ANTWERP, Belgium -- Being home to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Fashion School, Antwerp's streets are honeycombed with stylish clothing boutiques, some chic, some outré. One of the most imaginative is Nicole Cadine, a smallish shop about a block from the historic home of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. Its exterior is as spare as the company's website, but inside, the racks bulge with a class of apparel you won't find back home.
Arranged by hue, the collection is a feast of the most luxurious fabrics imaginable: brilliantly-colored taffetas paired with silks, linens, and hand-embroidered organzas, the emphasis being on formal wear. Look through them and you gradually catch on: Each dress is one of a kind, yet part of a stylistic progression that ripples through the whole. It is installation art, but wearable, and you can take it home.
If the clothes mirror the designer, Cadine is someone who doesn't go halfway. Born in France, she personifies a European style not so much flamboyant as intense. She travels the Middle East for inspiration, creating a draped, multilayered look: shawls slung around hips, for example, or leggings under skirts. There are shoes and accessories to match, and an impressive if limited selection of bold, conversation-piece jewelry.
Showstoppers like these are not often seen in subdued New England. But it's worth a stop if only to gasp and gush, as if blissfully marooned in Scheherazade's palace wardrobe. Surprisingly for such a place, the sales staff is laissez-faire. Browsers are free to handle the goods and try things on, and everyone speaks English. Prices start at $500, but if there's a place to splurge, this is it.
Nicole Cadine, Schuttershofstraat 42, Antwerp, Belgium. 011-32-3- 213-3778. www.nicolecadine.com. Monday-Saturday10 a.m. to 6 p.m.