Quite a few people are curious about how a fashion journalist could become a social activist, so we decided to publish the biography of BFBW’s founder Ninette Murk. Take a drink and a comfortable seat and enjoy!
Ninette Murk (born January 22nd, 1954 in Haarlem, The Netherlands) is a social activist, writer, consultant, curator and networker focusing on projects that make the world a better place through the use of pop culture (social media, fashion, art, photography…). She lives in Antwerp, Belgium
Ninette Murk was born the daughter of a flower bulb merchant and a librarian and grew up surrounded by beauty, books and music. As a 6 year old girl she wanted to become a doctor in Africa, until she discovered she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Her favourite hobbies were reading and writing. She lived in the small village of Hillegom, which soon became too small for her and at 16 she moved to Bergen op Zoom, near the southern border of The Netherlands. She got bored with school around this period too, as she felt the classical system slowed her down. Her next years were spent learning-by-doing, reading a lot, going to concerts and enjoying the life of a young woman in the Seventies. In 1976 her son Mischa was born from a relationship with a Welsh traveler and two years later she left for Antwerp, Belgium with her son, to live with her new boyfriend (and later first husband).
First career in fashion
In Antwerp she met a lot of fledgling young fashion designers, make-up artists and stylists and she also honed her craft as a buyer and reseller of secondhand and vintage clothes. She married her first husband in 1982 and her daughter Nona was born 2 years later. The relationship didn’t go well, so in 1988 she left her husband and went to live on her own with her two children. Her first years as a divorced mother were lonely and she filled her days writing diaries and short stories. One day a well-known Belgian singer read some of her work and advised her to ‘do something’ with her talent for language. She started to work for free for avantgarde publications such as Blaazuit, Sheap and Pulp and soon after applied for a job as text editor at a new monthly Belgian magazine called Feeling. After doing some trial stories she got accepted and graduated from correcting other people’s texts to working as a journalist herself within the year. First she wrote about general subjects, but soon she focused on young Belgian and international creative talents and as most of those people were her friends, she could come up with exclusive stories. Next to Feeling she started to write for Belgian and international magazines- including a few in Japan, as the Antwerp designers were very popular there in the Nineties. Next to writing stories, Ninette also started to organise fashion and commercial shoots, went to Paris Fashion Week every season (both for women and men) and was busy and quite happy for a while, until 9/11 happened in NYC and she started to wonder if this was the kind of work she wanted to keep doing until her retirement. The answer was a firm no.
Second life as a HIV/AIDS activist
Ninette was fashion director at newspaper Het Volk in the Nineties, when her assistant Peter Verhelst (who was in his early Forties), passed away from AIDS. She couldn’t understand how this was still possible in a developed country and started to ask her children and other teens what they knew about HIV/AIDS and safe sex. The results were shocking: they didn’t know and they didn’t care. From that moment on, Ninette decided to use her contacts in the fashion and media worlds to set up projects that would educate young people about HIV/AIDS and the need for safe sex and why this was so important. Her first project, supported by Evisu (a Japanese denim brand), was Designers Do Denim (2001), for which she motivated all the important Belgian fashion designers, some musicians and even Ministers of State to customise a piece of denim, that were later exhibited in museums in Antwerp and Utrecht (The Netherlands) and then auctioned for HIV/AIDS research by the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. This project was a huge success and even journalist Suzy Menkes came to see an exhibition of the denim pieces in Antwerp and wrote about it for The New York Times. Soon after, with the help of her second husband Peke, who she married in 2008, Ninette founded Designers against AIDS (DAA) as a project of her NGO Beauty without Irony (BWI) and started to look for partners and fashion brands to help her get the message out. After a few hard years (the world was not ready for this kind of awareness, as they felt AIDS was either over or ‘just’ a gay or African disease) she proposed a collection designed and presented by international celebrities to global fashion retailer H&M in Stockholm and the result was Fashion against AIDS, that ran for 5 years and raised over 13 million euros for HIV/AIDS NGO’s working with young people. With their part of the proceeds, DAA founded an education center in 2010, where international students learned how to create and implement cool HIV prevention campaigns. This work was done until 2015, when Ninette became seriously ill – first with Cauda Equina Syndrome and 2 years later a spinal stroke, meaning that she couldn’t lead her center anymore, or had the energy to find partners and sponsors. Everything grounded to a halt.
