Not long after the attacks in Brussels, I found myself there to complete a jigsaw puzzle that began when I used to moon at the MOMU museum in Antwerp. Actually, the mooning still happens. I’m just less likely to go on random Eurostar jaunts to Belgium. Back in 2009, the MOMU played host to an in-depth exhibition about the history of what is the oldest leather goods house in the world, Delvaux, and it was there that I became fascinated with this discreet and almost “insider”-esque brand.
I went to go see Delvaux’s headquarters and atelier housed in a former 19th century arsenal. In Belgian fashion terms, they stand apart in being based in Brussels, whilst their contemporaries are in the more fashion fuelled Antwerp. Then again, Delvaux isn’t necessarily a fashion brand. Christina Zeller, the artistic director of Delvaux, who has been responsible for galvanising recent momentum for the brand, may come from a fashion background having previously designed bags for Givenchy, is eager to distinguish Delvaux as “luxury” as opposed to “fashion”. “We have never been ‘in’, so we will never be ‘out’,” she said in an interview.
Being neither ‘in’ or ‘out’ means you can go about the business at a pace that is fitting for bags that are crafted with precision and care. Compared to other bag workshops/ateliers/factories (I’ve seen the gamut), Delvaux operates at a much smaller scale, producing a few hundred bags a week only. It’s why longtime employees such as Ludo, the expert in skins, can take his time feeling out the faults and flaws of a hide. Or why they can spend hours on a piece of ostrich skin, shaving it away at the back to prevent holes from forming where the recognisable bumps are.
It’s here that Delvaux’s most well-known and famous bag styles are made – from the big buckled Brillant (created in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair) to the structured Le Tempête, often rendered in rare exotics, making it one of the more expensive models in Delvaux’s range. I know, I’m always banging on about hands, craft and peeps making stuff. It borders on being a bit of a fetish but honestly, the more familiar you are with those processes of say, lacquering the edges of a bag, lining up pattern pieces on a skin so that the cutting is done in the right place or even the final process of hand-finishing and checking the bag so that’s ready to be packed and shipped – somehow, the price tag makes a lot more sense, when you count up the number of steps and man hours that have gone into the final bag on the shop shelf. Interestingly at Delvaux, the bags don’t go through a linear or ‘lean’ line of production, as each craftsman is responsible for the construction of a bag, pretty much from start to finish.
Delvaux is of course not as discreet and buried as it once was, which is down to Zeller’s input, as she continues to breath fresh life into the core range as well as augmenting it with new styles when necessary. When Dover Street Market Haymarket opened for its first weekend of trading, it was surprising to learn that Delvaux was one of its top performing brands. The Brillant and Le Tempête have become recognisable shapes without the trappings of ubiquity. You want Delvaux to retain its mystery though. It’s a blessing that Made in Belgium doesn’t come with the baggage (excuse the pun) that say France or Italy does. It’s quiet idiosyncrasy is its strength and you can see it in spades in the way Delvaux operates in Brussels. Finally, I got to complete the journey which began as a curious naive question nearly a decade ago – what exactly is luxury today?
Le Brillant from Delvaux’s S/S 16 collection
Le Pin featuring a capital D logo
Delvaux’s expertise with leathers, particularly exotic skins is one of the most in-depth I’ve personally experienced
The famous Ludo feeling his way around a hide
Pattern placing to get efficiency out of a single hide
Meticulously sections of croc together to form a strap for a bag
An armful of Brillant flaps
A trolley of old Delvaux bags that have been sent in by customers for repair
Trying on a Madame for size in the last of the bluebells in Wanstead Park – worn with Ryan Lo dress, J Brand jeans Celine slip-ons.