Before Christina Vantzou, a Kansas City, Mo.-born art student, fell in love with an American expat during a layover in Brussels seven years ago, she had never given the city a second thought. She assumed it was as bland as everyone said, and when she packed her bags and moved there soon after, she found plenty of Europeans who agreed. “The people I was hanging out with at the time referred to it as the Mexico of Europe,” she says. “Everyone wanted to go to Paris or London or Amsterdam, and Brussels was just this weird place in the middle.” At first, Vantzou stayed mostly for her relationship and for the hefty artist’s stipend she received from the Belgian government, having secured E.U. citizenship by way of her Greek father. But then a funny thing happened. Not only was she discovering that there was more to the cultural scene than she’d imagined, she was also watching as other artists — Parisians, even — began settling in the city. Long ignored or even mocked by its neighbors, Brussels seemed to be entering a kind of creative renaissance. “Where it used to be like ‘Brussels? Why the heck would you move there?’ these days it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been hearing about all the stuff happening there,’ ” Vantzou says. “Brussels used to be this forgotten place, and suddenly people are talking about it like they were talking about Berlin 10 years ago.”
Brussels may not quite be Berlin — it has less than a third of the population and none of the sexy post-Wall iconography — but its creative scene is thriving. And perhaps because it has flown under the radar for so long, or because its coalition government is perpetually in shambles, it has remained extremely affordable. Just as the allure of Berlin in the 1990s lay in the fact that young people could run clubs out of abandoned buildings or start their own galleries for next to nothing, a new generation of Europeans is beginning to fixate on Brussels’s cheap rents and lack of competition. Dispelling old notions of the city as boring and conservative, they’ve spent the last few years opening the kinds of hip bars, restaurants, galleries and shops that used to be more rare here.
This may sound dubious to anyone who has traveled to Brussels in the past decade, visited the museums and flea markets and the designer flagships along Rue Antoine Dansaert, stuffed themselves full of pommes frites and concluded there was nothing more to do. Brussels “is definitely not a city where everything is obvious, announced and organized,” explains Dimitri Jeurissen, the Belgian creative director of BaseDesign. “There’s a huge amount of cultural offerings, but everything is so understated. You have to scratch the surface to get to the essence of what’s going on.” Possibly because of their country’s history of being dismissed, Belgians have tended to keep to themselves and let their achievements go unnoticed. That independence has done wonders for the city’s creative output but nothing for its marketing skills, the lack of which have obscured Brussels’s charms for even the most clued-in travelers.
When I first visited, in 2005, there were artists but no contemporary art center like Wiels, which runs a residency program and hosts evening performances by the likes of Nils Bech, a kind of Norwegian Kalup Linzy. There were designers, but no avant-garde design shops like Diito and La Fabrika. There were parties, but not organized affairs like High Needs Low, which fills a former train station with a cool crowd every three months. And whereas in the past I might not have ventured beyond the legendary Belgian couture mecca Stijl on Rue Dansaert, I discovered on a side street new boutiques like Hunting and Collecting, a sprawling concept store that opened last year with racks full of emerging fashion talents and an installation by Confetti System. Aside from the nook carved out for young Belgian notables like Christian Wijnants, Sandrina Fasoli and Jan-Jan Van Essche, the shop could just as easily be in Paris or New York.
Niels Radtke and Aude Gribomont — who left their jobs as an event producer and a fashion editor, respectively, to start the store — were uncertain about doing so on their home turf. In the past, Radtke explains, the couple’s peers could be viciously skeptical of new things. “Hype means nothing here,” he says. “If Belgians like something, they go for it, and if not, they stand around and watch you go down. But we could never have found this kind of space in the middle of Paris, and Brussels really needed a place like this.” Not only is Hunting and Collecting succeeding, its events have become a kind of social linchpin for the A-list, which can now flit between it and Mapp, another shop down the street with a similar experimental bent and a Parisian expat D.J. at the helm. Radtke doesn’t believe this could have happened eight years ago. “I think it’s a generation change,” he says.
Nicholas Lewis calls it the Eurostar effect. Three years ago, he helped found the magazine The Word to catalog everything going on here. The rise of the E.U. was inspiring Belgians — and those from Brussels in particular — to adopt a more European identity. “People are traveling a lot more,” Lewis says, pointing out that the distance from Brussels to Paris by train is just over one hour. “Our readers can be in London, Paris or Amsterdam all week and come back on the weekends, bringing inspiration with them. They come back wanting more from Brussels.”
