I don’t like shopping. While I can linger for hours in a bookstore, I simply don’t have the patience for browsing and trying on clothes.
If I could afford it, I wouldn’t mind having a personal shopper figure out my sartorial dilemmas: Can you find me a diaphanous black silk blouse that is similar to what I saw in Hugo Boss but doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? Do these shoes go with the dress and would this ensemble be good enough for a black-tie event? I need a pair of skinny jeans that fits perfectly and doesn’t need any alteration…
However, whenever the month-long winter or summer sale arrives, I would diligently hit some of my preferred shops and hope to swiftly find whatever it is that I’m looking for at a heavily discounted price (up to 70%). Fortunately, and unfortunately, fashion shopping is limited in Brussels compared to Paris and London, as well as Antwerp. Which means that I just need to go to the two main shopping streets – Avenue Louise and Rue Antoine Dansaert – to get this twice-yearly chore over and done with.
While the contemporary fashion options in Brussels are not particularly exciting, you can find a good selection of quality vintage fashion shops in the city – for instance, see this list compiled by a writer for The Guardian.
Modes (164 rue Blaes) is a personal favourite. Run by a husband-and-wife couple, Modes works frequently with theatre and movie costume designers. What differentiates Modes from the other vintage shops in Brussels is that it specialises in antique clothes and fabrics, going as far back as the 18th century.
The last time I was there, I ended up chatting with Michael, the owner of the shop. In that half hour or so, I learnt that he used to be an excellent frisbee player, that “golf frisbee” was popular in the 1970s and as part of the Belgian national team, he got to travel around the world from the US to Goa, India. Who knew frisbee is an international competitive sport?
He was candid about having “only” 12 years of education and not having a university education. He talked about how he would always do his best in whatever job he did, even if it was just doing the dishes, treating it as his own personal project but the people that he worked for didn’t care much for him or the other employees.
In his last job, he was ungraciously let go after having completed the cataloging and indexing of the products in a warehouse. It happened to be his 30th birthday.
On that eventful day, he went to the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle – which is not far from Modes – and his friend urged him to try it out on his own and gave him some of her supplies to sell. He was quick to add that he wasn’t going into the flea market business cold. After all, his mother was an antique dealer while his brother made a living by fixing old furniture. What started out first as an informal spot on Place du Jeu de Balle selling old lamps and furniture eventually morphed into a specialised business trading in antique textiles and clothing.
There was a gorgeous beaded dress hanging in the window display. He brought it down for me to see and I was surprised at how heavy the dress weighed. There must have been at least one kilogram of beads attached to it! It wasn’t cheap (about 500€), oh but what a piece of art. Fortunately it was too large for me, so buying it was out of the question.
We talked about “les Années folles” (“Roaring Twenties”) and Michael said that such flapper dresses were made to be worn for one night of revelry and were tossed aside by their exhausted owners afterward. In certain secondhand shops in New York, he used to find the countertops piled high with these fancy beaded dresses for sale.
After bidding au revoir to Michael, I made my way to Gabriele Vintage (27 rue des Chartreux), which was opened by a German lady after whom the shop is named. Gabriele Vintage is a wonderland for ladies who adore vintage fashion, especially hats, from the 1920s to the 1980s.
The first time I was there, I ended up buying a sequined dress from the 1970s that I had tried on for fun, to see how I would look in something that I thought was rather old-fashioned. Funny how often I end up buying clothes that I didn’t intend to purchase in the first place!
The tricky thing with this dress is that it’s not appropriate for everyday wear. Because it is so distinctive, I’ve only been able to wear it at the opening events for two hotels. Even then, I had to consider that most of my colleagues who saw me wear it the first time in Seville were not present at the latter event in Venice!
Who knows when will be the next time I would get to wear it?