Strutting into town twice a year, Mercedes-Benz FashionWeek Amsterdam has fashionistas on the edge of their seats at the characterful Westergasfabriek for a sneak peek of the trends we’ll all be wearing in the future - possibly. Back for its 26th edition in January, Amsterdam’s fashion week will feature couture from the subtle to the bizarre, the sublime to the, frankly, ridiculous. The collections presented include veterans such as Spijkers & Spijkers and Said Marouf, but also many fresh talents such as Alexandra Frida and her signature feather prints, Mad Max wardrobe-worthy Hardeman’s de-structured denim creations and Ala Blanka’s flowing, soft-coloured pants.

In recent years, Amsterdam’s crop of young, unique, innovative designers have proven – not only at Fashion Week but in their studios and boutiques all over town - that they don’t need to ride on Paris or Milan’s coattails to charm the pants off the most discerning fashionistas.

Viktor&Rolf - undutchable heights?

Chances are, if you can name one Dutch fashion designer, you can name two. The Amsterdam-based duo Viktor&Rolf are so widely admired, they’re currently the subject of a 23-year retrospective on the other side of the planet from their canal-side studio. Tickets to Viktor&Rolf: Fashion Artists, which runs until late February at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, are selling like hot cakes, if that’s not too gluttonous an analogy to use in conjunction with the rarefied world of haute couture.

Viktor&RolfViktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren

As the title of their show implies, it would be underselling Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren to refer to them merely as fashion designers. Their imaginative, theatrical creations are not – let’s be clear – what you’d call ‘wearable’. A collection from Spring-Summer 2015 entitled Van Gogh Girls consisted of voluminous A-line dresses in intense, painterly hues, accessorised with hats made from bales of straw that were as wide as the models were tall. Not ideal elevator-wear.

Although they continue to make money from their popular fragrance line, the duo ceased production of their ready-to-wear output back in 2015, telling Womenswear Daily that ‘by letting go of it, we gain more time and freedom’. Indeed, the restrictive – arguably exploitative – nature of the fashion industry is a recurring theme throughout the pair’s work. One exhibit in Melbourne consists of a giant cuckoo clock, out of which pops a mechanised doll that struts in time to the music. ‘It’s like the fashion system,’ Horsting has said of the piece. ‘When the clock strikes, she has to perform.’

VIKTOR & ROLF HAUTE COUTURE FALL/WINTER 2016Viktor&Rolf haute couture, Fall/Winter 2016 

  ‘Along with the Belgian and Japanese designers, the Dutch are the philosophers of fashion,’ says Aynouk Tan, style journalist and one of Amsterdam’s most distinctive dressers (she used to don a different, typically quite bonkers, outfit for her column in the newspaper NRC). ‘Viktor&Rolf are quintessentially Dutch,’ she says, ‘in that they’re good at asking the fundamental questions about our relationship with clothing and what it means in a broader sense.’

Tan thinks that Dutch designers will increasingly come to the fore as anxieties about the industry’s take on concepts such as gender, race, technology and its environmental impact intensify. But where will they be coming from, exactly? The Netherlands has no shortage of renowned fashion schools providing a technical rigour that’s second to none, but – in the absence of a large domestic market for high-end fashion – graduates are often lured abroad by luxury conglomerates. The departed include Lucas Ossendrijver, who was recruited to head up Lanvin’s menswear division in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. Granted, there are plenty of other important Dutch designers – among them Alexander van Slobbe with his pared-down Orson & Bodil, trippy neon hippy Bas Kosters and Queen Maxima’s favourite dressmaker Jan Taminiau – but none have the kind of international profile that Viktor&Rolf have achieved.

Uncovering the designers of tomorrow

Iris Ruisch, the former fashion recruiter who became creative director of Amsterdam Fashion Week in 2015, wants to change this. In striving to create the household names of tomorrow, she says she first had to be honest about the challenges facing young Dutch designers today.

Iris Ruis Iris Ruisch,  creative director of Amsterdam Fashion Week

The first is that they’re poor, of course. Whereas it used to be the unwritten rule of Amsterdam Fashion Week that anyone with enough cash could cough up for a slot on the show schedule (resulting, Ruisch says tactfully, ‘in inconsistency of focus’), these days the selection is made purely on the grounds of a designer’s potential. ‘We ask applicants to commit to presentations in three consecutive editions of Amsterdam Fashion Week,’ says Ruisch. The fee for the first showing is waived entirely, the second is discounted and the third is ‘full price’ (though still cheaper than showing in, say, Milan by a factor of ten). The idea is that, by their third edition, the designers will have grown in confidence, experience and renown.

Whereas Fashion Week’s website used to acquire tumbleweed between editions, at Ruisch’s behest the site is becoming what she calls ‘a Wikipedia of Dutch and Belgian fashion talent’. Every designer who’s ever shown at Amsterdam Fashion Week will be on there, from Moroccan-born Rietveld graduate Karim Adduchi to Tess van Zalinge, whose lingerie designs bridge the space between under and outerwear.

A glance at the show schedule for January’s edition demonstrates that fashion’s budding philosophers are out in force. Opening night puts the spotlight on the ‘Future Generation’ with a stunning main show, ‘The Painting’, introducing nine of the year’s most promising fashion prodigies, preceded by the launch of new Dutch label MARTAN and a presentation by Das Leben am Haverkamp. This collective of four young designers unites in their conviction that ‘fashion is a paradox: it suggests a forward thinking approach. But by constantly trying to predict the future, as it were, in no time that future is already history.’ The hand-plucked feathers that Alexandra Frida uses in her collections are apparently emblematic of female empowerment.

There is much talk, across the board, of shaking up the fashion system and subverting traditional hierarchies. Kelly Sue’s label SUE makes stylish clothes for wheelchair users, who have particular needs in terms of cut. Interdisciplinary is a watchword, too, with several designers – including Sophie Hardeman, the rising star of conceptual, unisex denim – presenting collections via the medium of film, which tends to travel further than conventional show footage.

It’s certainly a far cry from the old days. Before the 1960s, a Dutch fashion designer’s lot was simply to adapt the fashions coming out of Paris to suit the climate (actual and psychological) of the Netherlands. Plunging necklines, flimsy fabrics and frivolity were always out. Clean lines, hard-wearing cloths and a modest aesthetic were perpetually in. In her essay Don’t Dress to Impress: The Dutch Fashion Mentality, fashion theorist Maaike Feitsma notes that Dutch fashion magazines from the first half of the 20th century, in describing these alterations, frequently use the words ‘sober’, ‘functional’ and ‘rational’.

Aynouk TanStyle journalist Aynouk Tan

According to Aynouk Tan, the result of this historical aversion to embellishment for embellishment’s sake has left contemporary designers holding something of a clean slate – something that should hold them in good stead in an industry that’s constantly rewriting its rulebook. ‘Unlike the Parisians and the Italians, whose Catholic tradition creates a very stubborn aesthetic fuelled by glamour and decoration, Dutch designers have relatively few hang-ups,’ she says. Let’s see where it takes them.

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Amsterdam takes place at the Westergasfabriek from 26-29 January 2017.

Article first published in A-Mag Amsterdam Magazine, January 2017.