Beyond Paris and Milan; Shoppers Are Finding Cutting-Edge Designers Working in Some Unexpected Places

By Brownell, Ginanne | Newsweek International, July 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond Paris and Milan; Shoppers Are Finding Cutting-Edge Designers Working in Some Unexpected Places


Brownell, Ginanne, Newsweek International


Byline: Ginanne Brownell (With Jessica Au)

Tim Van Steenbergen's atelier lies hidden down a nondescript street in Antwerp traversed by trolley cars and old ladies with shopping carts. The design studio, housed in an old sewing factory, has faux wooden walls and plastic chairs but also hints of glamour: tacked up on the office walls are several photos of Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas, the inspiration for the Hollywood-dame-meets-Hellenic-diva 2008 collection he is currently working on. Van Steenbergen knows Antwerp is not exactly a fashion capital of the world, but he still wouldn't trade the modest skyline out his window. "When I was living in Paris I realized how good it was here," says Van Steenbergen, 29. "Antwerp is very multicultural. [At the same time], because it is so small it pushes you to travel and be influenced by everything."

The world of fashion has always spun around Paris, New York, London and Milan, home to the important Fashion Weeks and shoppers seeking cutting-

edge couture. And while the fashion capitals retain their importance to the industry, a clutch of second-tier shopping cities are now challenging their supremacy. Chief among them: Antwerp, Chicago, Istanbul and Shanghai. Groundbreaking designers like Van Steenbergen, Istanbul's Bahar Korcan, Shanghai's Lu Kun and Chicago's Lara Miller are purposely basing themselves in these cities, encouraged by the rise of exclusive homegrown boutiques that peddle not just clothing but chic personal accessories and home furnishings as well. Alison Bishop, the retail editor for WGSN, a business-to-business Web site for the fashion industry, believes these cities are fundamentally changing the design landscape. "If you are the kind of shopper who does the seasonal circuit, you might just skip Milan or Paris for something a little bit different like Shanghai or Istanbul," she says.

Globalization has helped spread fashion literacy far and wide. "These days someone in Shanghai will be as in-the-know as someone in Milan," says Amanda Hallay, a fashion forecaster with the Donegar Group. "Ten years ago a housewife in Liverpool would have never heard of Marni, yet now she is on eBay feverishly bidding on last season's hot pieces." Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu designs are now available in boutiques from Des Moines to Dresden. Fast production also helps; days after lines like Gucci and Prada present their collections on the catwalks, lower-tier shops like H&M and Topshop have already begun producing copycat pieces, making couture-style fashion affordable for all.

That means high-end consumers need to look farther afield to remain exclusive. "People no longer want to be seen in the same Chanel dress as three other people at a party; they want exclusive and bespoke," says Van Steenbergen. "I am convinced that doing small couture lines is the way forward. You do not have to compete with the system anymore." Being far from the traditional fashion meccas gives designers more freedom to be innovative. Tricia Tunstall, co-owner of the p.45 boutique in Chicago's trendy Bucktown neighborhood, says designers in the Windy City can focus more on each individual piece instead of worrying about competition or larger trends. "I feel like you are less inclined to be sucked into any kind of movement here and you can work a little more independently," says Shane Gabier, a designer who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not coincidentally, all the up-and-coming fashion cities have vibrant design schools. "If people see that their local government has opened up a wing for fashion at the local art college it helps legitimize it as an industry," says Hallay. In addition to the Art Institute, Chicago has three other design schools, and Shanghai and Istanbul each have several well-respected ones. In Antwerp, which has a rich history of lace making and textile manufacturing, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts helped catapult the city onto the worldwide fashion stage in the 1980s after a group of recent graduates--dubbed the Antwerp Six, and including Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck--hired a van and headed to the London fashion shows. …

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