That interconnectedness has also made them confident about staying, as they realize they can work in Brussels and still speak to an international audience. Sandrina Fasoli, the fashion designer, sees the effect more and more among her colleagues — like the designer Cathy Pill and the fashion editor Benoît Béthume — who attended the city’s prestigious La Cambre school and stuck around instead of leaving for Paris. Fasoli and her design partner, Michael Marson, keep a workshop and a small store in Brussels, despite the fact that they sell “mostly in Japan, Korea and other parts of Europe.”
Perhaps most telling is the influx of Parisians, who would have previously equated moving here with falling off the map. Lilou Vidal, co-founder of the Galerie VidalCuglietta with Barbara Cuglietta, says she felt doors opening for her in Brussels that never would have opened back home in France. After putting in time working for the local dealer Catherine Bastide, the two found their own affordable loft space downtown, filled it with work by established and semi-unknown artists and had more than 300 people at their first opening last fall.
Even Almine Rech, who owns a top contemporary gallery in Paris, moved to Brussels and opened a space (not far from Barbara Gladstone’s). “We’ve had a lot more visitors in the last two years,” she told me when I dropped in on her 10,000-square-foot former garage off Avenue Louise. “People are coming from London and the U.S. now that they hear Brussels is cool.”
Cool it may be, but the city isn’t letting go of what the artist Zin Taylor, a Canadian transplant, calls “a kind of dark surrealism.” Taylor, who shows with VidalCuglietta, says there have been nights when he winds up in a creepy underground swingers’ club from the ’60s, or sipping $2 wine at a 150-year-old bar. “You go in and out of these pockets of strangeness. That’s what it’s like living here.” And that’s why Brussels, with any luck, will never exactly be the new Berlin or Paris; it’s too steeped in its own quirkiness. On my own night out, I went to what I thought was going to be a raucous party for The Word at a local bar, only to find that the place was no more than a tiny cafe on an empty residential street. “This is the kind of place Belgians love,” insisted Lewis, who called the next day to tell me that by 2 a.m. — long after I had retired for the night — people were dancing on the tables.
High-design B&B. 39 Grand-Place; 011-32-474-03-24-70; concepthotel.be; doubles from about $220.
Odette en Ville
A 1920s house with eight monochromatic rooms. 25 Rue du Châtelain; 011-32-2-640-26-26; chez-odette.com; doubles from $360.
Colorful newcomer. 1 Place Loix; 011-32-2-541-48-98; pantonehotel.com; doubles from $100.
Restaurants and Cafes
Café le Fontainas
Mixed gay-straight hangout. 91 Rue du Marché au Charbon; 011-32-2-503-31-12.
Les Filles-Plaisirs Culinaires
Catering studio and restaurant with cooking classes. 85 Rue Vanderschrick; 011-32-2-534-04-83; lesfillesplaisirsculinaires.be.
La Meilleure Jeunesse
An art-crowd favorite. 58 Rue de L’Aurore; 011-32-2-640-23-94.
Shops and Galleries
Brussels branch of the Parisian gallery, with a shop for artist’s editions. 20 Rue de L’Abbaye; 011-32-2-648-56-84; alminerech.com.
Artist-designed furniture with a Surrealist strain. 27 Quai du Commerce; 011-32-475-94-90-69; dna-lab.net.
Contemporary furniture plus midcentury finds. 62 Rue de L’Aurore; 011-32-2-646-16-10; diito.be.
Downtown incubator for emerging artists. 5 Boulevard Barthélémy; 011-32-2-502-53-20; vidalcuglietta.com.
Sustainable-fashion mecca from the owner of Stijl. 6 Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains; 011-32-2-513-42-50; haleluja.be.
Hunting and Collecting
The Opening Ceremony of Brussels. 17 Rue des Chartreux; 011-32-2-512-74-77; huntingandcollecting.com.
Wang and Vibskov in back; music and books up front. 5 Rue Léon Lepage; 011-32-2-551-17-67; thisismapp.com.
Saturday night party for visiting D.J.’s. At K-Nal; 1 Avenue du Port; libertinesupersport.be
High Needs Low
Culty quarterly dance party in an old train station. Gare du Congrès; highneedslow.be.
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