Is Amsterdam The Most Subversive Fashion City?
Walking into Lichting, a design student showcase during Amsterdam Fashion Week in September, I came across a peculiar scene. At the bottom of the staircase leading to the runway was a sprawling dirt spiral, with dancers slowly, rhythmically moving through it. The clothes they wore–casual sweat suits with Mad Max styling–were borrowed from friends. In fact, though it was technically a fashion show, the designer didn’t design any clothes at all.
“Nobody wants to get their clothes dirty, but we do,” Lotte de Jager, the student behind the performance, tells me backstage. “There is already too much clothing in the world, and to be really honest, it starts with me. So instead [of designing a collection], I tried to reconsider the body as a centerpiece to the fashion system.”
Though less visually explosive than Balenciaga’s recent mud runway, de Jager’s dirt presentation had a similar transgressive edge. And it was just one of the many surprises I encountered during Amsterdam Fashion Week, which took place just before the official “fashion month” cycle in New York, London, Milan and Paris. The Dutch capital, better known for its electronic music, architecture, and interior design, has been slowly developing a stable of standout fashion talents, many of whom are actively transgressing the norms of the industry in inventive ways. Detached from the pressures and standards of the establishment, these voices are openly deconstructing and subverting the industry’s most strongly ingrained language, from fashion’s obsession with newness to the rigid fashion show format and so many other unspoken rules around what we can and cannot say through clothing.
“Eight years ago, when I started what I’m doing now, I made a very conscious choice to do it from Amsterdam, because I wanted to be away from the fashion world,” says Ronald van der Kemp, a designer who shows his demi-couture creations in both Paris and Amsterdam. “I’ve worked in New York, Paris and Milan, so I know what it’s like. You feel like you have to adhere to certain things that are happening, and you feel like you have to be part of it. In Amsterdam, it’s more of an experiment.”
From his studio in the historic center of the city, van der Kemp creates glamorous pieces with punk undertones from materials that would have otherwise gone to waste. At Amsterdam Fashion Week, he showed a TikTok style film of Kim Kardashian describing her 30,000 garment-strong closet alongside images of Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the literal wastelands where many tons of clothing purchased in the West end up, often after only a few wears.
“This fashion week had a very different approach,” explains van der Kemp, referring to the commercial nature and general attention circus of the main cycle. “The four main cities are all about doing a trick during the fashion show. It’s become such a thing about everything else but the real clothes. Amsterdam is very pure.”
The designer’s attitude of considered confrontation speaks to a wider creative culture in the Dutch capital: Take the work of Duran Lantink, a finalist for the 2019 LVMH Prize who’s known for splicing, dicing, and otherwise reimaging discarded luxury collections into upcycled designs with a strong message . During the pandemic, Lantink shoplifted the materials for an entire capsule collection from fast fashion flagships (“the biggest kleptomaniacs,” he alludes), translating stolen Zara and H&M into subversively feminine garments and later giving half the proceeds to families of Bangladeshi garment workers. The stylist Patti Wilson recently dressed her clients Beyoncé and Lizzo in his high concept garments; Billie Eilish is a fan.
Lantink’s approach at Amsterdam Fashion Week? He took over the Moulin Rouge in the red-light district for a performance in collaboration with the footwear brand Steve Madden. For the show, Lantink designed a barely-there custom body suit for the Spanish electronic artist Virgen María, who performed alongside local dancers and the Congolese movement artist Christian Yavl. Inviting editors into a sex club — a space so often exoticized but rarely given genuine respect — is a strong statement. “At first I tried for Casa Rosso,” says Lantink with a wink, referring to the oldest live sex theatre in the city. “They told me they didn’t even give it to the Prince of Brunei. I said it was a big mistake, because we’re bringing Virgen María.” Meanwhile, Elza Wandler, the wunderkind behind the quickly growing brand Wandler, commissioned multidisciplinary artist Elsemarijn Bruys to wrap Amsterdam’s Van Eesterenmuseum in chrome green for a Fifth Element-inspired rave this past AFW, complete with models mimicking Milla Jovovich’s iconic character, Leeloo, throughout. Pandora’s Jukebox, the Berghain and Cicciolina regular, DJed. Humor, creativity, openness and at-ease cool—this is the way of Amsterdam.
The same ethos is embodied by young and established voices alike, from Denzel Veerkamp, who explored his identity as a mixed race Black man in the Netherlands in his Willem de Kooning Academy graduate collection, and internationally recognized names like Iris Van Herpen and Viktor & Rolf’s Rolf Snoeren and Viktor Horsting. Like van der Kemp, the duo moved back to the city they both grew up after over a decade in Paris for a more unfiltered relationship to their craft.
“Over the years, we’ve noticed that we work best in a more isolated atmosphere, one where we are away from the fashion world but can choose to enter it when we want to,” says Snoeren, explaining that practices like yoga and mindfulness — more accessible in the calm of the small European city — are influencing their surrealistic couture aesthetics and fragrance concepts. “We recognize a renewed sense of reality which is also due to living in Amsterdam,” adds Horsting.
Designer Renée van Wijngaarden of the buzzy, three-year-old label 1/Off, whose wares are stocked at Selfridges and 10 Corso Como, suggests that part of the reason for the recent surge in Amsterdam fashion culture is a post-Brexit international influx: “In the past, the Dutch market was always super commercial in terms of fashion, so a lot of creatives had to move abroad to be in the luxury segment,” says the designer, speaking to me from her canal-side studio. “The Netherlands and the capital are more international at the moment, so there is also more opportunity for luxury and for more creative teams to establish a business, as well.”
Although venturing abroad to show is still very much a part of the formula, (as Wandler, van der Kemp, Viktor and Rolf, and soon Lantink’s presence in Paris proves) There’s definitely something in the air here. “It’s happening at the right time, at the right moment, and it’s the right design,” Wandler tells me, speaking to her own brand’s journey, but alluding to energy that is beginning to define her homebase. “How brands traditionally build and what is expected of us is long gone. We’re making their own rules now.”