The Flemish city of Antwerp is known for many things: beer (local brew De Koninck is served in its own special bulbous glass, the bolleke), diamonds (80 per cent of the world’s rough stock is traded here) and mayonnaise-slathered French fries (the misnomer dates back to muddled geography among first world war soldiers). But there’s a quirky new addition to these staples of the city: concept stores. Somehow, this regional town of less than 500,000 people has become the de facto hub for that modish retail idea, its back streets filled with fashion-forward boutiques that sell everything from stilettos to sports cars under one roof.
Antwerp’s link with trendsetting isn’t new – it has been synonymous with style since the 1980s, when the edgy designers dubbed the Antwerp Six stormed Europe’s catwalks. Their deconstructed designs were mould-breaking and propelled several, such as Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, to worldwide fame. The common link was their education at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but in the past decade, the city has become as much a hub for selling as for studying.
“Even going back just 10 years, on a lot of these streets there would be no shops at all,” says Tanguy Ottomer, who since last year has been offering guided tours of Antwerp’s retail scene. “Now, on any street, you’ll always find a few. Many of the concepts are unique enough that the owners know they can open in a side street and the customers will follow.”
Ottomer leads me to Graanmarkt13, run by ex-economist Ilse Cornelissens and her lawyer husband, Tim van Geloven. Opened last February, it is, in Ottomer’s opinion, “the one shop that symbolises everything about Antwerp now”. The couple bought a rundown town house and turned the top two floors into their home, the first floor into a gallery and the ground and basement floors to retail and a restaurant.
“It sounds a bit cheesy, but I just like very nice stuff,” Cornelissens laughs, picking up a huge porcelain vase, “Since this is the building where we live, everything we pick would be something I would want to have in my home or my wardrobe.”
Her sleek store is filled with unique objects, such as Wonki Ware plates, handmade in South African townships, or that vase, produced by Nymphenburg in Munich. There are monochrome clothes by Dutch designer Monique van Heist and small batch fragrances from Parisian perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. The walls display artwork that is also for sale. Downstairs, in the garden and basement, chef Seppe Nobels runs the store’s upscale but unfussy café. On a sunny summer lunchtime, there’s an eclectic, boisterous crowd. Dark-suited businessmen sit next to a family whose daughters wait patiently as their parents linger after the meal.
Nearby, rival store RA also offers food, albeit with a twist: the owners hold weekly prix fixe dinner parties, as much intended to bring like-minded types together for the conversation as for the cooking. This shop – which opened in October 2009, months before Graanmarkt13 – is an artier, less commercial take on the idea. That’s no surprise, given that it’s owned by two former Academy students, Romain Brau and Anna Kushnerova; the latter an earnest Russian expat with a fervour for fashion, and who is dressed like a 1980s pop star. “We’re not just a retailer, we’re not buyers, we’re almost a fashion gallery,” she stresses.
Perhaps as a nod to the shop’s location on Kloosterstraat, famous for its antiques stores, one corner is stocked with high-end vintage clothes; but RA is better known for alternative labels and conceptual clothing. The work of German designer Frank Leder is typical. “We just received a piece from him, made from raw untreated sheepskin – this vest looks like it has been sleeping in Mongolia for the last two years,” Kushnerova explains. “But we had to put it outside because of the smell.”
A few doors away on the same street is YOUR, whose owner Jorrit Baars opened his first concept store in Antwerp eight years ago. YOUR is his latest project (it opened last March) and with more than 1,000 sq metres of showroom-cum-retail space is unashamedly commercial. “You can buy everything you want, between €2 and €200,000,” says Baars. “We start with a small package of bubblegum and the most expensive thing you can buy is a car.”
Baars also offers a fleet of luxury vehicles, such as an Audi R8, for daily rental (€599 and up) and a diamond bar, with prices he claims are 30 to 35 per cent cheaper than the average local jeweller.
Another retail veteran is Valere Thoelen, who owns Verso, a store with more than 2,000 sq metres of space which stocks big-name fashion brands such as McQueen, Fendi and Dior alongside Fornasetti homewares. It is housed in a 16th-century mansion that was converted to a bank in the 1920s – Tholen uses the basement vaults as a new contemporary fashion department. “I like beautiful, but wearable, pieces – we don’t go arty farty, which I love,” he says.
But why are concept stores booming, and why in Antwerp? The store owners I speak to suggest niche retail is thriving as a reaction against the globalisation of shopping. With brands such as Zara a fixture from Bilbao to Beijing, the unique and subjective mixture for which these personalised boutiques are known is more appealing than ever: objets, rare books, clothes by fledgling designers and a smattering of branded separates. Milanese gallery owner Carla Sozzani founded what is generally accepted to be the first such store in 1990, Corso Como 10; but it was the Parisian boutique Colette that refined and popularised the concept seven years later. Though thriving, this retail genre is a slippery conceit – given that its proponents bristle at the very name. “I don’t like the idea of a concept store – it’s a little bit passé,” says RA’s Kushnerova, “I try to call it a platform select store, a destination shop, the RA initiative.”
Despite its small population there are clear reasons why Antwerp has been an ideal proving ground for this type of store. For one thing, there’s that world-class fashion school. “It has a unique teaching mission, a very individualistic approach to fashion, pushing students to produce [a graduate collection] that was not following trends but digging deeply into their own aesthetic,” explains historian Valerie Steele of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. And fashion students who’ve chosen not to pursue design, such as RA’s Kushnerova, can reapply that singularity of vision to retailing.
Today’s concept shops are also legacies of the quirky outlets opened by the Antwerp Six more than 20 years ago; those designers played with the idea of mixing objects in among the clothes (and Walter van Beirendonck, one of the Six, still does so today at his Antwerp store, Walter). In fact, the concept of a concept store was pioneered as much here as in Milan; Steele draws direct parallels between the two cities, calling textiles “deeply embedded in the cultural heritage” of both.
Today, Antwerp has one key advantage. Retail rents are far cheaper here than in Milan, or other world fashion capitals. Annual rates on the local answer to Oxford Street, the Meir, average €1,800 ($2,458) per sq m versus $23,150 per sq m on Fifth Avenue in New York, according to Colliers International. The result is a retail scene so vibrant it has become a tourist attraction in its own right, providing a ready clientele to support new shops, and push them to be ever more inventive.
“We’ve seen the growth of a certain kind of cultural tourism,” says Steele. “Just as people go to Bilbao to see the museum – architectural tourism is huge – people are also doing that for shopping. They try to find somewhere that’s different and special and that’s Antwerp.”
Tanguy Ottomer (www.tanguyottomer.com) offers private tours from €160.
Clinic, De Burburestraat 5, www.clinicantwerp.com; Graanmarkt13, www.graanmarkt13.be; KidsLab, Eiermarkt 2123, www.kidslab.com; RA, Kloosterstraat 13, www.ra13.be; Renaissance, Nationalestraat 2832, www.renaissance-antwerp.com; Verso, Lange Gasthuisstraat 911, www.verso.be; Walter, St Antoniusstraat 12, www.waltervanbeirendonck.com; YOUR, Kloosterstraat 90, www.your-antwerp.com