For a small historic European city with medieval architecture Antwerp is surprisingly cool and avant-garde. Belgium’s second largest city and Europe’s second largest port, Antwerp is rightfully referred to as the fashion capital ever since the 1980s when it was put on the international fashion map by the “Antwerp Six”, six Belgian fashion designers – Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Marina Yee, Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene – who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and shook the fashion world with their avant-garde designs. Today, the Royal Academy in Antwerp is one of the best in the world. And this, in my opinion, has a major impact on this small city and its eclectic style.
I discovered Antwerp in 2000 when I moved to Belgium. One thing I immediately noticed was Antwerp’s very distinct character and attitude that makes it stand out among all other Belgian cities in term of atmosphere and style. Antwerp’s style is bolder, brighter, edgier. For years, I have been visiting Antwerp like a local. First, when I lived in Brussels, I went there for shopping or clubbing, two things Antwerp is known for in Belgium. Then, after I moved to London, I came back regularly to visit friends. But during these visits I rarely took the time to explore the city, as it often happens with cities we know, preferring house parties and dinners to discovering new places. So this year I decided to see this beautiful and vibrant city as a first time visitor.
There are many reasons to visit Antwerp: classical Flemish art, beautiful architecture – from medieval to baroque to art deco and modern – vibrant café culture and nightlife, delicious food, chocolate and, for some, hundreds of varieties of Belgian beer.
I went to Antwerp several weeks ago intending to explore its unique fashion and design scene and get fresh style ideas. By “fashion scene” I don’t mean high street shopping; Belgian fashion often resembles creations of art and shopping is similar to walking into art galleries.
My Antwerp shopping experience definitely felt more like a gallery crawl. Most of the fashion scene is clustered in and around Nationalestraat, where Dries Van Noten’s Het Modepaleis (Nationalestraat 16) is located. His beautifully designed hand finished pieces decorated with feathers and embroidery gave me an impression I was in a Belle Époque period shop.
Ann Demeulemeester’s shop is a dramatic space in monochrome colours with an occasional splash of colour breaking into the black and while palette from one of the clothes rails – a completely different feel to van Noten’s boutique.
Anwerp has several very interesting concept stores. I came across one of them – Seven Rooms – completely by accident. Bright and spacious, this is the space where I could easily spend an afternoon looking through carefully selected pieces by international fashion designers, beautiful furniture, and even food and wine.
Another beautiful concept store worth a visit is 13 GraanMarkt. It also has a lovely restaurant inside.
If you are planning to visit Antwerp I highly recommend going to these shops, if only to look at design and fashion as creation of art. If your budget does not allow you to buy avant-garde creations of the famous Belgian designers, but you are keen to add a bit of Antwerp style to your wardrobe, try these shops.
Essentiel, Antwerp fashion brand that for me really reflects the city’s bold, colourful, sometimes edgy style.
Jutka and Riska, a boutique in trendy South part of Antwerp selling a mix of vintage, own design by the shop owners and creations by young designers along with accessories and occasional interior design pieces.
On Lombardenvest (one of the streets off Nationalestraat) you will find a good selection of European labels, such as A.P.C., Les petites…, Fillipa K, Acne, Maison Sctoch.
Taking a break from shopping (or visiting design spaces as I call it) is easy with a vast choice of cafes in nearly every street.
At night, head to Marnixplaats, a square in trendy Anwerp Zuid (South) area. It has a very lively restaurant and bar scene where stylish locals meet for a bite to eat and drinks.
Sunday, when most shops are closed, is a good day to visit Antwerp’s museum. Recently opened MAS museum in the port area with its own Michelin-starred restaurant is definitely a must-see. Not only is it the largest contemporary art space in the city, but also it has a unique and striking architectural style.
And if you are still in need of fashion and design inspiration, then MoMu, the fashion museum, is the place for you.
Last but not least, I recommend staying at South Side Suite. This tastefully decorated spacious apartment that sleeps up to three people is located in the trendy Zuid area. The location is ideal: it is central enough to explore the city by foot, but far enough from the main tourist attractions to experience a local vibe and enjoy a vibrant food and nightlife scene together with the locals. The hosts, a young Belgian-Brazilian/Angolan couple will pamper you and make you feel at home. I speak from experience, I have stayed with them many times! Book early as it usually gets booked quickly.