With its reputation for pushing the boundaries of fashion-forward collections, Belgium is one of Europe’s most exciting design destinations. The country’s fashion industry is thriving: more than 20,000 people work in the sector, which is worth more than €7bn a year. It is an industry that champions creativity and innovation, and is supported by well-established, high-quality manufacturers. Belgium’s willingness to embrace the new and break rules where necessary has inspired a crop of concept stores to open across the country, each offering something unique and standing out from the crowd.
The cool, concrete exterior of L’héroïne in Bruges makes an immediate contrast to the town’s picturesque medieval architecture. Inside the shop, rails are filled with pieces that exude character: printed dresses, asymmetric jackets and striking knitwear. The range is effortlessly chic and you’d struggle to find an obvious logo on any item. The shop opened in 1987, which was the same year as the initial, informal gathering of the Antwerp Six ‒ the famous group of designers who put Belgium on the fashion map and included such luminaries as Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten.
‘We didn’t think commercially; we wanted to offer creativity and innovation,’ says owner Martine Goethals. ‘Today we have the same concept: you won’t see clothes from big labels here and we’re still a platform for young designers.’
As well as stocking pieces by members of the Antwerp Six from the outset, L’héroïne has been among the first to feature items by some of Belgium’s top design talents. ‘In the 1990s we were one of the first to stock A F Vandevorst and then, in 2005, we introduced the young Christian Wijnants,’ Goethals continues. ‘We also stocked many other young designers who didn’t succeed ‒ but that’s fashion.’ Her honesty is one of the reasons that her personal shopping service is one of Belgium’s best: visitors to her store are guaranteed to receive solid fashion advice along with their purchases.
Jef Coopmans launched his store Jeff Antwerp with an aim to ‘inspire our customers by looking for those little things that make life nicer’. His store offers a selection of luxuries, from home accessories and tableware to fragrances and works of art, as well as a gourmet section called Foodies Corner. International and local brands feature; expect everything from Balmain hair products and Mühle shaving accessories to brass home decorations from Skultuna. It’s an eclectic mix with a personal touch. ‘I always look for items that I really like or that I would have in my house,’ Coopmans says.
His personal touch extends to the service in the store, and Coopmans thinks this is the secret of his success. ‘Since independent shops sometimes have a more difficult time, we tend to make extra effort with our customers,’ he adds. Scented candles from the Lucia home collection, tableware by Pascale Naessens for Serax and skincare products from L A Bruket are among the store’s most popular items, and Coopmans’ interior design ensures they are the centre of attention. ‘My shop is quite simple in its design: white walls and white blocks,’ he says. That way, he explains, the articles and artworks he sells really stand out.
Hunting and Collecting in Brussels also uses its interior design to enhance and promote its product range. The space is versatile, and every six months a new theme is devised. ‘Nothing is fixed or screwed down, everything is mobile and the interior can evolve to display the products in various ways,’ explain owners Aude Gribomont and Niels Radtke. ‘The modularity of the store reflects the constant change of fashion and lifestyle. We see it more as an editorial space, like a magazine.’
The owners’ edit includes some of the world’s most intriguing fashion, design, culture and lifestyle items. Featured brands range from Acne and 3.1 Phillip Lim to Givenchy and Kenzo, and the store is the exclusive outlet for many labels in Belgium, these range from Belgian designer A Knackfuss, and streetwear brand Stampd from Los Angeles, to Uribe jewellery from London and Harmony, a unisex fashion label from Paris.
The owners’ buying process demands a delicate balance of experience, knowledge of current trends and that all-important gut feeling. ‘It’s about making the right choice, predicting what the market is ready for, and betting on the horse that wants to win the race,’ they say. They add that they look for flair in the way a style is handled by the brand or the designers.
‘We’re looking for the one that makes the right product: the original ideas, the best executed and the most desirable,’ they say. Original, well-executed and desirable: three descriptions that perfectly encapsulate Belgium’s leading concept stores. These are characteristics that are likely to ensure lasting success.