German-born Belgian fashion designer, part of a cohort who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in the 1980s (often referred to as the 'Antwerp 6'). Bikkembergs produced highly influential footwear but also striking and at times singular knitwear, outerwear, tailoring, and accessories that might variously be described as: aggressive, rough, sexy, smooth, sporty, strong, sultry, surprising, tailored, tough, etc. He made particular use of leather, metal, and synthetics. See our collection of dirk bikkembergs garments or continue reading below.
Foundations and early career
In an interview with arts writer Hettie Judah, Dirk Bikkembergs recalls that he caught the ‘fashion bug’ from a cousin when he was a teenager, but that when he entered the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, he had very little knowledge or background in fashion (Judah 2017).
He graduated in 1982. While Belgium was not known as a hotbed of fashion at the time, it took only a few years for him and five other recent graduates, known as the ‘Antwerp Six’, to gain considerable attention in the international fashion world. The other members of the ‘Antwerp Six’, Dirk van Saene, Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten and Marina Yee, had all graduated from the Academy in the few years before Bikkembergs, as had Martin Margiela.
There are several interesting features of the broader environment in which Bikkembergs’ early career was forged. Firstly, while small, Antwerp has long been an outward-facing trading hub connected to the world. One author considering the impact of the Royal Academy concluded ‘For a city whose culture has depended on trade since its inception, on an openness to whatever innovation comes through its docks, the burden of tradition is less stifling in Antwerp than it might be for young artists in less changeable cities’ (Newell-Hanson 2020). In addition, in the early 1980s the Belgian government introduced several measures to provide support for the local textile industry Initiatives included the establishment of the Belgium Institute for Textiles and Ready-to-Wear Clothing, the creation of the Golden Spindle competition for designers, as well as funding for two industry missions to Japan in which members of the Antwerp Six participated. As well as having local significance, the Golden Spindle awards also attracted some international interest, with Jean-Paul Gaultier and Romeo Gigli on the judging panel. The inaugural Golden Spindle award went to Anne Demeulemeester in 1982, to Dirk van Saene the following year, and to Dirk Bikkembergs in 1985 (Esch 1999, p174).
Although he acknowledges the assistance that the Golden Spindle and some other industry initiatives provided, Bikkembergs himself has said that he would have taken the same path in the same way regardless of it, and in whichever city he had come from (Judah 2017).
Much of the energy of the early years of Bikkembergs’ career is apparent in the reflections of Geert Bruloot, who founded the shoe shop Coccodrillo in Antwerp in 1984. He appreciated the early work of Bikkembergs and the other young Antwerp designers and assisted with taking them to a wider audience. In an interview in 2015 he reminisced:
There was mention of the Belgian designers in a New York Times review of the London collections at this time: ‘Six young designers from Antwerp - most notably Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Marina Yee and Dirk Bikkembergs - brought a breath of inventiveness to the trade show in the Olympia exhibition hall’ (Gross 1987, ii).
Bruloot recalls that the following season the group was invited to take a collection to Pitti Trend in Florence and hired a couple of mobile homes to do so. He contends that success came more quickly than the designers had envisaged, in part in the context of a world that was opening up:
I think it has to do with the political situation in the 80s, when the world was changing very fast and we became a global community; where the identity of a small country suddenly saw the possibility to become one of the players in this global story. We saw the future. (Kuryshchuk & Croese 2015)
Bruloot also highlighted the role of collaboration in the success of the ‘Antwerp Six’:
When we started with this group of Belgian designers, they were not doing everything only by themselves. There was also this whole entourage of graphic designers, make-up artists, photographers and models. There was no hierarchy. We were working together to fulfil this dream. We were convinced we could make it. But you have to see it back in time. (Kuryshchuk & Croese 2015)
While members of what came to be known as the Antwerp Six collaborated, from the beginning they had distinctive styles and interests. Bikkembergs himself remembered:
I think Antwerp was a moment in time and the people who we were with. In some respects, we handed it to each other; the taste or the vision was very personal for each of us. Everybody had his own way of seeing things. I could see it in front of me when everyone was sitting there: Ann was thinking one way, Dries another, Martin another and so on. I remember all of us were exactly like we are today, which is great, because nobody has been over-influenced or become someone else. (Bikkembergs quoted in Judah 2017).
Building on their early momentum, in 1988 the ‘Antwerp Six’ held a show in London’s Westway film studio, and then Bikkembergs was the first of the ‘Antwerp Six’ to present his own show in Paris (Esch 1999, p. 174).
