The coastal town of Knokke, Belgium’s Saint-Tropez

Rather endearingly known to most as the Belgian St-Tropez, Knokke occupies somewhat of a special place in the minds of most countrymen and women, one defined in part by the coastal town’s odd architecture and similarly odd dress code. But, beyond the sunbed tans and other clichés of the rich and (quasi-) famous (think salmon- coloured trousers and tasselled loafers), Knokke distinguishes itself for its vibrant and vivacious art and design scene catering to the moneyed masses that decamp to the outpost during the summer. Here are the people, places and projects giving Knokke its edge.

Any mention of Knokke instantly conjures images of decadent casino nights, late-night cocktails on a yacht and middle-aged men with a tendency for orange Superdry hoodies. And while that side of Knokke definitely exists, there’s also a lesser-known side to the city, a more committed and creative one, that doesn’t necessarily match up with the stereotypes. Indeed, understanding Knokke isn’t always that easy, with contrasting communities and mix-and-match affinities making for a curious melting-pot of highs and lows.

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ARTS AND CULTURE

A main event on Knokke’s annual cultural calendar is the Fotofestival, a biennial arts festival that brings photography to the whole city. Spread out across town, it sees galleries, non-profits and other cultural institutions host a number of exhibitions and events whilst the streets also accommodate in-situ installations, guided tours and performances. The sheer names and numbers of participating talent play testament to the fact that this is no mere hobby or side-project: in Knokke, art is embedded in the city. Indeed, visiting as well as local exhibitors, galleries and speakers add a very urban, relevant edge to these 10 weeks of photographic enjoyment. What’s more, it has only been around since 2012 yet in the space of just a few years, the festival has successfully brought this event up to the highest regions of the Belgian art scene, which says a lot about the fertile soil Knokke is for artistic entrepreneurs.

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FROM COMMERCIAL TO CONTEMPORARY

Next to Brussels and Antwerp, Knokke hosts what is without a doubt the country’s liveliest, and biggest, art scene, boasting one of the largest density of art galleries of any city in Flanders. Indeed, a number of Brussels and Antwerp galleries and dealers have opened second outposts in the coastal town, a sign of the opportunities it offers. One of those is Geukens & De Vil, who runs a space in Antwerp but opened their first outpost in Knokke gallery on a whim. While taking a stroll on the promenade, they stumbled upon an interesting location and decided to try their luck out for the summer. After three months, they saw the location’s potential and chose to stay a year longer. Now, 18 years later, they continue to call Knokke their second home. Fact is, owners Marie- Paule and Yasmine couldn’t live without the sea anymore, but they still opened a second outpost in Antwerp about 10 years ago. “At the time, Knokke was getting a bit boring” explains Yasmine, “and we needed the dynamics of a city to keep things fresh. Knokke was still more conservative and not always open to upcoming artists and more experimental work.” An idea that still sometimes lingers on in some people’s perceptions of the town: Knokke is bland, commercial and expensive. A sort of “reversed snobbism” was at play where artists or collectors deemed Knokke to be on the wrong side of the spectrum and felt too good to be part of that scene.

People come here because they care, because they are truly interested.

Still, Geukens and De Vil never thought about leaving Knokke behind. On the contrary, the particular atmosphere and audience in Knokke adds a distinct touch to their work. “Things are mu more relaxed here. We have a mixed audience and people pop in almost weekly on their bikes to come take a look. They have time to look, think and decide.” Internationally, Knokke is also a good place to be: “Lots of collectors from Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and France can get here easily or have summer houses in the vicinity. We even see more people from Brussels here than in our gallery in Antwerp, because it’s easier for them to drop by while on a weekend break than making the move to Antwerp.” What’s more, Knokke has changed in the last few years, as Yasmine says: “People are much more open towards new ideas. The city has modernised and so have their residents. Before, we used to make a distinction between exhibitions in Antwerp and in Knokke, but that’s no longer necessary. People find their way and know how to grasp more complicated, experimental works as well.” While the majority of the galleries in Knokke probably still falls under the “tourist” section, a selection of high-end gallerists – Ronny Van De Velde, Jan Hoet Jr, Patrick De Brock and many more – makes any trip to town worthwhile.

