Belgium's long-lasting affair with fashion finds its core and heart in Antwerp, where the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, one of the most prestigious and influential fashion schools in the world, is located. For fashion connoisseurs, we don't even need to mention who has been through their classrooms before reaching the pinnacle of the industry, but we will do it nonetheless. Names such as Martin Margiela, Demna Gvasalia, Glenn Martens, and the mythic Antwerp six (Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee) have once had to present their final Master collections in an event such as the one we attended a couple of weeks ago. By seeing the quality of talent this school has gifted the world, not only in fashion but, evidently, in all the fine arts, ever since its creation in 1663, it's more than understandable the scale and relevance this show has for the city and for the industry.
In the very big space of the Waagnatie Hall, next to the Scheldt River, which gave us a very beautiful and unusual sunset landscape at almost 11 pm, in the quick break between the third-grade creations and the main event, the Master collection, around one thousand people congregated for almost four hours to see what the students had to offer. Usually fashion school shows are created for the last-year students to present their big final work, but here every single student has the opportunity to see their creations up on the runway, a priceless and immeasurable boost of motivation and inspiration that gives the students a valuable sense of purpose from the very beginning of their career. Despite the long duration of the show, compared to the usual fifteen-ish minutes a normal runway takes, the crowd kept its enthusiasm and hype all along, and rightfully so; the talent and skill were there from the first to the last minute.
As mentioned earlier, the main course were the fifteen Master collections that were also exposed on another side of the Waagnatie, where each designer had the chance to explain and talk about their collections with the international press and special guests. When talking with the students, we found that the purest and most essential aspects of design are the pillars of their collections. They give a high level of importance to shape, form, the interaction of the garment with the body, how it can alter its proportions, and the silhouettes. Material is also one of the key points when making a collection, and Antwerp students approach them with a consciousness and awareness that reflects the mentality of the new generations, where sustainability is the key and innovation can be found from creating new materials that reduce waste to reusing leftover stocks. They know the planet doesn't need to suffer to create clothes.
Collections like Stadmitte by Yue Kong are a perfect example of the level of expertise that comes from the academy. The pattern-making is extremely interesting, creating shapes that resemble bullets, tulips, and even infinity-like silhouettes. The fabric that gives the garments their unique volume and rigidity was made by himself using the wet felting technique, which allows him to only make the exact amount needed for the pieces, reducing waste almost completely, which is a truly unique way to convey sustainability and individuality.
Frederick Liderley is also reducing waste but by other means. Using almost only leftover fabrics, the focus is on the construction of the pieces, exploring the possibilities between each material and the body, and how both can work together. Xuewen Chen's solidified shapes follow the same interest in sculptural fashion, but this one is a sort of box or confinement to the female body, hence the rectangular and square-oriented way the garments are constructed.
This edition not only commemorates the 360th anniversary of the Royal Academy and the 60th anniversary of the fashion department, but it's also the first year of Brandon Wen being the creative director of this department, receiving the baton from Walter Van Beirendonck, who has been in this role for fifteen years. There’s a long story behind the Academy, but the story ahead can be even longer. The talent, motivation, and love for the craft are still evident in the students’ work, and that's all it takes to trust in their process and wish for the best.