A retail pioneer and respected figure within the fashion industry, Geert Bruloot is also the mastermind behind the infamous Antwerp Six, avant-garde designer store Louis and exclusive footwear boutique Coccodrillo. In this exclusive interview, the Belgian businessman talks about London in the 70s, spotting new talent before everyone else and why shoes are often the starting point to a successful fashion career.
Where were you born?
I come from Oostende and studied Fine Arts at St-Lucas in Ghent. I graduated in 1975 and moved to Antwerp where I worked as a window dresser. I met my partner Eddy Michiels and we decided to open a small shoe store in 1984, which we named Coccodrillo. At the beginning of the 80s, Dirk Van Saene – who is Walter Van Beirendonck‘s partner and was also part of the Antwerp Six – opened his own store called Beauties and Heroes. This is how I met Dirk and Walter.
Were you into fashion during the 70s?
I lived in Oostende then and we were very close to London. Top of the Tops was incredibly important for us at that time. There were no fashion magazines in Belgium and style was inseparable from music. It’s how you discovered new trends and clothes. We went to London for shopping, because young fashion did not exist in Antwerp then.
Was Coccodrillo the first store you opened with Eddy Michiels?
Yes, that’s correct.
People credit you with creating the Antwerp Six. Is this true?
That happened later. In the early 80s, the Belgian government was organizing a fashion contest, which was called “The Golden Spindle”. Its purpose was to link local manufacturers with Belgian designers. The Antwerp Six designers were, in fact, the first students who had come out of the Academy and revolutionized its approach.
The world was changing and fashion was also evolving, which is something the Antwerp Six were highly aware of.
How did they achieve this?
Before they began their studies, the Academy’s focus was on art, not commercial success. The world was changing and fashion was also evolving, which is something the Antwerp Six were highly aware of. The Belgian fashion industry was lacking in style at the time, even though the technical side was advanced. During the second contest, Dries Van Noten approached me and asked if I wanted to work on the scenography of the event. Dirk Bikkembergs won the Golden Spindle in 1985 and presented some amazing shoes, which I thought would be great for our store. I asked him if the shoes could be produced and his manufacturer agreed to do so, on the condition that I would distribute and sell them to stores. I accepted, because I had no choice. (laughs)
And how did the idea of going to London come about?
Before London, we went to Japan to introduce the graduates’ collections to buyers and press. I got to spend two weeks with them in Tokyo and discovered they had real potential as designers. They were frustrated in a way, because they could work within the industry, but were not able to do what they wanted or express themselves. London had a vibrant fashion scene in the mid 80s, with designers like John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett gaining prominence. I got Dirk to come with his shoes, Walter to design a new collection and Dries phoned me to ask if he could join us. Then I had the idea that it should be six of them and I contacted Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Van Saene who accepted to go to London, too.
Is it true that the British press dubbed them “the Antwerp 6” as journalists could not pronounce their names?
Yes, it is. I guess it was a rather exotic group for most. Barneys were the first store that placed an order and journalists kept coming in, as they were intrigued by the collections and designers.
Do you think something like this could repeat itself now?
No, definitely not. Martin Margiela was the other talent who had left the group, because he was already working for Jean Paul Gaultier. Having seven designers with such strong and international vision was exceptional of course. The Japanese really shook up the fashion
system in the early 80s and paved the way for the Belgians. There was an opening towards a new sensibility. The stores were excited, because something new was happening.
If you think of Margiela for instance, he made the 80s look dated and defined part of the 90s with his aesthetics.
Yes, he did. Before he worked for Gaultier, Margiela had his own shoe line and sold it in our store. Martin came to Coccodrillo a few weeks after we opened and we were the first shop to carry his styles.
What was the original concept behind Louis, the designer boutique you opened in 1986?
We sold Belgian designers exclusively, which – believe me – was not easy at that time. We were Ann Demeulemeester‘s very first client and supported many designers. We never compromised on the vision of our designers and presented their collections as a whole. Belgians tend to discover their own richness abroad and it’s precisely what happened here. They saw these designers in Paris, New York and London and came back to us saying they had discovered something. They did not realize we had been stocking them since the very beginning.
And what was the key idea for Coccodrillo?
We wanted to open a designer shoe store. At that time, shoes stores were mainly leatherwear stores and we were fashion-oriented. Throughout the years, we have managed to keep a high fashion quotient, with first lines as opposed to second lines. We always valued creativity over commercialism. We were also on the lookout for new designers and footwear signatures. Of course, many stores are bigger in other cities, but we stuck to our guns.
How do you explain that Coccodrillo manages to sell catwalk styles that are judged too extreme in Paris or Milan?
We’ve tried educating our customers and people come from everywhere to us to find special things, even though Antwerp is still a provincial town. I guess we have a brand name and loyal international clients who come to us.
Can you tell me about your recent partnership with Verso in Antwerp?
It was a coincidence actually. We have some customers in common and they didn’t really have an extensive shoe selection in-store. They were thought of as a complement to the clothes, but they didn’t have a shoe client as such. There was an empty space available and I
discussed it with Luc Dheedene, the chairman of Verso and Fashion Club 70. I told him we could do a footwear section there, but it was more of a joke, to be honest. I like to experiment though and am always looking for new ideas to grow our brand, beyond the physical limits of our actual stores.