Third career in social activism through beauty
Because Ninette spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals and in bed, she had plenty of time to think about next steps. She was about to retire, except that was the last thing she wanted, as she felt there was still a lot to do when it came to making the world a better place and she didn’t want to let her experience go to waste. She decided to focus on beauty (as in nature, love, compassion, discovering other cultures…not lipsticks) to lift people up and remind them to do their bit to preserve the beauty that’s still left in the world as well as they can. “If you love it, you will protect it”. Through her NGO Beauty without Irony she started several projects, the most important of which is Beauty for a Better World (BFBW), that was founded in March 2020 as an antidote to the feelings of helplessness and despair due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The concept of BFBW, which is an ongoing project, is to ask people -ranging from small children to well known celebrities- to send in a photo, illustration or other work that they made and that reflects their idea of real beauty. Usually contributors also send in a quote or even a full story about true beauty. The works are exhibited in an online gallery and there are plans for expos in real life and a book, with the proceeds going to charity. In 2022 Ninette still is not back to full health physically, but busier than ever. From 2021 she (together with her NGO BWI and other experienced people from her network) also consults for the nr 1 educational/charity app in the world: the Global Goals app, created by Samsung together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The app has around 240 million users, 6 million daily views and is translated in 83 different languages (March 2022). Ninette contacts well-known people from her network and asks them to give some practical tips -to do with one of the Global Goals- for young people, tips that they can easily apply in their daily life, with friends, at school and/or in their community. All fees for the consultancy are donated to NGO Beauty without Irony, to help with their work. The story is not quite over yet!
Ninette didn’t become a doctor in Africa, but she hopes that her work will still have a positive impact on the world.
Jobs & Projects (more or less in reverse order)
- Founder and creative director of Beauty for a Better World, an art project meant to uplift people through the power of real beauty (www.beautyforabetterworld.org) (1) (56)
- Consultant and Board Member of GWAND Sustainable fashion in Switzerland (www.gwand.org) (2)
- Writer for i-D Magazine (3), Vogue Italia and SCHON Magazine.
- Consultant for the Samsung x UNDP Global Goals app (www.samsungglobalgoals.com)
- Founder/curator of ‘Beauty without Irony’ (4), a project/exposition/catalogue-magazine of fresh, creative talents of all ages. BWI had their first exposition at the Super! triennal for art, fashion & design in Hasselt (Sept 9th – Nov 13th) (8). Following that were 2 expos called Air/Port: the first in Essaouira Morocco (2013)(5) and the second in Antwerp (2014) (6). In 2016 BWI organised the expo Beauty Overdose in Sterckshof Castle in Deurne, Belgium (7). (www.beautywithoutirony.com)
- European agent for photographer Sean Black (Miami) (9)
- Creative director of Be Carbon Neutral, based in New York City (http://www.eliminatecarbon.com/)
- Consultant for 100 Years Lee Cooper (artist scouting and follow-up of the artworks and auction) 2009. (10) (11)
- Creator of collaborations for DAA with Marc Jacobs (12) (13), Essentiel Antwerp (14), Eastpak (15) (16), Delvaux (17), Playboy Design, JBC (18) (19) (20)(21) and more.
- Founder and creative director of Pillows of Hope, artisan pillowcases made by women in India, Morocco, Bali and Nigeria.
- Jury member for various fashion related competitions on Arts Thread (www.artsthread.com) (22) (23)
- Director of the International HIV/AIDS Awareness Education Center (24) (36), that opened December 1st in 2009 in Deurne/Antwerp.
