Erna Vanderkerckhove is an Antwerp legend. Those who have leafed through one of the weighty tomes on Maison Martin Margiela have already seen her; one of the sultry muses in his seminal style back in the day. Others remember her from the heady 1980s and 1990s as the life and soul of every interesting party or new club that popped up in the city at the time.
Erna became the secret weapon that put many luxury fashion boutiques on the map. Her retail magic was part of the era that saw the city capitalise on the Antwerp Six—the decade where city’s status as an undeniable fashion capital was confirmed. Her reputation, based on her very real track record, saw shop owners (from Antwerp to Tokyo) eager to deploy her skills to guarantee the success of many new luxury fashion ventures.
So, it was only logical that she would eventually open her own enterprise. What was less expected was that she would devote her attention primarily to second-hand and previous seasons’ designer collections.
Then again, it’s entirely logical: she knows exactly to whom she has sold all that luxury fashion over the years and has direct access to a secret supply of stock. Similarly, her retail expertise helped more than one fledgling graduate of Antwerp’s renowned fashion academy—before they were today’s fashion stars—and that means she has a special relationship with important Belgian designers wishing to give continued access to a season’s stock to the right clientele. Who else in Belgium, let alone Antwerp, can compete?
Labels Inc. has gone from strength to strength in the last decade. For most of that time it was based in a modestly sized store in a side street off the Nationalestraat. Its home—later two—on the Aalmoezenierstraat became a place of pilgrimage for those who were as smart about price as they were about style. But Labels Inc. has now moved into suitable new 150sq m premises on the Nationalestraat, the main drag of Antwerp’s fashion district.
While celebrations may have been understated—Antwerp, after all, is about a modesty from which others could learn—the jubilation that this local institution was moving on and up was not entirely contained. Modesty permits us from sharing full details. So it’s a case of “Instgram detectives” if you really want to know…
Inside the new shop, in a higher footfall location, it’s very much “business as usual”: the rails carry designs for men and women spanning a number of decades; from over 20 years old in rare cases—little true vintage remains long in the store—to last season’s collections. The assortment is complemented by shoes, accessories and jewellery presented throughout in engaging displays. Naturally, Belgian designers feature prominently and you can often get your hands on something by Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, A.F. Vandevorst or Raf Simons that you really loved but regretfully let slip through your fingers. Better still, it’s a lot more accessible now—unless rare vintage. However Labels Inc. is not limited to local talent. Balenciaga, Dior, Comme des Garçons, Chloé, Miu Miu, Marni and Yves Saint Laurent are amongst many many others that crop up with regularity.
Asked about the performance of the new shop, Vanderkerckhove said: “Allez, it’s been very busy. All the usual suspects dropping by to say hello and congratulate. But also a lot of new faces now that we are on the main street. You know how Antwerp is: local and international. We try to keep up with our social media, but there’s just so many customers at the moment.”
Part of the fun—or the frustration, depending how you look at it—is that the stock constantly changes and there is seldom more than one of any given garment. That’s why smart locals come back frequently. One word of advice is that Labels Inc. is certainly no longer the ‘insider secret’ it was when it first opened. Part of the fun now is watching rival groups of well-heeled American or Korean tourists glare at each other, each thinking that they were the only people in their respective countries that knew about Labels Inc. It also means that if you like something and it fits you and your wallet well, buy it. It won’t be there when you come back.