Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fashion Critic's Antwerp Shopping Guide

I just got back from Antwerp, and I would like to share with my readers my shopping experience in that wonderful (yes, full of wonders) Belgian city. I don’t need to tell you that if you like Belgian fashion design, Antwerp is a must-see destination. The thing about the Belgians is that no matter how successful and cosmopolitan in reach they become, they are always grounded in their homeland. This is why you see Ann Demeulemeester’s only European boutique in Antwerp. Dries van Noten has had his flagship there as well for years now, the only European DvN boutique until a few months ago (he opened another one in Paris). All this makes up for a very charming and refreshing experience from megalopolitan shopping of New York, London, and Paris. Imagine strolling on a quite tree-lined avenue in a small city, and then BAM! – you are standing in front of the largest selection of Ann Demeulemeester in the world. Shopping doesn’t get cooler than that.

Another plus about Antwerp is that it’s a fairly inexpensive city compared to the cosmpolises (cosmopoleese? cosmpopoli?), which has allowed some designers to rent absolutely stunning buildings.

Antwerp is a small city, one that can be easily traversed by foot. To make things even more convenient, all stores you need to know about are concentrated on and around Nationalestraat (see my map). Antwerp shops are basically divided into two categories – slick, high-end Eurotrash and Belgian design. Therefore, I will not cover some shops which for some people might be worth a visit. These are; Verso – Gucci, Dior, D&G, Dirk Bikkimbegs, Les Hommes, Kris van Assche – maybe worth going to see the gorgeous space alone, and Coccodrillo – used to be the space to go for footwear, now mostly Prada sneakers, although you will see an occasional pair by Ann Demeulemeester, Raf Simons, and A.F. Vandevorst).

The only store that’s a little “out of the way” is the Ann Demeulemeester boutique… or, in my view, all other stores are away from her shop. Basically, you can do all of your shopping in one day. The stores vary in size, but the selection is invariably better than anything you can get in New York, for example. The sales people are knowledgeable and courteous. The prices, after the hefty 21% VAT refund, come to about 25-40% lower than retail + tax in New York. This means that if you are truly serious about buying a bit ticket item (or two), you might as well make a trip out of it.

Another added bonus in Antwerp is consignment shopping. There are definitely gems to be found (a 1998 Raf Simons coat for 150Euros). And last, but not least – the fashion museum, Mode Natie is the best in the world, and so is its book store.

Ann Demeulemeester, Verlatstraat 38

A gorgeous two-story emporium of all things Ann. A la-la land for a Demeulemeester fiend like me, especially given small NYC buys. ¾ of the store is devoted to womenswear, which is fine by me, because I appreciate her womenswear. The space is in a gorgeous old building (I can’t even begin to pretend to be intelligent and tell you what architecture type it is – you tell me), opposite the Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The lofty space with huge windows is painted white; the wooden floors nostalgically creak when you walk around. There are a few hanging mannequins at the front; two long racks of clothes line each floor, with white tables showcasing the accessories and some knits. The changing rooms are spacious, all white, with a big mirror, and a bottle of spring water. The back of the store is glass and opens on a tiny court yard wall completely snaked in ivy. Romantic, to say the least. The staff is very courteous and knowledgeable. Knowing that Ann’s strength is the moving silhouette they encourage you to walk around when you try something on. The CRT TV showing Ann’s runway presentations is a nice change from all the flat screens around.

Dries van Noten, Nationalestraat 16

The two story store is housed in a simply stunning 19th Century building. The first floor houses the womenswear, menswear is on second. The two floors are connected by a beautiful spiral staircase.

The store itself has an air of the old mixing with the new, the menswear floor seems as if Oscar Wilde moved into his grandpa’s house and left everything intact, except the clothes.

