Antwerp has been the centre of the diamond trade since the 16th-century, and today is home to a multi-billion euro industry, with around 85 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass and a significant number of the world’s most highly coveted cut gems passing through. The ever mercantile city also got rich on the cloth business back in the day, and has again, since the 80s rise of the Antwerp Six designers, been a global fashion force. Its pretty streets are home to some of the best designer and high-end vintage shopping in Europe, not to mention a roll call of edgy, darkly glamorous places to see and be seen.
The new Belgian masters
Style-craving travellers head straight to the city’s fashion district, ModeNatie, centered on Nationalestraat and its nearby streetwear hub of Kammenstraat. Their first point of call? The Antwerp Six’s most famous alumni, Dries Van Noten. His Het Modepaleis occupies a historic former department store, where his lush fabrics and evocative prints still against old wooden display cabinets with brass fittings. You can also visit, but not enter, his studio complex (though not the actual atelier) in waterfront Eilandje. Down in gently bohemian Zuid, opposite the grandeur of the Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA, closed for renovation), another of Antwerp Six’s global stars, Ann Demeulemeester has her high-ceiling flagship, a serene if severe stage set for her romantic monochrome creations. Not to be missed too, just across the road from Dries’ emporium, is MoMU, the most highly respected fashion museum in the world which has seasonal shows recently honoring locals like Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela (although it’s currently closed for renovation until 2020). A wonderful art and architecture bookshop, Copyright, is also found here.
Nationalestraat and beyond
Beyond dressing head-to-toe in Dries or Ann, Antwerpen style can be hard to define, a subtle and occasionally perverse mix of edgy local design, low-key high street brands, international heavy weights and the world’s best quality designer vintage pieces. Independent retailers like St.Vincents, Renaissance and Verso, the later set in a fabulous old 16th-century bank offer up the best of the European designers, while hipper Enes or Atelier Solarshop feature a younger, more accessible mix of mostly Scandinavian and French labels. Men’s couturier Café Costume does the sharpest suits in town while local label Arte is known for its elegant streetwear. For shoes, Coccodrillo has ranges that put Paris’ grand magasins to shame. And while there are indeed many second-hand places selling old jean jackets, it’s serious vintage that you come to Antwerp for. If your budget doesn’t stretch to achingly gorgeous, floaty 70s Dior or the startling, gender-fluid late 80s Comme des Garçons, there are excellent designer resellers like Rosier 41 and Labels Inc, where you can pick up recent season pieces and samples from the above mentioned Belgians, as well as French, Italian and Japanese designer labels at astonishing discounts.
Fashion haunts and hangs
Whether you’re headed for the Baroque streets of the historic centre or the elegant Jugenstil stretches of Zuid and Zurenborg, or keen on discovering the up and coming neighourhoods of the north and east, Antwerp’s restaurants and bars are as design-savvy as its fashion capital status warrants. Superstar architect Piet Boon matches the distressed elements of a long-disused chapel of a military hospital with a 900kg spikily bejewelled chandelier at The Jane. For vaulted ceilings and rough-hewn wood tables, head to Sir Anthony Van Dyck, where designer and collector Axel Vervoordt’s earthy, painterly grace infuses the spacious dining room, lit with light through ancient, colonnaded windows. Set next to the city’s most beautiful Jugenstil villas in Zurenborg, exquisitely decorated early 20th-century domes lend more than a name to Dôme and its casual seafood sister Dôme sur la mer, both grand places for a night out. The centre’s Graanmarkt 13 combines both shopping, eating and even staying over in its stunning contemporary central space, with a moody basement restaurant, a sprawling fashion concept store on the first floor and an attic apartment available for the night.
Prepare yourself: the clutch of modern office blocks and humble shopping malls known as the Diamond Quarter (Diamantkwartier) may not gleam and sparkle as you might expect with such a name. But this surprisingly workaday area is undoubtedly as many faceted as the best of the diamonds it produces. From the exchanges themselves to the dealers’ offices and workshops, all of the action happens behind tightly guarded doors, and there’s even very little in the way of retail sales. But it’s a fascinating, lively place to wander. Come for a curry at one of the excellent Indian places that cater for the district’s large Gujarati community, or eat at a traditional kosher restaurant, deli or fast food diner, a reflection of the area’s original and enduring Orthodox Jewish nature. Then stay to browse the intriguing displays of the tools of the cutting and grading trade in street front supply shops of Hoveniersstraat and its many laneways.