Amsterdam Refashions Red-Light District

A prostitute poses in a window next to one of the 16 buildings in the area converted into rent-free fashion studios.
A prostitute poses in a window next to one of the 16 buildings in the area converted into rent-free fashion studios. (By Peter Dejong -- Associated Press)
Associated Press
Sunday, January 20, 2008

AMSTERDAM, Jan. 19 -- Instead of selling sex, Amsterdam is trying to sell sexy.

The city unveiled its "Red-Light Fashion" project Saturday, 16 buildings that used to house prostitutes in the city's longtime red-light district that have been converted into studios for young fashion designers.

The idea was born of the government's desire to crack down on crime in the area. But many neighbors 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 center 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 legalized in 2000, the industry remains rife with corruption. Businessmen who own the buildings use them to launder money. Criminal gangs and pimps exploit the women working there. And petty crime abounds, because of the dealers and junkies who frequent the area.

The city paid $40 million to buy the 16 buildings from a businessman last year. Between them, they housed about a third of the windows where prostitutes beckon to customers and take them into small adjoining rooms for sex.

The designers are living rent-free in the studios for the first year.

Jan Broers, who owns the Royal Taste hotel and pub directly across the street and operates several of the remaining prostitution windows, said it was unfair to force some businesses to undergo heavy financial vetting while others are given space rent-free.

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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