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Antwerp’s schools new breeding ground for aspiring designers ANTWERP, Belgium (Kyodo) In the world of fashion, Paris, London and Milan have always been on the cutting edge, attracting aspiring designers to study there in the hopes of making a name for themselves.

Linda Loppa is head of the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, where an increasing number of Japanese are applying to attend.

Renowned Japanese fashion designers such as Hanae Mori, Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake all appeared on the world fashion stage after successes in these European cities or in New York.

But nowadays, an increasing number of young Japanese fashion students are heading to Antwerp in northern Belgium.

“A few hundred Japanese wrote to us last year,” said Linda Loppa, head of the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

The majority of the Japanese who applied to the school, however, did not make it to Antwerp to take the entrance exams. But after two days of drawing tests and interviews, five Japanese students were accepted and are now among the 90 studying at the academy’s fashion department.

“We have quite a lot of international students,” Loppa said. “We have students from America, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark. Since last year, more than half of our students are foreigners.”

The academy is one of the oldest art schools in Europe, founded in the 17th century. Its fashion department was added in 1963 and is now said to be one of Europe’s most innovative.

The school has produced some of Europe’s most prominent up-and-coming designers, such as the so-called Antwerp Six — Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee, Dirk Bikkembergs and Walter Van Beirendonck — who all took the fashion world by storm in the 1980s.

The Belgian designers enjoy huge popularity in Japan. Their outlets can be found in the fashionable areas of Tokyo, while fashion magazines also often carry articles about them.

“The Japanese love fashion,” Dries Van Noten said in an English-language magazine in Belgium. “And they love Belgian fashion particularly. Belgian designers starting out now often don’t have it so hard, they immediately secure 10 Japanese contracts.”

The popularity of the Antwerp Six, who helped put Belgium on the fashion map, certainly drew young Japanese to study at the Antwerp academy. But that is not all.

Some of the Japanese students transferred from schools in Los Angeles, Australia and Paris because “they were not happy where they were studying,” according to Loppa, also a graduate of the school.

While most fashion schools these days tend to be “very superficial, copying existing fashion,” the Antwerp academy takes a more personal approach to encourage “creativity and innovation,” she said.

The four-year school has small classes so the teachers — nine permanent and five temporary — can “guide (students) individually” and the students can “actually learn something,” she said.

“We go very deep in our studies. Very profound. Others are a little more superficial. You cannot do fashion in a superficial way because then you’ll do it badly,” she said in an interview, adding it is important “to talk with the students.”

“That is why we want to keep (the school) small. We can’t take all the Japanese students because we want to keep it small.” she said, “Otherwise, that personal contact is lost. Then we are again a big school with all the problems.”

Loppa, who has been teaching at the academy for 18 years and has given lectures in Japan, said fashion education in Japan also needs to change.

“It’s a pity that you don’t see more young Japanese designers, because I’m sure there has to be some talent,” she said. “I hope they do something with that creativity. I think it’s the system. The schools are too big, with too many students.”

The Belgian academy’s personal approach has been catching the attention of some Japanese schools. Recently, officials from a Kyoto-based fashion school visited the Antwerp academy to study their teaching methods.

“It’s nice if we can be a role model. Then we can give an opportunity for people in Japan to have the same personal approach,” Loppa said.

In mid-June, students of the fashion department showed off their works at its three-day fashion show, which is well-known in the fashion world. The yearly show draws international designers, buyers and journalists seeking to spot new talent.

Professional models paraded the catwalk set up in the medieval trade exchange building Handelsbeurs in Antwerp, wearing clothes designed by students at the academy.

The show, which regularly lasts over three hours, serves as part of the academy’s final exam to test whether the students’ works are “creative and not referring to existing fashion,” Loppa said.

“This is spectacular,” said a former editor of a Japanese fashion magazine who attended the event. “Even the collections of the first-year students are top level.”

Loppa said it is nice to have a mix of foreign students at the school because they influence each other. Their nationality does not really matter, she said, because the world is “so small and international now,” with people traveling all the time.

She also prefers not to expose her students to the media until they graduate.

“Everybody is speaking the same language when we are making clothes. And that is what we would like to achieve here,” she said.