Since the 13th century Antwerp has vacillated between booming seaport and provincial town, depending on who was in charge and whether there’d been a flood recently. But in 1981, when six fashion design graduates from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts showed their mod, mangled work together at the London Designer Show, the city suddenly became a world-famous hub for avant-garde design. It’s the sort of thing that gives independent artists hope that big things can happen in overlooked cities.

Instead of leaving Chicago for someplace more fashion friendly, Pilgrim, a group of six School of the Art Institute graduates and their mentor, Andrea Arsenault, chair of the fashion design department, decided to try taking similar advantage of the wide-open market here. Shane Gabier, who interned in Antwerp for a company that produced clothing by second-wave designers such as Raf Simons and Veronique Branquinho and is currently an assistant buyer at fancy-pants boutique Ikram, has faith that people in Chicago will be open to avant-garde ideas if they’re presented in an accessible way. So Gabier, Cally Rieman, Pin-Ling Lin, Eric Geer Wilcox, and Helen Choi are teaming up with two professional makeup artists, a hairstylist, and down-tempo electronica artist Kscape to put on a show at Heaven Gallery, a laid-back space in Wicker Park. (Sixth Pilgrim member Hilary Olsen has been busy designing costumes for the Flying Griffin Circus.)

They’re not trying to take the international fashion world by storm, but they hope that collaboratively they can make a bigger splash than they would on their own. “Unless you have a lot of nerve, money, and connections, it’s very difficult to get noticed when working alone,” says Arsenault.

The group members graduated from SAIC in different years–they first met about six months ago. When they finally got together they all agreed they were tired of seeing the same ideas recycled in fashion, and that it’s a shame U.S. designers prefer a beautiful ad campaign to a beautiful product. Says Rieman, who was an apprentice in Paris to Jean-Charles de Castelbajac–known for his loud, rebellious goth-pop aesthetic–and has already designed four collections under the label C-Ligne Inc. for local upscale boutique P.45: “We’re concentrating on the time and care it takes for each piece and each idea, which is a more couture attitude.”

Gabier has the largest presentation planned, with ten models and a dozen women’s outfits, all simple pieces that give the illusion of complexity. For example, there’s a cotton poplin jacket layered over drapes and crisp pleats of soft gray cotton shirting meant to look like a blouse and scarf. Rieman and Lin are collaborating on another collection for women: low-key black suits with sculptural, armorlike cashmere collars. Wilcox is hanging conceptual sketches of shoes on the walls, and Choi is showing menswear–which she decided to concentrate on when she realized that male designers are the ones really famous for women’s fashion; she wanted to turn the tables. Her melancholy pretty-boy aesthetic is generated by a combination of tweed, velvet, shiny fabrics, and somewhat feminine shapes. Gabier says the point of the show is simply to gain exposure for the group. He says it’d be great if a store wanted to start carrying any of the collections, but mainly “it’s a good reason to keep working.”

The show is Wednesday, November 14, at 8 PM at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee, on the second floor. Admission is $10; call 773-342-4597 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.