Bonjour Brussels. Pleased to meet vous

A modern take on the Manneken-Pis
A modern take on the Manneken-Pis

Paris is finished, but Brussels is just beginning. It is blessed with bad weather that fuels creativity, whereas weary Paris cannot seem to shake off the burden of being a brand name. From social crises to fashion runways, there is a palpable sense that the French have simply run out of ideas. And no, Louis Vuitton opening a starchitect ‘fondation’ inside the ho-hummiest in Europe does not qualify as a new idea.

They are by and large a convention-loving lot, the French, and the weight of an only sporadically glorious history (but a lot of history) tends to keep a lid on unfettered thinking. It’s obvious from the 2005 riots and the not-too-distant violent protests about a measure meant to free up the labor market that creative oxygen is in perilously short supply in the land of the crusty baguette. French youth seem to think they’ll go places by throwing cafe chairs at riot police (I’ve had to dodge a few: not amusant). The world will forget this year’s  Charlie Hebdo massacre by Christmas but  all the fault lines are still there. There is no point, however, in launching an anti-French diatribe – their faults are hardly a secret. The bottom line is this: If the search for original designers, phenomenal bargains, and an upbeat atmosphere in Paris leaves you thirsty, hop a train and head 1 1/2 hours north.

No one knows precisely when or why Brussels became a city, so a certain surreality is built into the place. Sure, there’s fabulous fairy-tale architecture like you would expect to find in an old Euro-burg, and some breathtaking specimens of Art Nouveau, but even better is that the Bruxellois seem less hung up on what historical incident happened where than on enjoying a cup of rich hot chocolate. Which brings me back to the matter of fashion. For his turn at the Paris women’s ready-to-wear collections last month, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten served warm chocolate cakes and tea to the audience before showing them clothes with thoughtfully modified masculine touches that conveyed not only a sense of brooding chic but also of sensuality flickering just below the surface – kind of like Brussels on an overcast day.

While fashion show-offs like Vivenne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier seek to shock (the latter a bit less politically, by sending his models in Paris down the catwalk with, er … cats), young Belgian designers like Olivier Theyskens, Raf Simons (for Jil Sander), and Martin Margiela have been much closer to the murky yet mysterious side of modern urban life with their oeuvre.

I sensed right away that Belgian designers are in exactly the right place, creatively speaking, when I visited the astonishingly original Fashion Rooms in Brussels’s Royal Windsor Hotel. Of the 266 rooms in this luxury property, a dozen have undergone extreme personalization at the hands of some of Belgium’s most talented fashion names. Each one was created as though the room was the designer’s own, or at least the one that he or she dreams of when traveling. Each is unique, none gimmicky.

I stayed in a junior suite designed by Nicolas Woit. Its two standout features are a pink velvet daybed and a constellation of pinpoint lights above the actual bed, but my mind keeps returning to one detail in particular: thick and incredibly soft velvet curtains in a shade of frosted lilac I swear I’ve never seen before.

As plush a cocoon as that was, it didn’t prepare me for the room designed by Nina Meert. Like the other designers involved, Ms. Meert principally designs clothes, but her decorating skills are on display here. Terrazzo stone tiles, hand-treated floors and walls in a Siena-at-sunset shade of peachy beige, plus a single table with a box full of pink peonies on top, had me thinking of a futuristic Tuscan villa seen through a soft filter. This – and some amazingly comfortable furniture – lingered long after I shut the door behind me.

(If the Fashion Rooms at the Royal Windsor are booked, I recommend staying at Le Meridien, not just for its prime location across from the central train station but because I know fewer business hotels that have nicer rooms or that are as smoothly run.)

Either place is a good base to rest up before exploring Brussels’s hidden style secrets. Many shops that showcase Brussels designers, such as Stijl and Mademoiselle Jean (the owner of the latter also designed a Fashion Room) are clustered along the rue Antoine Dansaert. The street is also home to posh Bonsoir Clara, a trendy eatery whose name is outdone perhaps only by a restaurant on the other side of town called Who’s Going To Walk the Dog? Inside that one, each table was graced with a different small exotic plant. Eclectic, cool, and very Brussels.

I was most intent on finding the chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, up the street facing the elegant Place du Grand Sablon. On the way, I ducked into a curiosity shop on rue Rollebeek, selling things like globes from colonial days and stuffed two-headed eagles. Farther up the street was a shop that could be the realization of a Rene Magritte dream: It only sold walking canes. Some were made of glass and looked like oversize candy canes.

A cane will come in handy a few blocks away, to keep you from reeling at how low the prices can go on fabulous secondhand furniture and interesting new pieces in the Marolles district, particularly along the rue Blaes and rue Haute. There’s nothing like a good bargain to accompany a creative profusion. A stroll through the central quarters of Brussels might change your mind about the 21st century, unlike that relic Paris, too busy fighting it to leave room for anything like fun.

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