As indicated earlier, Bikkembergs first gained attention through his shoes. He moved away from refined designs with thin soles which were common urban wear at the time and designed much more sturdy footwear, based on the shapes and traditions of traditional Flemish workwear as well as the boots of mountaineers, soldiers, skiers and footballers. The retail buyers to whom Bruloot had difficulty selling Bikkembergs’ shoes were not the only ones to be initially dismissive. Mention of Bikkembergs’ shoes in the New York Times in 1987 referred to ‘some of the silliest shoes in the world’ (Gross, 1987 i). Others however, responded more positively. As one enthusiast reflected: ‘For me, and many of my friends, life changed the day Dirk Bikkembergs shoes went on display. At last there were the right shoes for us. These were the ones: that’s what Dirk Bikkembergs’ designs are like, unmistakable, and for those who respond to their appeal, inescapable’ (Cited in Derycke & Van de Veire eds 1999, p. 99).
Over the following years Bikkembergs continued to develop a distinctive style, drilling holes and making cuts in the heels and developing innovative lacing. By the time of his 1993 collection, eyelets had been removed and the boot was secured to the foot by wrapping laces threaded through the sole around the leather upper of the boot (Arnold R nd).
Cockx (nd) commented ‘For Dirk Bikkembergs, shoes are a determining factor in the look and feel of any outfit’ and footwear continued to be important to Bikkembergs throughout his career. His footwear is often seen to be one of his most important contributions to fashion and several museums and galleries have acquired Bikkembergs footwear as part of their collections. Images and descriptions that can be accessed online include a short video published by the MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, in which Geert Bruloot is the narrator (inserted above), and digital images of Bikkembergs footwear in collections of the Powerhouse and NGV in Australia, and the Met in New York.
A similar focus on hard-wearing, tough materials (conveying an image of strength and masculinity) was evident in Bikkembergs’ knitwear and menswear collections, which followed the footwear. Luc Derycke summarised aspects of Bikkembergs’ approach: ‘In his collections Dirk Bikkembergs… reintroduced elements that, since the Second World War, had consistently been sacrificed in the name of elegance. He brought back the outspoken physical presence, heavy-duty clothes and the army outfit. Bikkembergs brought back to fashion the ancient tradition of clothes designed for intense physical activities’ (Derycke 1999, pp 10-11).
Bikkembergs’ familiarity with leather was frequently put to use in his clothing, used for coats, jackets, vests, and trousers. Leather was frequently mixed with other materials or used in patchworks. For example, in 1995 stretch leather pants were ‘assembled like a puzzle with wool connecting the parts’ (Spindler 1995), and later that year he produced a jacket with a white leather front and a mesh back (White 1995):
Bikkembergs’ exploration of the possibilities of leather continued over the next few years as indicated in the following comments from fashion writers: ‘The leathers here were remarkable: trousers and vests of sliced sunburst-shaped rays in neon yellow and red. There were also razor-cut jackets with big metallic zippers that sliced around the center, so they could be transformed into boleros’ (Spindler 1996 iii) and ‘The dresses that closed the show used his expertise as a shoe designer. Bands of leather cut like scribbles wrapped around sheaths, buckling in the back; sometimes the scribbles had the looping centers cut out, with sexy ropes revealing skin beneath’ (Spindler 1997). Use of strips of leather was further developed into leather latticing in garments, about which opinions were divided (see Menkes 1997 and White 1997 for different views of the same collection). Leather piecework was a feature of jackets in the January 1998 collection (White 1998 i).
Knits, too, were used to great effect throughout Bikkembergs career and are amongst the hallmarks of his designs. These include hard-wearing robust turtlenecks, close fitting sweaters and vests, knits of silver and gold threads (Spindler 1996 ii), as well as low-slung knit trousers and shorts.
Attention to detailing is another hallmark of Bikkembergs’ design. He often used metal, including in eyelets, buckles, tie rings, collars and necklaces. For example, in the collection shown in October 1996, closures were created by lacing exaggerated metal eyelets (Spindler 1996 iii). Examples of other detailing include cargo pockets on the back of garments (Spindler 1995), or a single slit down a pants leg (Menkes 1997). The collection shown in Paris in March 1996 used zips and fabrics in ways that critics responded to positively:
Bikkembergs’ clothing often had a look of ‘sexy androgyny’ (Spindler 1993) for both men and women, from rib-knit shorts to short suede trench coats. By 1995 the men's and women's collections were shown side by side and were often indistinguishable (Spindler 1995). Strong looks for women continued, with one writer commenting ‘the clothes on Mr. Bikkembergs' women's runway were bursting with avenger-style femininity in second-skin pants tucked into high boots, crop jackets revealing a strip of midriff, and a stark white leather wide-lapel jacket with legging pants and a matching handbag attached, presumably for carrying hand grenades and the like’ (White 1998 ii).