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MONEY MAKES THE (ART) WORLD GO ROUND

So is Knokke just a serene, art-loving village? No. There’s no point denying there is a wildly different side too, and those two sides even need each other. BCBG is not a taboo term here. The amount of Land Rovers, Mercedes and Jaguars on the streets here is markedly more noticeable than in other towns. That evokes another reason why art galleries and dealers flock to Knokke for a first or second outpost. Simply put: there’s money to be found in Knokke. Art does not function without it, and commercial thinking is – alas – part of the game. So why not make it easy for yourself and your customers, and follow them to their holiday destinations? Truth be told, Monaco, Miami or Nice Knokke isn’t. For starters, the weather still is Belgian, which tends to keep things down-to- earth. Different people spend their time in different ways, and how they do it is up to them. In Knokke, there’s a lot to do for a section of society that cannot find these things in other places. When your inhabitants or visitors are used to splurging, you have to cater to their needs. People from the higher echelons of society, those with a bigger pot of money to dip into, have been coming to Knokke for ages so it’s not unusual to still see them around. Villa’s and apartments often stay in the family as a second home, meaning that second, third and even fourth generation families keep on coming back.

Knokke Out, neighbouring tennis club (3)

DINNER AND DANCING

Damien Coens is the man behind the now infamous club Knokke Out, just a few metres from the beach in Le Zoute. The concept’s premise is rather simple: you begin the evening with dinner first then stick around for a little dance and a lot of partying. Having previously owned an event planning agency, Damien regularly came to Knokke for tournaments, fireworks and parties, realising the town’s potential. So when the time was right, he decided to open his own venue. He now also runs spin-ofs of Knokke Out in Waterloo, Louvain- La-Neuve and other places, but the atmosphere in Knokke is incomparable: “There’s a different audience here. People from all over the country and even abroad flock here, which creates a looser, holiday-atmosphere. They’re not just here for a regular night of partying, but they want to make the best of their holidays.” A downside is the fact that Knokke really lives in seasons. “Summer and winter are two completely different things. In other cities, your club is open yearlong, whereas here, you have to start over again each Easter break. This is challenging for most restaurants, clubs and bars because it means you have to show your existence and prove your worth each time again.”

Bea Mombaers (3)

HUSTLE AND BUSTLE

Another factor making Knokke a favoured holiday destination is the sheer amount of activities available for holiday-goers. Five beaches, dunes and nature, architecture, plenty of interesting shops and a selection of fine restaurants. This isn’t your typical, dormant seaside resort town. Indeed, unlike other places on the coast, the shopping streets and lanes still have plenty to offer. Bea Mombaers can be described as one of Knokke’s best-known design and interior architects. Her design store Items has been around for 20 years now, and she still feels right at home in Knokke: “The sea, the shore, the light… I just like coming back to the seaside.” She’s also been running a stunning B&B right outside the city centre for a few years now. The cottage-style house is decorated tastefully and fully reflects her passion for vintage and design delights. She came across the B&B by coincidence. After a few interior decorating jobs and frequent visits, during which she was always amazed by the possibilities of the house, the owner Lionel Jadot gave her the chance to do something with it. And so she did: “Maybe I would think about doing the same abroad, somewhere sunny, but in Belgium, Knokke is the only place for me. The audience here matched perfectly with what I try to do, and the cultural and leisure activities are close to none.” As Bea mentions, Knokke is very much alive, and has the power to invigorate you while being an oasis of calm at the same time. Whereas in other coastal towns there’s often not more to find than a grocery store, a few dodgy souvenir shops, smelly fishmongers and clothes’ stores mainly catering to middle-aged women, Knokke boasts brands and stores that you’re likely to find in capitals the world over.

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DOWN MEMORY LANE

On top of that, what makes Knokke – and the entire Belgian coastline for that matter – an ongoing destination for holidays and weekend breaks, is that some things just never change. this does not mean that time stands still here. On the contrary, the constant construction works are a prime example of renovation and change. But the core of the coast does stay recognisable for all. We all have fond memories of family gatherings, party weekends and screeching seagulls. The feeling of sand between your toes is a childhood staple for many. Quaint brasseries, decrepit buildings and old-school candy stores like La Bonbonnière only add to the charm. Going back to the seaside is always a bit of a trip down memory lane. Each town has its age-long attractions, and the ones in Knokke might just speak to the imagination a little bit more.