On the surface it’s quiet and unassuming. But the Belgian city is smashing up its diamond-dealer image with a new collection of edgy hangouts and designer digs.
In the 2000s Antwerp was an incubator of ideas. Until the 1980s, the port city’s pattern-cutting block for design had been set by Mary Prijot, who headed up the new fashion department at its Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 1960s. Her style was strict and uniform. Undergraduates studied classical costume and cut hemlines below the knee. Then something curious happened: a group of students who came to be known as the Antwerp Six rebelled and rewrote the rules. Drafting their own unique looks by taking an individual approach to design, the group, including Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck (now head of the school’s fashion department), altered the fabric of Antwerp forever.
Modern-art galleries, multi-performance hubs (Het Bos is the buzzed-about new arrival), wine bars and a handful of brasseries have opened in old warehouses. The skyline has been transformed by the red sandstone Tetris-block Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), devoted to everything Antwerp, and the funnel-shaped Red Star Line Museum. Nearby, on the edge of the River Scheldt, a giant curvaceous concrete caterpillar – a disused hangar for shipping containers – is the setting for the academy’s graduate fashion show every June. The infrastructure here makes it easy for ideas to evolve: you can reach most places on foot or bike around. London, Paris and Amsterdam are all little more than an hour away. But Antwerp is inexpensive and that offers more opportunity for people to do innovative things. ‘There are a lot of new initiatives happening outside of the mainstream and the city centre’ says Celestina. ‘You get an interesting mix of regulars and young people out to discover new things.’
A new generation of chefs are shaking up the restaurant scene too. In Berchem, the Jewish district, The Jane is habañero-hot stuff with a months-long waiting list to prove it. The old military chapel has been punked up by Piet Boon with a PSLab chandelier that looks like an upside-down sparkler, a giant neon Day of the Dead skull and tattooed glass windows depicting rams’ heads, pulled teeth, roses and demons. Plates become garden-beds for Thai-style salmon tartare with deconstructed daffodils of courgette flower, mushroom stamen and basil leaves. There’s a lively paella of squid, clams, piquillo and artichoke vinaigrette. The rhythm of the menu is slow and steady, with a dozen courses presented over several hours by waiters in G-Star pinnies, who shake your hand and pour Champagne over peach mousse, strawberries and granita for an aperitif.
Unlike in other fashion cities, people do not dress up to go out here. Antwerpeners have a clean and sober style, more effortlessly confident than kooky. ‘Being in Antwerp is like being in the home of a beloved family member, where you can just be yourself,’ says stylist Pholoso. ‘There is no pressure to be somebody.’ Most evenings, Graanmarkt 13’s basement restaurant is filled with the chatter of artists, actors and designers. ‘People don’t care that Dries Van Noten might be eating at the next table,’ says owner Ilse Cornelissens. ‘It’s always nice to see someone famous, but not really something people make a big thing out of.’ Antwerpeners are by nature modest. Theirs is not a skyscraper city, always on the move. It’s calm. There’s space to grow, develop – and with that creativity can be fostered.