January 19, 2008 / 6:21 PM / 10 years ago

Handbags replace hookers in Dutch red-light district

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Skimpy skirts and revealing tops are making way for designer gowns and luxury hand bags in Amsterdam's red light district as part of a drive to ditch the area's seedy image.

Fifteen young Dutch designers opened stores in former brothels on Saturday, displaying their creations in the tall windows where prostitutes recently sat touting for business.

"It is time for a change here," deputy mayor of Amsterdam Lodewijk Asscher said at the launch of the city-backed fashion push.

"Amsterdammers ought to able to feel proud of this area."

The city council is getting tough on the 800 year-old red-light district, pledging to stamp out crime and human trafficking by revoking the licenses of suspect sex clubs and brothels, including some of the industry's best-known names.

By allowing the designers to occupy former brothels for a year free of charge it hopes to breathe new life into the area and attract visitors more interested in shopping than ogling sex workers.

But the "Red-light fashion" project has angered local window prostitutes.

"The women here fear it will affect their earnings because the shops will bring the kind of visitor who wants nothing to do with them," said Metje Blaak of the sex workers union.

Many in the tourist industry acknowledge the red light district -- a warren of narrow alleys and canals lined with sex shops, peep shows and brothels -- is as big an attraction as Amsterdam's art museums and coffee shops, where marijuana is smoked and sold.

"They'd lose so much money if they shut it down," said 25-year-old English tourist Max, who said the drugs and the women had attracted him to Amsterdam.

The city's new tougher line is part of a wider trend in the Netherlands of tightening laws sanctioning coffee shops and prostitution.

Under current plans up to a third of all the sex windows and brothels could close.

Fashion designer Edwin Oudshoorn told the first visitors to his shop he hoped he could work side-by-side with the prostitutes.

The 27-year-old has ripped out the neon lights and put up yellow wallpaper to show off his womenswear collection.

"When I first came in here it was really disgusting, but within a week I made it my own," he said.

"Now it is my own little doll's house."

Editing by Matthew Jones

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