Whatever Happened to A.F. Vandevorst?

AF Vandevorst

Photo courtesy of A.F. Vandevorst

Filip Arickx and An Vandevorst

Picture it: Antwerp, Belgium, 1999. The up-and-coming It sartorial city is teeming with new talent. Young Turks like Veronique Branquinho, Nicolas Ghesquière, and Olivier Theyskens are poised to strike it big. The Antwerp Six (Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, and Marina Yee) are all over Vogue, and a husband-and-wife team by the name of A.F. Vandevorst have just made waves with their Fall ’98 collection.

What became of all of these designers—the successes and the failures—is either common fashion knowledge or found by a quick Google search, with the glaring exception of A.F. Vandevorst. Even with its critical hits, crucial early press, and early retail placement in major stores, A.F. Vandevorst has managed to maintain its cult status with editors, refusing to cross over into the mainstream.

So what did happen to A.F. Vandevorst, and where are they now? The simple answer: still going strong in Antwerp. By all accounts, it’s a successful indie brand. Buying the pieces, however, is another matter.

Filip Arickx and An Vandevorst make—depending who you ask—avant-garde/minimal/supremely chic clothes for a very discerning woman. They first landed in the fashion zeitgeist in a ’99 Vogue article, which called their pieces “clever” and the designers “highly evolved” and “odd.” Damning praise—which today many in fashion would emblazon across their chests. But Arickx and Vandevorst have never been ones to crow.

“We are not press-orientated people,” they said via e-mail. “Maybe we are too shy to deal with the rules of press and media.”

This explains why few people outside of fashion know who they are, Stateside. Granted, many a designer has shunned the spotlight (Rick Owens, Margiela) and still expanded commercially, but A.F. Vandevorst hasn’t seemed to master that trick.

AF Vandevorst

Photo Credit: Courtesy of A.F. Vandevorst

Looks from the Spring 2011 A.F. Vandevorst Armor collection

“I first saw them in ’98, the Fall collection,” T Magazine editor-in-chief Sally Singer said. “I had actually ordered and bought a shirt that had a boned back, that had red crosses on the neck. I’ve loved them ever since, I’ve owned them ever since—their jeans, their boots. I love their lingerie line, but it’s so hard to find.”

Indeed, it’s a bit of a treasure hunt to track them down, with just a handful of stores nationwide carrying the brand. This wasn’t always the case.

“We were at Barneys at the CO-OP floor,” Arickx and Vandevorst said. “Of course we were very happy and honored to be at Barneys but not on the CO-OP floor. Nobody understood why; a lot of journalists asked us this question. They thought we didn’t belong there but on one of the designer floors.”

What followed next was September 11 and a cut in retail budgets, which meant A.F. Vandevorst was no longer carried at even the CO-OP, the self-described experimental floor where younger, newer brands are often housed. They were available at boutique retailers like Kirna Zabête and Jeffrey, but production and shipping woes interfered with those relationships. Many smaller labels can no doubt relate to having similar issues. So how does a line that is so obscure survive?

“All the Antwerp designers who grew their lines got some assistance from the BBL,” Singer said. BBL, or the Bank Brussels Lambert (now ING), gave brands some form of backing. “What this meant was that everything was efficient but slow.”

The Belgian brands that look relatively big today—Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten—took over a decade to get where they are. “That kind of slow, responsible growth that’s been put in their companies, that commitment to stay in Antwerp, doesn’t always make for the drama that excites buyers, editors, [and the] fashion world in consistent ways," Singer continued. “These are companies that can’t overproduce because they have the same returns.”

Arickx and Vandevorst admit that being an indie label has affected their growth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “We are on our own without any backing. Now we say this because partially we are proud we came so far in this way.”

Their constrained point of view appeals to their current buyers and customers alike. Jalila Lissilaa of Lissilaa—a by-appointment-only store in La Jolla, Calif.—prefers her designers to remain a little off center.

“When the designer gets really big we don’t carry them anymore,” she said. “They [An and Filip] are not money hungry, they’re not that type of people. They will never do mass production. It’s about the design, the fabric, the stitches.”

That being said, the brand did debut a diffusion line in Spring ’10 called A.Friend, which focused on jerseys and knitwear and had a lower price point. A.Friend is currently only available in Europe and Asia.

But perhaps, as Lissilaa said, what it comes down to is the design for A.F. Vandevorst. It’s not the marketing, the ads, the perfumes; it’s not the celeb factor (though Kim Gordon and Gwyneth Paltrow have both worn the label). It’s not even about opening as many stores as possible.

And for fans, it’s the thrill of the chase, hunting down a piece that’s entirely unique. Imagine, in today’s sample-sale, fast-fashion world, that a brand that makes wearable art can not only exist but also succeed. Turns out, under the radar is as fine a place as any.

To avoid your own fruitless treasure hunt, we’ve compiled a list of stores that carry A.F. Vandevorst.

Hotoveli, 271 W. 4th St., New York; 212-206-7722; hotoveli.com

Guild, 1335 ½ Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, Calif.; 310-396-8300; guildla.com

Maxfield L.A., 8825 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, Calif.; 310-274-8800; maxfieldla.com

H. Lorenzo, 8660 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-659-0015; hlorenzo.com

Lissilaa Boutique, 1250 Prospect St., No. 21, La Jolla, Calif.; 858-454-0874; by appointment only

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