Towards independent Antwerp fashion

The Royal Academy of Fine Art is one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1663 by David Teniers the younger, at the time regarded as one of the greatest painters in Europe. For 300 years, the school remained focussed on the fine arts of painting and sculpture. In the 1960s the school expanded and new departments were opened in the applied arts, including photography, graphic design, jewellery and fashion.

Starting in 1963, under the directorship of Mary Prijot, the Fashion and Theatre Costume Design department educated young designers in couture skills along the rigorous lines of Parisian style, as embodied by the house of Chanel. Classically trained with a background in History of Art, Prijot insisted that her students understood their craft from A to Z; they had to be able to draw, to communicate their ideas visually, to understand the manufacture of garments, and present and promote their work in an arresting manner. The four-year course was extremely demanding – of the 30 students who started in the first year, only six or so might make it through to graduation.

It was during the 1960s that Antwerp’s first avant-garde fashion designer emerged. Ann Salens was known for her colourful garments typically combining elements of crochet, fringing and machine knitted panels in artificial silks. Her unstructured, flowing silhouettes were a perfect expression of liberated bohemian womanhood of the era. Salens evidently considered her work as a counterbalance to the rigours of the Parisian mode “The classic fashion show is kitsch,” she said in a 1972 interview with De Post. “It spoils women, reduces them to the level of the impersonal, the applied norm, the bloodless.” Rather than taking her lead from Paris, she found her inspiration in the body of the women who wore her garments and in colour and the combination of colours.

Born in Ostend and brought up Limburg, Salens moved to Antwerp in 1962 and eventually opened a shop on the Wolstraat in the old city, then at the centre of the city’s art scene. She had no formal training in fashion or clothing design, and learnt her trade by making clothes for herself, and taking apart and re-configuring pieces that she purchased at flea markets. Initially selling to friends and local shops, her creations were eventually sold by boutiques in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and Paris. According to the notes to MoMu’s opening exhibition: “Her extravagant silk dresses and wigs, her flamboyant lifestyle, risqué fashion shows and happenings earned her the nickname ‘the bird of paradise of Belgian fashion’.” Salens’ revolutionary sensibility, high-quality hand work and international appeal have led to her being considered an important precursor to the generation of Antwerp designers who rose to prominence in the 1980s.