Beyond Paris And Milan

Tim Van Steenbergen's atelier lies hidden down a nondescript street in Antwerp traversed by trolley cars and old ladies with shopping carts. The design studio, housed in an old sewing factory, has faux wooden walls and plastic chairs but also hints of glamour: tacked up on the office walls are several photos of Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas, the inspiration for the Hollywood-dame-meets-Hellenic-diva 2008 collection he is currently working on. Van Steenbergen knows Antwerp is not exactly a fashion capital of the world, but he still wouldn't trade the modest skyline out his window. "When I was living in Paris I realized how good it was here," says Van Steenbergen, 29. "Antwerp is very multicultural. [At the same time], because it is so small it pushes you to travel and be influenced by everything."

The world of fashion has always spun around Paris, New York, London and Milan, home to the important Fashion Weeks and shoppers seeking cutting-edge couture. And while the fashion capitals retain their importance to the industry, a clutch of second-tier shopping cities are now challenging their supremacy. Chief among them: Antwerp, Chicago, Istanbul and Shanghai. Groundbreaking designers like Van Steenbergen, Istanbul's Bahar Korcan, Shanghai's Lu Kun and Chicago's Lara Miller are purposely basing themselves in these cities, encouraged by the rise of exclusive homegrown boutiques that peddle not just clothing but chic personal accessories and home furnishings as well. Alison Bishop, the retail editor for WGSN, a business-to-business Web site for the fashion industry, believes these cities are fundamentally changing the design landscape. "If you are the kind of shopper who does the seasonal circuit, you might just skip Milan or Paris for something a little bit different like Shanghai or Istanbul," she says.

Globalization has helped spread fashion literacy far and wide. "These days someone in Shanghai will be as in-the-know as someone in Milan," says Amanda Hallay, a fashion forecaster with the Donegar Group. "Ten years ago a housewife in Liverpool would have never heard of Marni, yet now she is on eBay feverishly bidding on last season's hot pieces." Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu designs are now available in boutiques from Des Moines to Dresden. Fast production also helps; days after lines like Gucci and Prada present their collections on the catwalks, lower-tier shops like H&M and Topshop have already begun producing copycat pieces, making couture-style fashion affordable for all.

That means high-end consumers need to look farther afield to remain exclusive. "People no longer want to be seen in the same Chanel dress as three other people at a party; they want exclusive and bespoke," says Van Steenbergen. "I am convinced that doing small couture lines is the way forward. You do not have to compete with the system anymore." Being far from the traditional fashion meccas gives designers more freedom to be innovative. Tricia Tunstall, co-owner of the p.45 boutique in Chicago's trendy Bucktown neighborhood, says designers in the Windy City can focus more on each individual piece instead of worrying about competition or larger trends. "I feel like you are less inclined to be sucked into any kind of movement here and you can work a little more independently," says Shane Gabier, a designer who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not coincidentally, all the up-and-coming fashion cities have vibrant design schools. "If people see that their local government has opened up a wing for fashion at the local art college it helps legitimize it as an industry," says Hallay. In addition to the Art Institute, Chicago has three other design schools, and Shanghai and Istanbul each have several well-respected ones. In Antwerp, which has a rich history of lace making and textile manufacturing, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts helped catapult the city onto the worldwide fashion stage in the 1980s after a group of recent graduates—dubbed the Antwerp Six, and including Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck—hired a van and headed to the London fashion shows. The Academy, now headed by Van Beirendonck, has developed an international reputation for producing conceptual designers who are also commercially successful; 80 percent of the students now hail from outside Belgium.

Government support is also key to building a design city. In Turkey, years of economic woes made fashion unviable as a career option. But recent political and economic stability have created a massive shift. "I had not been back to Istanbul for about seven years and I was amazed with the number of fashion colleges and universities that have sprung up," says Istanbul-born London-based designer Bora Aksu. "After years of fashion being ignored and underground, now it's really blossoming." Groups like the Fashion Designers Association are lobbying the Turkish government for more financial support, in the hopes of adding to the ranks of such internationally renowned Turkish designers as Atil Kutoglu, Hussein Chalayan and Rifat Ozbek. Shoppers are flocking not just to the tony Nisantasi neighborhood, home to the upscale fashion emporium Vakko, but also to the new branch of Harvey Nichols in the financial district, and Galata, which has been compared to Paris's Marais and London's Soho. "Our plan is to develop this area so that Istanbul will have an alternative fashion center," says designer Bahar Korcan, founder of the Fashion Designers Association. "With several designers opening up shop, we are not far away from that."

In Shanghai, the government recently introduced a local Fashion Week in an effort to promote local labels and attract designers from abroad. "When you get into the back of a taxi in Shanghai there are videos showing backstage parties from Fashion Week, and you just get a real sense of a fashion city coming through," says WGSN's Bishop. Indeed, the historic Bund is now home to a number of air-conditioned malls, where luxury brands and independent labels compete for floor space. Chang Le Road and Taikang Road, a narrow tree-lined lane, are sprinkled with trendy boutiques like La Vie, owned by local designer Jenny Ji, who mixes traditional Chinese prints with modern silhouettes. "In recent years Chinese designers have attracted more and more attention overseas, and now about 60 percent of people who come to my boutique are foreigners," says Ji. Shanghai-based designer Lu Kun, whose dresses will be showcased next year in an exhibition of Chinese designers at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, thinks Shanghainese have a sense of taste and style to rival Parisians. "Shanghai has a huge potential to become the new fashion capital in Asia," he says.

Chicago has also been very proactive in promoting itself as a fashion city. Last year Mayor Richard Daley set up a council to advise on everything from marketing to helping young fashion graduates set up business. In October, the city will host its third Fashion Focus Chicago, a weeklong program of fashion shows, seminars and shopping excursions to some of the city's best boutiques. "I really feel like shopping in Chicago rivals what they have in Paris," says Lance Lawson, co-owner of the boutique Jake, which has three stores in the region and is a favorite stopover for celebs like Jessica Simpson and Kanye West. Boutique owners also tend to support one another—important in a city that is very neighborhood-oriented. "There is a feeling that helping promote not just your boutique but others in your area is good for everyone," says Sarah Blessing, co-owner with her sister of the men's boutique Apartment Number 9.

In Antwerp, too, there is a real sense of community among designers. The city has a small but fantastic fashion museum, Momu; the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI), set up to promote the city's shops and designers, puts out an annual Antwerp Fashion Walk book focusing on the five main shopping districts. With input from FFI, the city has made it easier for neophyte designers to set up shop—something they could never do in the expensive and competitive markets of Paris, New York, London or Milan. In the Nationalestraat district, established flagship shops like Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester sit beside those of lesser-known designers like academy graduates Haider Ackerman and Violetta and Vera Pepa. They aspire to become not the next Van Noten but the next Van Steenbergen.