TWICE A YEAR, Graanmarkt 13, a concept store and restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium, reaches out to clients, but not to promote a new collection or a final-markdown sale. Instead, it asks customers to bring in old clothes, which the whole store then turns over to sell. Participants get a voucher to put toward new items.
It’s just one of the radical ideas from Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven, both 39, the married couple who started the place. Sustainability is a common word these days, but they take it to new extremes at Graanmarkt 13, which is their grand experiment: retail as personal expression. There are never any sales or discounts at this tucked-away gem so that customers won’t be tempted to buy things they don’t need. One brand they stock turns tie scraps into dresses; another wraps its Moroccan-clay soap in paper bags. “The only solution to lots of issues is to buy less,” says Cornelissens.
The reclusive Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela, a friend of the couple and patron of the store, admires their “ignoring deliberately the prevailing fashion system.” It’s “definitely not the average concept store,” he says by email in a rare interview, likening it to “entering somebody’s private place where all items are carefully picked and displayed in a serene and quiet atmosphere.”
Designer Dries Van Noten, like Margiela a graduate of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, says that Cornelissens and Van Geloven were brave to open a store that emphasizes “items to be collected, not bought and thrown away.”
“It was difficult,” says Van Geloven. “It’s still difficult. We are a little bit hidden. We don’t have any windows to show things. You have to take the stairs—so we’ve bent all the retail rules. But now people know us. No one asks for discounts anymore.” He and Cornelissens are taking a lunch break at the restaurant they run on the lowest level of the neoclassical, five-floor building, an abandoned home they bought in 2007. Graanmarkt 13—named for the address on a quiet, tree-lined square where a market takes place on Sundays—centers on a back courtyard with a towering old ginkgo tree. Interiors designed with Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen set a tranquil tone for the fashion, housewares and beauty products. A low-key vibe pervades the shop—when a young boy musses a pile of garments, he gets nothing more than a beatific smile from the sales staff. “We just think of it as a house, because it has that feeling,” says Cornelissens. “A nice lifestyle starts from a house.”
Last year Graanmarkt 13–branded products became available in the U.S. for the first time. Barneys is carrying the duo’s candle and fragrance, created by the London-based “nose” Lyn Harris of Perfumer H (Cire Trudon manufactured the candle). Graanmarkt’s chef, Seppe Nobels, will devise dishes on a spring menu for Genes Cafe at Barneys’ Madison Avenue store for a month, starting March 20. Nobels emphasizes local and sustainable foods; at Graanmarkt he serves only easily replenished fish from the nearby North Sea. “This chef doesn’t call to order something,” says Van Geloven. “The farmer calls to say what he has. That’s where we start.”
Although they once lived over the store, he and Cornelissens quickly outgrew that space—their children are now 9, 8 and 1. So in 2015 they moved into a grand, six-story townhouse in another neighborhood. They had been driving around Antwerp with their two oldest children sleeping in the car when they saw a somewhat distressed Venetian-style building. It had a handwritten for-sale sign with a phone number.
A huge backyard with room for a pool and ample greenery was part of the attraction. “It’s for the garden that we bought the house,” says Cornelissens. “It’s old-fashioned to live in such a big house, but we love it.” The circa-1900 structure measures some 11,000 square feet and required a two-year renovation. Executed with architect Thomas van Looij, of Antwerp’s Studio 22, the remodeling returned the floors, ceilings and windows to their original state. There are guest rooms and project rooms aplenty, plus a gym and a changing area for the pool. (Despite the many options, their two boys elected to share a room.)
The interiors, honed with van Looij and the help of Graanmarkt’s artistic director, the scenographer Bob Verhelst, have the same spare aesthetic that reigns in the store. They even hung the same linen curtains and used the same chalk-infused painting technique to give warmth to the walls. Antiques mix subtly with modern pieces. In the eat-in kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, there’s a 19th-century English glass-fronted cupboard filled with earthenware by noted Brussels ceramist Pierre Culot. (The couple don’t cook much—for dinner the nanny helps, or they make a simple soup.) They own contemporary furniture classics like the Crossed Double Seat by the Belgian design duo Muller Van Severen. There are small marble-topped Tube tables from Michaël Verheyden, whose work they also sell at Graanmarkt.
Cambiamos el Mundo, an etching on canvas by Philip Aguirre y Otegui, has pride of place at the entrance, where it moved after a stint at the restaurant. They like the idealism of it—a group of friends smoking, drinking and talking about how to change the world. “Most of the pieces that we collect are made by local artists that we know,” says Cornelissens, pointing to a colorful painting by Ben Sledsens, The Flowerstore. “This piece just makes us happy every day.”