In relation to colour, Bikkembergs often favoured strong, classical colours, mixing simple tones such as black, white, grey, khaki and midnight blue, with contrasting touches of bright colour, such as orange and lime green. One critic noted of a 1994 collection that his palette was ‘as rich as the Belgian chocolates of his homeland, in deep browns, dark navies and plush grays’ (Spindler 1994).
Other contrasts at the time were highlighted by the same critic: ‘He put satiny pajama pants under rough tweedy cargo pants; paired fitted trousers, which covered the shoes like spats, with loose coats, and combined the deepest grape-colored mohair sweater with buttery brown leather pants and a taupe cavalier coat. In every outfit, he played with the contrasts that have defined Paris this season: rough with smooth, tight with loose’ (Spindler Feb 1994).
Throughout the late 1990s the fashion industry’s interest in sports and sportswear increased, and many commentators consider Bikkembergs to have been at the forefront of this trend. He used new synthetics, such as those developed for sportswear but also fabrics like a rigid ballistic nylon, widely. Materials were sometimes juxtaposed in surprising ways. For example, grey flannel, ‘that bastion of all that is right and decent’ (White 1998 i) was transformed into a funnel neck jacket with Velcro closures.
In 1998, Bikkembergs moved from showing in Paris to showing in Milan, and the sportswear he presented as part of his collection in January 1998 was described as ‘sport couture’. One fashion writer indicated the range was ‘sharp-but-soft’ (Menkes 1998) while another stated he was ‘suffusing [his] aggressive clothes with the sort of meticulous details associated with Savile Row’ (White 1998 i). Indeed, in 1997 Dirk Bikkembergs had engaged an assistant with Savile Row tailoring experience and was quoted as saying ‘As a student I was preoccupied by creativity. I'm now more interested in how things are finished’ (Bikkembergs quoted in Voight 1997).
The new millenium
Over time, Bikkembergs’ emphasis on physicality and the body had led to an increasing interest in sport and athletes and he has commented: ‘The new millennium brought a new chapter in my career. …At that time, the world of sports and the world of fashion were two different planets, with apparently nothing in common. My new mission was to create a bridge between these two worlds!’ (Bikkembergs in ‘Dirk Bikkembergs: 25 Years of Athletes and Fashion’ quoted in Cockx nd). Judah outlines some of the factors that led to Bikkembergs’ increasing connection with the world of sport:
Others have agreed that, at a time when it was ‘absolutely unthinkable … that these two languages could somehow be combined without being aesthetically inappropriate, or even ‘blasphemous’’ (Macaluso 2019), Bikkembergs was ‘the first fashion designer to unite the diametrically opposed worlds of football and fashion’ (Cockx nd). It was not only those involved with the fashion world that thought his contribution significant. Monica Dufcik, co-editor of Men's Health Spain, which gave Bikkembergs its Businessman of the Year award for 2007, has been quoted as saying ‘He was the first and only designer to think about real sport’ (cited in Judah 2008).
Bikkembergs added the term ‘Sport Couture’ to the Dirk Bikkembergs label in 1999 and subsequently added a new brand to the range. In 2000 he held a fashion show in a major stadium in Milan, and in 2003 became the first fashion designer to dress a top-ranking soccer team, Inter-Milan, in official off-the-field custom-made suits (Cockx nd). During this period Bikkembergs ‘merged comfortable, high-technology sports fabrics with the quality and finish of high fashion. His made-to-measure suits, which offer the comfort of a jogging outfit, enjoyed immediate success’ (Cockx nd).
