The Art of the Handbag

Belgium’s Maison Delvaux is more than just a handbag maker with a royal stamp of approval. It’s a lesson in the origins of the purse and in slow fashion, where “It Bags” become heirlooms.

1973 to the present: Corfou ad reborn as the Louise model.
1973 to the present: Corfou ad reborn as the Louise model.

It is a chilly day in Brussels when my taxi pulls up to a castle. Upon closer inspection, it is an old military arsenal — but one that hides a regal secret. A buzzer welcomes me through a heavy door and into a quietly immaculate lobby, developed by Vudafieri Saverino Partners and designed by Luxembourgian artists Jean Bechameil and Martine Feipel (the toast of the 2011 Venice Biennale), where a coffee table tempts me with a tray of Belgian chocolates, each embossed with a cartoon sketch of a purse — the iconic Madame handbag. I eat three, stopping myself only to be polite.

This is the first sign of many that this is the handbag equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory — a world where every detail is attended to with love, reverence and, perhaps above all else, whimsy. 

“For Belgian people, Delvaux is an institution,” explains Jessica Volpe, press manager of Delvaux, beginning her swift lesson on the origins of the modern purse. “It is almost part of our DNA.” 

Founded in 1829, a year before Belgium was declared an independent nation, Delvaux is the first fine leather luxury goods house in the world. With the rise of train travel, trunk maker Charles Delvaux saw an opportunity: Women needed smaller carrying bags to keep with them while in transit — and thus the original handbag was born. The house was the very first to file patents for handbags, with the earliest recorded in 1908. Translation: I have time-traveled to the dawn of Handbag History (or, if you prefer, Heaven on Earth). 

The Brillant handbag was originally designed in 1958 to celebrate the World Expo in Brussels.
The Brillant handbag was originally designed in 1958 to celebrate the World Expo in Brussels.

Official purveyor to the Belgian royal court since 1883, the house — or la maison — was the first brand of its kind to introduce seasonal collections (now customary in the world of haute couture) under the leadership of Franz Schwennicke, who took the helm in 1933. 

Slow Fashion

After my history lesson, Volpe leads me through the lobby and past what will soon become the brand’s archival museum: shelves of handbag after handbag, now-iconic models like Brillant, Tempête and Givry, all meant to serve as a living archive. It’s a firm nod to the house’s past as it eagerly embraces the future. In 2011, Delvaux welcomed a new partner, First Heritage Brands, who set out to bring the family business to a global scale. The company has since grown from 10 boutiques to over 40 around the world today, from Paris to Hong Kong. And yet, in our world of fast fashion and loud “luxury,” Delvaux somehow remains slow and quiet. It is impossible to look at the collections which draw upon such wild and wonderful inspirations as Magritte’s art (“Ceci n’est pas un Delvaux,” one purse reads) and Belgian frites without witnessing at once incredible sophistication and sincere levity. It is a fine balance shared by their customers. “Our clients value craftsmanship and are free-spirited, with a great sense of humor like us,” says artistic director Christina Zeller, who previously oversaw accessories for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Lacroix and Givenchy. “They are looking for unconventional elegance.”

Fast food slow fashion: part of Delvaux’s Miniatures Belgitude collection
Delvaux thinks outside the bag with its Miniatures Belgitude collection.

First Heritage Brands president and CEO Jean-Marc Loubier shares this approach, leading from the heart as much as the head, famously denouncing the four-Euro-jean trend as environmentally and socially dangerous. As I am led towards the ateliers, it is apparent that this house understands the broader mosaic of manufacturing: people, process and product. Says Loubier of this integral core value, “We need sustainability in everything we do, not just the product.” In an unusual move for an industry notorious for burnout and cutthroat cycles of firing and poaching, he hired Zeller not from a competing fashion house, but from her two-year sabbatical seeing her reprieve from the industry as a creative asset.

Hold the colors of the rainbow in the Brillant Magic Collection.
The Brillant Magic Collection features business on the outside and party on the inside.

Atelier A to Z

The atelier is much smaller than I had imagined, but it is immediately clear that Delvaux values are infused throughout the entire production process. I have walked into a world where attention to detail is the raison d’être, be it a single stitch, a color, or a design destined to become a living sculpture. We walk past two aisles of skins in every color of the rainbow, to a table covered in candy-colored hides. Volpe introduces me to each: their textures, functionalities and ultimate destinations. She highlights the importance of the house’s relationship with its tanneries, and explains its supplier code of conduct, which details traceability requirements for all exotics. Hides are meticulously examined manually first by sight, then by touch, before the artisan uses the guide of a laser to best position the different pieces of each handbag on the material to maximize real estate while minimizing waste. The center of a hide transforms into the main body of the bag from one single, flawless piece of material, for example. The cutting process follows this mapping, and hides are carefully cut either by hand (a typical practice for exotics), with an emporte-pièce (a leather punch), or with a specialized cutting machine.

From 1829 to the present: the golden years of Maison Delvaux.
The stamp proudly states Made in Belgium, though Delvaux has actually been operating there since 1829 — before Belgium was an independent nation.

All materials are treated as sacred, and as we continue our tour, I am hard-pressed to observe any waste. Scrap leather is either recycled into inserts that invisibly create the architecture demanded by the designs, hidden in between the external leather and the lining, with different types of recycled leather offering different grades of rigidity, or it is donated to a local school specializing in craftsmanship. The atelier is organized, spotless and tranquil. If lean manufacturing has migrated to fashion, it is right here.

At their stations, each artisan softly glows with precise commitment to the task at hand. And the task at hand could not be more specific: The steps involved in preparing the hides alone number half a dozen. Dedicated stitchers calibrate specified distances between every single stitch, as well as a standard number of stiches per centimeter. Veritable magicians, they ensure that neither the beginning nor the end of a row of stitches is ever visible, tucked underneath the leather. “Delvaux bags are as beautiful inside as they are out, so the inside often becomes a secret garden known only to its owner,” says Volpe. I am astounded by the intricacy. These are not merely handbags, they are works of art.

Antique gold and silver alligator Brillant Rainbow bag.
A Brillant Rainbow bag in antique gold and silver alligator.

Finally, I am whisked to the aftersales service, a corner of the atelier where Delvaux’s history hangs next to the icons of its present or “It Bags,” in fashion blogger jargon. The gatekeeper of this magical corner is Luc Collaer, aftersales manager, who began his career with Delvaux in 1970 as a teenager, working three days a week as a craftsman apprentice while still attending school. Collaer tends to the bags with the care and warmth of a parent, his encyclopedic memory the human version of Delvaux’s Livre D’Or, the official registry of every bag ever designed over 3,000 in total. His skill is such that he can receive a bag from any decade and remember its name, the year it was designed, and, possibly, whether he has ever held it and repaired it with his own hands. As we are speaking, I gasp at the sight of a crocodile handbag (“From the 1960s,” he estimates) which has been sent in to be fully restored. Even after all this time, he is as enamored with it as I am, and with good reason. This handbag is as relevant today as it was when it was designed some 60 years ago. It is not only wearable, but reminds me of Aldo Gucci’s adage that “quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.” Above all, it’s a love letter to its wearer. A reminder that by investing in fewer precious things that last a lifetime, we are investing not only in great style, but in our planet.

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