Handbags replace hookers

19/01/2008 22:33  – (SA)  

Amsterdam, Netherlands – Instead of selling sex, Amsterdam is trying to sell sexy.

The city unveiled its “Red Light Fashion” project on Saturday, having converted 16 buildings that used to house prostitutes in the city’s ancient red light district into studios for young fashion designers.

The idea was born out of the government’s desire to crack down on crime in the area and it is not certain it will succeed: many neighbours are displeased with the high-class newcomers in an area that thrives on its seedy reputation, and even the designers say they are taking a risk.

“I’m very curious whether my clients will come here,” said Jan Taminiau, one of 10 up-and-coming designers awarded space on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, a central street in the red light district.

“I’m sure that some people will be hesitant … but I think most of the clients that I have – I only make made-to-measure – they’ll think it’s fun to come here.”

Amsterdam politicians are convinced that radical change is needed in the red light district, and are spending lavishly to bring it about.

The area has been a centre of prostitution since Amsterdam’s golden age in the 1600s. After World War II, it became a major tourist attraction, along with coffee shops where marijuana is sold openly.

Although prostitution was formally legalised in 2001, the industry remains rife with corruption, from businessmen who own the buildings using them to launder money, to criminal gangs and pimps exploiting the women working there, to petty crime caused by dealers and junkies that frequent the area.

The city bought the 16 buildings from businessman Charles Geerts last year – altogether, they housed about a third of the windows where prostitutes beckon to customers and take them into a small adjoining room for sex.

Dubbed “Fat Charlie” by the Dutch press, Geerts’ licenses were revoked by the city on the accusation that his financial accounting lacked transparency. He was fighting that decision when the two sides decided to settle out of court.


“It’s time to attack criminality much harder and much more effectively than we’ve been able to do in the past years,” the vice-mayor, Lodewijk Asscher, said on Saturday at a champagne ceremony marking the reopening of the buildings.

“It’s only possible by cracking down very hard against everyone doing illegal things, cracking down very hard against black money, money laundering and woman trafficking.”

After his speech, crowds of journalists, fashion models, designers and various hangers-on set out into the narrow streets of the Red Light District to look at the results of the revamp – to the bewilderment of tourists and anger of area regulars.

Many prostitutes are illegal immigrants or have families that do not know what they do. Several were visibly angered at seeing camera crews in what is normally strictly a no-photo zone, making obscene gestures or yanking their curtains shut.

“You’re taking the bread from our mouths,” shouted one man from a cafe window.

At the new studio of fashion designer Edwin Oudshoorn, the bed used by prostitutes who worked there before was still in place, next to a silk-covered divan. Both are now stacked high with thread and fabric.

The city is allowing Oudshoorn and the other designers to live rent-free in the studios for the first year.

Jan Broers, who owns Royal Taste hotel and pub directly across the street, and operates several of the remaining prostitution windows, said he was frustrated with the city’s crackdown.

“They can shut you down ‘on suspicion.’ You know what that means? They don’t like you. They don’t like us here anymore. But we don’t like them down at the government.”

He said it was unfair to force some businesses to undergo heavy financial vetting while others are given space rent-free.

And the idea of mixing fashion with prostitution was poorly thought out, he said: clothes are sold during the day, while the district mostly comes alive at night. And there is not much overlap in customers.

“It’s not good for business,” he said.



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