The mens floor is a series of little rooms, split level, which is very charming (and when a hapless New Yorker last seen OPEN windows in a store?). A full range of Geo F. Trumper shaving products (my favorites) is a nice touch, along with some felt hats hand made in New York. The lineup of clothes is comprehensive, although they did not have my size in one shirt that I wanted. C’est la vie. The lone salesman on the man’s floor (the women’s has two, although it’s a smaller space) is unobtrusive, but ready to help.

Veronique Branquinho, Nationalestraat 73

More minimal than Margiela, but less clinical than the late Jil Sander – Veronique has been enjoying an inexplicable cult following. Well, maybe not so inexplicable, the (seemingly) plain clothes are incredibly made (a woman’s trench revealed an astonishing amount of seam-work during a recent examination, with buttons held together by rings on the other side to boot – this is an old artisanal method of attaching buttons that cannot be done by a machine). This is her only stand alone boutique in the world.

The exterior sports an uncharacteristically non-minimal “VERONIQUE BRANQUINHO” sign, but the photo wall paper of a forest is a beautiful touch. Inside, the space is again two floors, with a signature old-Europe impossible-to-fit-in spiral staircase. Women’s on first, men’s on the second – the stock is pretty small, and each garment is given a huge amount of shelf space, which gives it an air of a gallery. The interior is very clean. Leonard Cohen as soundtrack is always a plus.

Louis, Lombardenstraat 2

The original store that supported young Belgian talent, before it became established Belgian talent. These days it’s the only store in Antwerp that carries Martin Margiela and Raf Simons, although I found the selection to be underwhelming. For women there is a small selection of Ann Demeulemeester and A.F. Vandevorst. There is also Lanvin and Rick Owens for both sexes. The store is small, and is housed in a building perched on a street corner, with a façade painted black.

Walter, Sint-Antoniusstraat 12

This boutique is owned by Walter(van Beirendonck). The father of all things kooky (personally I think he is Bernard Willhelm’s Dad), mixes his own collection of loony toon sweatshirts plastered with semi-rebellious political messages (yawn), with Comme des Garcons Play line (double yawn), and Christian Wijnants (yes!), and Bruno Pieters (yes!). There is a small capsule collection of Bruno Pieters menswear, not available anywhere else in the world as far as I know (see what Imean about staying local?). Sticking with the kooky vibe, the store has an intact garage door that opens automatically to let you in the store. Much of the merch is displayed on platforms that you have to ascend if you want to see the clothes - the feeling is sacrificial. What does it all mean? Ask Walter.

Stephen Schneider, Reyndersstraat 53

A tiny boutique that carries Schneider’s seemingly plain clothes. Schneider is a male counterpart of Veronique Branquinho, their idea is similar, well-executed easy to wear clothes – although their aesthetic differs (VB has a heavy that 70’s vibe and her clothes seem more grown up, while Schneider’s clothes are very young). There are two floors in the store, with the requisite tiny spiral staircase. The top floor is well lit, while the bottom floor is a small but cavernous space. Interestingly, both floors have mens and womens mixed on a single rack.

Elsa, Nationalestraat 147

This is a small, but very well edited shoe store. Sparse space features Hussein Chalayan, Chie Mihara, Fiorentini + Baker, Premiata, Christian Peau (rare!), and some other brands that I haven’t heard of. The prices are excellent, and so is the selection. Definitely worth checking out.

Labels Inc, Aalmoezenierstraat 4

This is the best consignment store in Antwerp, right off of Nationalestraat. It’s a great source for hunting pieces from older collections. Tip – they don’t accept credit cards. Another tip – go in the beginning of the season, when they change the merchandise to score the best pieces.

Francis, Steenhouwersvest 14

Another consignment store that has both clothes and furniture. The clothes selection was poor, maybe because it’s a very popular store, so stuff goes quickly.

Last, but not least, here is a map of all these wonderful spots.


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Blogger zerry ht said...

Yeah I agree, Antwerp is must see destination. My friend went there for her wedding shopping and shared her experience with me. She bought so many things from there as she found that place very inexpensive. Well, I am bit nostalgic as now she is getting married at lofty spaces this week.

12:13 AM  

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