The Antwerp Academy might not be the biggest fashion school (this year, the number of MA graduates was just half of CSM or RCA), but their show venue definitely makes up for it. In a huge red-brick hangar, the academy placed not one, but two catwalks – one of which stood five metres above the other. In this setting, all of the 118 students got a chance to show their work, from the white cotton skirts in the first year to the Master collections. The show is long, and hot, and even the most dedicated jury members can be caught occasionally dozing off. But that’s not a bad thing. In Antwerp, fashion is savoured in overdose. It is through excess that one distills new trends and upcoming talent.
A huge show means overwhelming backstage. Behind the scenes, long waiting periods are rhythmed by occasional bursts of chaos as stressed-out students look for a missing piece or models spurt across the floor to find their next silhouette. The whole school seemed to have been mobilized for the event: first years were helping third years with fittings, teachers were organising the line-ups, even the schools secretary could be seen fetching material for the show.
In this familiar environment, there is no space for anonymity. The school of Antwerp is known for its close network. These connections started in the 80s with the Antwerp 6 (two of whom now run the school – Walter Van Beirendonck and his partner Dirk Van Saene) and spread out like the branches of a family tree. Everybody knows everybody, and most of the teachers and tutors once started as students. Glenn Martens, creative director of Y/Project and part of this year’s jury, could be heard nostalgically reminiscing his times at the academy before getting down to jury-duty.
One of the MA graduates, Woojic Jo, even added a scarf with the portraits of the whole Antwerp staff to his Mr. Bean collection. Reflecting on the difficult time he had starting out as an unexperienced 18-year-old, MA graduate Sander Bos said: “I think I made it through that period because of the great people here!” It’s an unusual, but warm and welcoming atmosphere, something the fashion industry as a whole could benefit from: “I hope the fashion industry becomes more personal again,” mentioned Johanna Chlust, another one of the MA graduates.
This legacy inevitably leads to pressure. Tutor Anne Kurris, who started out as a graphic design student at the academy doing the invitations for Dries Van Noten amongst others, noted: “Talking to the jury members, they mentioned the insane pressure coming from the outside. This definitely got heavier each year.” MA graduate Eduard Both, agreed: “I think that our generation is under a lot of pressure. There needs to be more time for reflection, because a system like this can’t be toppled overnight.” This might be the reason why Dirk Van Saene, head tutor of the MA, felt the need to warn his students in the yearbook prologue: “Making beautiful work doesn’t require you to be a big shot in a well-known house.”
Long show, big family, huge expectations. It seems surprising that the school is still struggling to get the recognition it deserves. In a personal Manifesto, Walter Van Beirendonck urged Belgian and Flemish governments to “reward and fund not only the educational, but also the cultural worth of The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp.” A lack of “monetary backing” appears to threaten the school’s continuity. The Academy is a public school, and the yearly tuition isn’t even a tenth of what schools in the U.K. or the U.S. ask. With the financial struggles and immense effort it takes to complete a single school year, the faculty must have questioned itself more than once – is it worth it?
I saw both Walter and Dirk at the backstage entrance, after everyone had already left, helping the last students get their collections safely into vans. Where their faces showed little emotion during the show (refusing to choose favourites by smiling or shouting as the collections passed by), they now looked teary-eyed and soft, with involuntary smiles dancing around their lips. “This is why we do it,” Dirk exclaimed happily, “That youthful surge of energy, that explosion of creativity. It’s priceless.” A moment of doubt overturned in an instant – it’s always worth it.
Words Aya Noël Images Bram Van Beek