In 2005 Bikkembergs bought a small club, FC Fossombrone, based near the factory in northern Italy where Bikkembergs collections were made and worked closely with them over the following years (Judah 2008 & Macaluso 2019). The club played in a division that is the entry level for semi-professional soccer (Judah 2008). Judah explains the development in the following terms:
Judah comments that ‘Other designers have successfully sold lifestyle: Ralph Lauren and preppy America, Giorgio Armani and Italian elegance. For Bikkembergs, FC Fossombrone's magic is its ordinariness: customers can realistically aspire to play for such a team’ (Judah 2008). In an interview in 2017 Bikkembergs commented that he was inspired by / interested in the willpower, self-discipline, and passion of athletes, and an associate of Bikkembergs at the time was quoted as saying “We started with an amateur team because in this category it is possible to find the true values of the world of football as passion, determination, care for the body" (quoted in Macaluso). The focus on sports, sportswear and clothing for athletes continued until Bikkembergs left the industry. For example, a writer commented about what was to be one of Dirk Bikkembergs’ last collections in January 2011:
“Attracted to the “royal and noble” feel of the sport [ed: rowing], Mr. Bikkembergs led with models in body hugging sportswear who looked as though they had just finished a morning training session. The designer focused on arms, making this a “sleeves optional” collection. Black-and-white photos of a crew team were printed on muscle T-shirts, shearing coats came without sleeves and tuxedo jackets were sliced into vests and paired with black Lurex turtlenecks. When sleeves did appear, they came on sculpted jackets and in a fine knit to allow for movement. But no matter how much sweep Mr. Bikkembergs gave his clothes, their form-fitting style means men would have to join a crew team now to be in shape for next winter.” (Michault 2011)
Leaving the industry and conclusions
In 2011 Dirk Bikkemberg sold brands to Zeis Excelsa, an Italian footwear manufacturer with which he had worked for some time. At the time of the sale it was announced that he would initially retain the position of creative director of the lines Dirk Bikkembergs Sport Couture, Bikkembergs and Bikkembergs Sport. Amongst other things there were expectations that the move would lead to international expansion, including in the new markets of China and Russia, and a relaunch of the womenswear line (Pavarini 2011).
While still working in the industry Bikkembergs had outlined his overall approach in the following way:
When interviewed in 2017, Bikkembergs commented:
What they sell you today is completely other-world – I don’t feel it anymore…If I had felt that what I was doing would lead to something that had an impact, I would probably have continued, but I could see that it wasn’t. The fashion industry today is completely ruthless; it has nothing to do with beauty. It’s just about turnover. There’s no room for love. (Judah 2017)
Bikkembergs' clothes remain strong and energetic classics of the 1990s and he was ‘a master of creating and controlling tension’ (Derycke & de Veire 1999, p99). As Derycke (1999, p11) writes: “long before gyms and fitness clubs had swamped town and countryside, his clothes screamed for bodies. Re-marrying sports and sensual style, he provided us with the multi-purpose wardrobe that was suitable for both frivolous parties and a serious work-out, as well as anything in-between”.
We have a number of dirk bikkembergs items for sale (or just for looking at), which you can find here.
Born: Flamersheim, Germany (Arnold R nd), in 1959 (Lewis 2015) or 1962 (Arnold R nd)
Education: Studied fashion at the Royal Academy of Arts, Antwerp (Arnold R nd; Cockx R nd; Esch 1999; Lewis 2015) between 1976 and 1982 (Lewis 2015)
Military Service: Served with Royal Belgian Army, in Germany (Arnold R nd)
Career: 1982-87: Freelance designer for Nero, Bassetti, Gruno and Chardin, Tiktiner, Gaffa, K, and Jaco Petti, (Arnold R nd)
1985: launched Dirk Bikkembergs-Homme Co., with Dirk Bikkembergs shoe line for men (Arnold R nd); won the Belgian fashion industry Golden Spindle award (Cockx R nd; Esch 1999)
1986: introduced knitwear line (Arnold R nd) and presented at the fashion fair at London’s Olympia along with other members of the ‘Antwerp Six’ (Esch 1999)
1988: collaborated with the Italian manufacturers, Gibo (Cockx R nd) developed first complete menswear collection (Arnold R nd) and participated in ‘Antwerp Six’ show in London’s Westway film studio (Esch 1999)
1989: presented first complete menswear collection in Paris (Cockx R nd, Esch 1999)
1991: established his own production facilities in Italy (Cockx R nd)
1993: presented womenswear line, Dirk Bikkembergs-Homme Pour La Femme, in Paris (Arnold R nd)
1998: moved from Paris to Milan to show his collections and introduced the term ‘Sport Couture’ to describe his work (Menkes 1998)
2000: presented his show in the San Siro football stadium in Milan, marking his interest in combining these worlds (Cockx R nd)
2001: participated in Mode 2001 Landed-Geland, Antwerp (Arnold R nd)
2003: the first fashion designer to dress a top-ranking soccer team in official off-the-field suits (Cockx R nd)
2011: sold brand to Zeis Excelsa (Pavarini 2011)
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