As a couple, they are unusually in sync. Married for a decade, they actually met much earlier, as teenagers. “We’ve known each other since we were 13,” says Cornelissens, who is Belgian but went to high school with Van Geloven, who is Dutch, in Breda, a city in the southern Netherlands. They both attended the University of Amsterdam, with Cornelissens studying law, Van Geloven economics. “In school we were best friends,” she continues. “And then all of a sudden when we were studying, there was something happening.”
It soon became a business partnership, too. In 2007, after moving from Amsterdam, they bought the Graanmarkt 13 building and set about pursuing their vision, though it didn’t open until 2010. “We started in the middle of the recession,” says Van Geloven, who recalled how tough securing bank loans became after the global recession in 2008. But on the bright side, he says, “We could only grow bigger from there.”
The couple has informally divvied up their responsibilities so that Van Geloven tackles finances, personnel and the apartment; Cornelissens has sway over the curating of the shop itself, where fashion (both women’s and men’s) is more than half the inventory. The reigning aesthetic is one that she calls “post-cool.” It’s minimalist and practical, but also fun.
Karen Van Godtsenhoven, now an associate curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, got to know the couple when she worked at Antwerp’s MoMu fashion museum. By featuring upstart Belgian fashion brands like Bernadette and Sofie D’Hoore, says Van Godtsenhoven, “they nurture talent.” She adds, “Ilse picks things that fit her own personal taste, but it’s a style that a lot of women share: high-quality, but for real life. Women recognize themselves in it.”
Local designers are a focus, as are brands that are seasonless, genderless and sizeless. You can buy a one-size-fits-all sweater from the Dutch brand Extreme Cashmere ($455) or a gleaming rain slicker from Kassl Editions ($1,140), a design collective co-founded by Cornelissens, Van Geloven and seven partners. It is also available at Barneys (imagine it donned by a very trendy, slim fisherman).
Though Graanmarkt 13 sells the dish-shaped, fiberglass Roly Poly Chair, by British designer Faye Toogood, for $8,500, also on display are the $10 highball glasses used in the restaurant. “We don’t only want to be there for the happy few,” says Cornelissens. “We love craftsmanship and the handmade.” Visitors can rent the top two floors of the four-bedroom lodging where the couple used to live, decorated in a style you might call warm minimalism (if it were in Copenhagen, you’d say hygge).
Many things in the Graanmarkt universe come imprinted with whimsical texts: “I am one of the deep secrets of nature” is emblazoned on the bergamot- and lavender-infused fragrance. “We like to be playful, and we see the store as our playroom,” says Cornelissens.
That’s partly why Graanmarkt has become a style incubator and meeting point for tastemakers. “They’re connectors, linking people, introducing people,” says Boris Vervoordt, who runs the Antwerp antiques and design gallery founded by his father, Axel.
Vervoordt and his husband, Michael James Gardner, are close friends with Cornelissens and Van Geloven. “They came to us when they furnished the apartment on top of Graanmarkt,” says Vervoordt, mentioning the black linen sofa and pouf that were purchased from him; in turn, he recently picked up a cutting board and glassware from the couple. For him, the Graanmarkt brand trumps any one particular item. “What they’re doing is so out of the box, ” he says. “I’m wearing jeans today that I bought there. I have no idea who designed them, but I think of them as Graanmarkt.”
For Cornelissens and Van Geloven, Antwerp’s under-the-radar status is an attraction, not a drawback. The city is best known for being the home of Baroque-era painter Peter Paul Rubens and the center of the diamond trade, and it’s less of an international destination than Brussels. The success they’ve achieved was hardly preordained, and it wouldn’t have happened without Verhelst, a figure on Antwerp’s creative scene long known for production design and fashion exhibitions at museums. He went to school with Margiela and Van Noten, and has worked with the couple for 11 years, turning Graanmarkt into what he calls “an oasis in the city.”
The ideas of Graanmarkt are now taking root. A book on the store, A white facade, five floors and an open door: Graanmarkt 13, recently came out from the Belgian publisher Lannoo. Van Geloven says he toys with the idea of expanding their footprint to Amsterdam or somewhere even farther flung. “We went out of our comfort zone for this whole project, and I’m happy we did,” says Cornelissens as she prepares to go back to work.