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Pride and Antwerp Fashion: 4 Belgian designers who challenge the notions of body, gender and beauty

W. & L.T. Killer/Astral Travel / 4D-Hi-D SS 1996 fashion show at the Lido, Paris
Etienne Tordoir

Antwerp Pride is right around the corner commemorating and celebrating the long journey torwards acceptance and equal opportunities the LGBT+ community has made. In this carnivalesque celebration, fashion is undoubtedly one of the most important elements, especially for its role in the definition of body, gender and sexuality. This vision of fashion as a form of resistance to the normative reflects what is at the base of Antwerp fashion: a strong sense of identity, a feeling for ordinary life and an unshakable sense of personal character. This conceptual approach is mostly visible in the challenge to accepted notions of the body, gender and beauty in the works of Belgian designers who shaped the Antwerp fashion scene.

1. Walter Van Beirendonck

Left: W.&L.T., A Fetish for Beauty, SS1998 | Right: W.&L.T., Wonderland, AW1996-97
Ronald Stoops

Walter Van Beirendonck, SS2000, Gender?

Walter Van Beirendonck, SS2000, Gender?
Walter Van Beirendonck

Let’s think, for example, to the rebel without a pause Walter Van Beirendonck. Known for being the craziest of the ‘Antwerp Six’, with a three decade-long career, he has never lost a chance to make strong statements through his collections and to take a clear position against the standardization of beauty and identity. For his Spring/Summer 1989 collection King Kong Kooks, the designer tells the story of a gang whose motto is “FASHION=BORN FREE”, involved in a fight against the controlling power of the policemen who think Van Beirendonck’s style is too flashy and individual. This collection is the example of fashion as a challenge to the mediocrity of normative thinking, of which Van Beirendonck is a master, as we can see from other collections such as A Fetish for Beauty (Spring/Summer 1998), Gender? (Spring/Summer 2000), Sexclown Spring/Summer 2008) and Wonder (Spring/Summer 2010).

2. Ann Demeulemeester

Ann Demeulemeester, SS2017 (Men & Pre-women)

Ann Demeulemeester, SS2017 (Men & Pre-women)

Always part of the group of the Six, Ann Demeulemeester is recognized for her aesthetics based on motion and gravity in the spectacular moves of her clothes. But the poetic tension in Demeulemeester’s work emerges in its most sublime form in the gender perspective she has developed, in which men and women are not each other’s opposites, but rather form a balance around the same extremes.

3. Bernhard Willhelm

Left: Bernhard Willhelm, SS2008 | Right: Bernhard Willhelm, SS2007
Left: Lukas Wassmann | Right: Dino Dinco

Part of another generation and proof of the continuity of this particularity of Antwerp fashion, the German Bernhard Willhelm is internationally known for his explicit sexual and queer approach to menswear. In his grotesque vision of fashion, Willhelm challenges the normative perception of taste and aesthetics, pushing the boundaries of acceptability with a visual strategy revolving around kitsch and camp.

4. Glenn Martens

Film still Y/Project, FW 2019 Accessories Campaign
Frederik Heyman

Significant in this sense is also the work of the best-known recent graduates of the Antwerp Royal Academy, the Belgian designer Glenn Martens. Creative director of Y/Project, his production is infused with unisex pieces in collections in which a unique take on interpreting masculinity and femininity blends eccentric references with genderless looks. A tribute to individuality and independence that takes shape in the last Fall/Winter 2019 accessories campaign, where the freedom of recreational sex accompanies the brand’s creations.

Although Pride and Antwerp fashion do not seem to match from an aesthetic point of view, we can see how they share in some ways that vision of the clothed body as a social statement and legitimation of diversity. They both become spokespersons of a marginal way of thinking that redefines the boundaries of what is aesthetically acceptable. Antwerp Pride will take place in Antwerp from 7 August - 11 August.

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