The Rise of the Department Store

Fashion in the early 20th century was very much dictated by Paris. The major couture houses not only prescribed stylish dress, they strictly controlled who had access to view the latest fashions, and who was permitted to reproduce the designs. Since clothing at the time was made to measure, the license to reproduce fashionable Parisian styles was essential for dressmakers catering to customers for whom a journey to Paris was not practical. While the Paris couture Houses restricted access for dressmakers operating in the French regional cities, Belgian houses, which had a reputation for excellent workmanship, were considered distant enough to be beyond competition and were allowed privileged access to the shows.

Under licence from Paris, Belgian couture houses adapted fashionable styles in the darker, heavier cloth, suited to the northern climate, and which has since become a staple of modern Antwerp style. The department stores that opened up in the late 19th century around the Groenplaats, on the Meir and what is now Nationalestraat favoured a Parisian ambience, with shopgirls and customers conversing in French. They were large and very profitable concerns: Tienrien on Leopoldstraat alone employed 150 seamstresses.

Both the building now occupied by Dries Van Noten’s flagship store Het Modepaleis and ModeNatie, home to MoMu and the Fashion Department of the Antwerp Academy, were once department stores. The latter was a store called Old England that sold men’s and children’s clothes. The upper floors of the building were occupied by the Hotel Central. Like most of the other department stores in the area, the Belle Epoque Modepaleis had long since gone out of business by the time Van Noten had it renovated in 1989, but he has preserved a strong atmosphere of 19th century elegance in the interior and layout. Van Noten is the third generation in a family of tailors; his father had two upscale fashion boutiques in Antwerp and his grandfather refurbished second hand clothes and had a shop selling some of the very first pret-à-porter garments. The old Modenatie boutique had apparently been one of his main competitors.