- Driving force behind ‘Fashion against AIDS’ the annual collection of DAA and mass fashion retailer H&M that was sold in almost 1000 stores in 30 countries (25). The first edition (2008)featured artists such as Timbaland (26), Rihanna (27), Tokio Hotel (28), Ziggy Marley (29), Rufus Wainwright, Good Charlotte and Katharine Hamnett (30), for the 2nd FAA in 2009 artists were Dita Von Teese (31), Katy Perry (32), Róisín Murphy, Estelle (33), Cyndi Lauper (34), Pharrell Williams/N.E.R.D (35), Robyn, Yoko Ono, Yelle, Moby, Katharine Hamnett, Dangerous Muse and Tokio Hotel. In total there were 5 collections and 13 million euros were raised for 4 HIV prevention orgs working with youth.
- Founder/director of non-profit fashion/music range ‘Designers against AIDS’: celebrity designed T-shirts (55), Thai/Hmong fabric shoulder bags, skirts and coin purses, bracelets and other items that are sold worldwide to get HIV/AIDS back into the media and to inform youth in the industrialised world about the importance of safe sex (January ’05). www.designersagainstaids.com and www;designersagainstaids.be (archive site). (37)
- Founder/director of MintRed (38), an international PR, Press and Consultancy Agency for designers, photographers, fashion brands and enterprises, with the aim to get international media exposure (2003- 2010).
- Editor-in-Chief of the Antwerp part of Cool Capitals (39), a tourism website designed to promote European cities as destinations for lifestyle lovers from the US (2007-2011).
- PR worldwide for Stimuli Magazine (September 07- 2012) (40)
- Consultant for the Arnhem Mode Biennale (June 07), scouting emerging and famous designers and international press. (41)
- Co-founder of TolerAntwerpen, a platform of organisations and individuals in Belgium who want to celebrate life and beauty, instead of being scared and voting extreme right wing. This is done by organising cheap & fun parties and other events for a very broad audience, both age- and culture-wise (June ’04). (42)
- Creative director of the HIV prevention T-shirt project for Café d’Anvers, where famous designers such as Dirk Bikkembergs and Francesco Costa for Calvin Klein create T-shirts to be sold to fund aids-research of the King Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp (August ’04) (43)
- Contributor to Dutch (RIP; now called ZOO Magazine), Fashion Director of Flemish daily newspaper Het Volk, Stimuli Magazine (Antwerp/London), Clear Magazine (USA), Sportswear International (Milan), Clam (France), Composite, High Fashion, Ryuko-Tsushin, Atmosphere and Studio Voice (all in Japan), BLVD (Holland), Sleazenation and Dazed & Confused (UK), Style in Progress/ X-Ray (Austria), Quest, The Berliner, Kodex and Kodexonline (Germany), Glamour, Feeling, Flair, Glam’it, Weekend-Knack, Zone 03/ and newspaper De Morgen (all in Belgium); Belgian correspondent for WGSN and WGSN-edu (professional fashion website); researching subjects and producing interviews and videos for Sputnik NYC (cultural intelligence scouting): fashion, travel, beauty, interiors, lifestyle, trends.
- Head of the editorial office Benelux for kodex (www.kodexonline.com -starting June ’04- 2008)
- Fashion Director and International Communications Director of Forecast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June ’04).
- European and US PR for china lane (2002-2005). (44)
- PR Michaël Verheyden (2002-2005). (45)
- PR Nathalie Verlinden (2002-2005). (46)
- PR support Alexandra Mein (2002-2005). (47)
- Paris Fashion Week PR for Belgian fashion collective NU.
- Co-founder of the Flanders Fashion Institute in Antwerp (’97) (48)
- Director of ‘Guerilla’, an non-profit events bureau/booking/modelling agency promoting underground lifestyle (music, fashion, art) (49)
- European agent for photographers Dino Dinco (Los Angeles), Jason Orton (London) and Juan Brenner (New York City)- (1995-1997)
- Belgian fashion consultant for Amsterdam International Fashion Week (2004-2006) (50)
- Editor & international PR for the limited edition Visionfragments fashion calendars (editions 02 and 03). (www.visionfragments.be (51) (52)
- Fashion & Beauty Director Sheap (Belgian lifestyle magazine for young people) -August ’01- January ’03.
