since the brand’s launch in 1999, it has grown internationally throughout Europe and Asia, and has leveraged wholesale retailers including Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Revolve, Farfetch and Anthropologie. Its customers are ages 25 to 45, and it too self-funded its U.S. launch.
Essentiel Antwerp achieved significant growth before the pandemic, when it opened a store in London and saw booming sales. But during the pandemic, it went back to the drawing board to streamline its retail presence. “We are more selective in our distribution system,” said Onsea. “We carefully select the retailers we want to work with long term, and we invest more in those relationships.”
Currently, the brand is on track to reach its 2019 numbers of 58.2 million euros ($61.5 million) in revenue for 2023, despite cutting a third of its retail presence.
“We aim to be international, not just Belgian,” said Onsea. “Although some retailers still seek out international designers, there are no boundaries anymore. With social media, we don’t have Belgian fashion or Italian fashion anymore. It’s one big mix.”
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