- Fashion consultant for Levi’s Premium Lines (Red and LVC)
- PR for Belgium, Holland and Germany for ‘Umbro by Kim Jones’ (August ’03-January ’06) (53) (54)
- PR & consultancy for the American fashion label ‘Feuerwasser’, with the aim of promoting the brand in Europe.
- Editor-in-Chief/Fashion & Beauty Director Sputnik Magazine (Belgian lifestyle magazine written in English, to promote young -mainly Belgian- design & photography talent internationally April ’99- October ’00).
- Fashion writer/editor/consultant, specialised in young, creative designers (mainly from Belgium and Holland, but also others)
- Curator for an exhibition at Galérie 213 (Marion de Beaupré), where 5 Belgian fashion designers were linked to 5 international photographers (’05).
- Press and PR for Boa Connections, where famous & new young talents from the worlds of fashion, music and art meet for events at unusual locations in Antwerp.
- Press texts & other assistance to Lieve Van Gorp, Bernhard Willhelm, Anna Heylen, Christoph Broich, Maria Intscher and other Belgian designers
- Communications Director for Bernhard Willhelm
- Communications Director for ‘no:play’
- Creative Projects Consultant for events/expositions with young, creative talents for Value Retail/Maasmechelen Village (upmarket outlet stores) and their other European villages (London, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid), from spring ’01-december ’03.
- Creative Consultant ‘Reflect’-Belgium (charity project for Unicef with British photographer Alistair Morisson) (55)
- Production work (from concept to completed fashion shoots & everything in between) Example project: the Levi’s Red & LVC catalogues for F/W O3/04, shot entirely in Antwerp, with models cast & locations secured by us.
- Researcher VTM-national TV for ‘Medialaan 1’-fashion-related subjects for items featuring Belgian celebrities (’97).
- Fashion consultancy for advertising agencies, avantgarde fashion shops and various brands (link between creative fashion designers and commercial brands), for example the fashion.com/Motorola v.phone event that took place on 30/3/00 in Brussels and that featured 8 young designers from Belgium and Holland and an event for H&M featuring customised clothes by Belgian fashion school graduates.
- Fashion & Beauty Director Pulp Magazine (January ’97 – March ’99)
- Fashion & Beauty Editor OutSoon/Café Cool (music & fashion mag & website) (until June ’00)
- Developing concepts for the ‘Mode d’Anvers’ events in Antwerp club Café d’Anvers, with the aim of mixing (mainly Belgian) fashion with music
- Consultant for Hortensia de Hutten/Paris, to scout Belgian and Dutch creative designers with a commercial feel to take to fairs in New York City in February & September of each year. Also PR for Workshop (fair for young, creative designers in Paris) and Workshop Déco. (March ’99-May’ 00)
- Model scouting -scouted top model Hannelore Knuts for Vision by Steff and Amélie Lens (now a well known DJ)
- International promotion of young designers, photographers, stylists, make-up artists, etc.
- Teacher Press & Communication at the IFM (Institut Français de la Mode) in Paris
- Consultant to Mr. Didier Grumbach of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (Paris) regarding new, creative designers
- Organized benefit fashion auction ‘Designers Do Denim’ (that took place on May 27th ’01 in Antwerp) with more than 50 Belgian designers and other creative personalities who customized a pair of Evisu jeans (website: www.designersdodenim.com) (56) and was fashion consultant for an event with 3 young fashion designers/students who customized pieces of the commercial collections for H&M (Hennes) for two events in September ’01.
- https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/59bgva/beauty-without-irony-is-the-charity-using-fashion-to-make-the-world-a-better-place (5
- Photo of Dita Von Teese, DAA’s creative director Javier Barcala and DAA founder Ninette Murk at the campaign launch at the VIP Room in Paris, France.
- https://fashionunited.de/nachrichten/mode/antwerpener-modeszene-wird-politisch-aktiv/2004070728438 (
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBLVsxQnckY (interview by Sara Sozzani Maino, Vogue Italia)