Surreal Delvaux - Exclusive visit to the Delvaux museum (2/2)
It was a true privilege to receive a personalised invitation from Delvaux for an exclusive visit of their museum, located at the brand’s headquarters in Arsenal. This is the sequel to blog 1 narrating our visit here.
The Delvaux museum is not traditionally structured in chronological order, even though the Maison could have chosen to do so, with its more than 3000 different designs issued. Rather it is organised by themes evoking past creations, innovations and milestones.
Ever since the creation of the Maison, Delvaux has been about people - how to connect them, how to make their life easier and more comfortable. In their Museum Anne took us back in time to the creation of trunks for horse drawn carriages. The rounded lids made bespoke for the Belgian, rainy, weather.
We discover trunks made specifically for a notary to carry its files, oversized suitcases labelled to travel without its owner from one post station to the other and little travel suitcases made to carry just the essentials.
Studying small elements of the Maison’s past is infectious and really makes you feel passionate about the stepping stones of this nearly 200 years old leather goods manufacturer. There is nothing, but admiration for the journey left.
Supported by the fact that Belgium in 1875 had the densest railway network in Europe and in generally had become a country of “passage” – with the ocean freighters coming in and out and despatches carrying goods from east to west – Delvaux could ride the wave of good fortune.
Delvaux continued to make luggage initially, but not for very much longer. The Maison realised quickly that trunks were the way of the past. As early as 1908, the company realised that the casual lady train passenger could not possibly be expected to keep a big luggage close to her seat, but that a smaller holdall was needed to carry the minimal essentials for the journey.
Delvaux patented its first handbag the “Princesse” in 1908 – and being the first patented handbag in the world, it truly was revolutionary.
The name “Princesse” for their first handbag, was in fact very fitting for a company that was already appointed supplier to the court of Belgium since 1883.
From then on Delvaux would progressively transition its business from maker and manufacturer of travel goods to being a pioneer in fashion. Handbags started to become less of an accessory, but rather part of the total outfit of a lady. Fashion mattered.
This notion was much re-enforced after Franz Schwennicke bought the company in the 1930s and began to introduce the concept of “seasons” in the design cycle of the Maison. It took however the passing of the war years, with limited availability of leather, until this concept was fully embedded in the 1950s.
The gap of time Monsieur Schwennicke used to further innovate by designing ultra-light aluminium framed suitcases ‘the Airess” in the 1940s, which would become a state in the art in the industry at a time when air travel was only starting to pick up (again helped by the war years).
Whilst Anne is taking us through these evolutionary steps of the Maison, it is evident that Delvaux never stood still, it always adjusted, grew, and innovated to this day – with support of its engine, superior craftsmanship. Survival of the fittest.
Some of the handbags in the glass cassettes in display in front of us speak the language of contemporary fashion – or so we think, until we see the dates behind the bags 1943, 1959, 1969, 1977... front-runner? Visionary? Extraordinary certainly.
The rare leathers paint a picture of extraordinary craftsmanship – especially when inspecting and seeing the actual hides in display in the museum. The alligator porosus hides are tiny – considering the animal’s wild nature, finding undamaged hides needs a trained eye and then still Delvaux needs to select parts of the hides that are thick enough to confect the bags. Triaging itself is an impressive skill really.
The 1950s and 1960s see a lot of bags with amazingly crafted locking mechanisms that the Maison was still making in-house at the time. Ready to frustrate any pickpocket out of their profession they also look and feel clever. Living in a city where the architecture is dominated by the influences of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, one finds elements and interpretations of these style elements back in some of the bags – how very Belgian.
Of course the museum puts some focus on the ultimate bag of craftsmanship – the Brillant. Anne points to the different pieces that make the Brillant – 64 plus 8, nowadays nearly 11 hours of work to finish one model. It is easy to see why accomplishing one is a Maroquinier’s pride and why a star was born.
There are so many interpretations of the Brillant that the museum had to select a few representative ones to display – it is wonderful to find the first Brillant in the golden Book of the Pierre Precieuse collection also part of this selection, albeit in the 1960 GM not MM size, as in our collection.
Personally we were intrigued to see the evolution of some models in display. The 1959 grand bonheur, the 1961 Pelican, the 1963 Rome, the 1971 Vedette, the 1999 Illusion and classico … they all seem part of the same family of bags – each inspired by their heritage and evolved over time.
Whilst elements and ideas of the past return, the bags are all creations and gorgeous stand-alone designs in their own kind and as a collector it is great to get into the skin of the design studio in route for inspiration - scrutinising the Maison’s archive to then take and edit a classic design and turn them into a contemporary piece.
After a wink at the overall evolution of the handbag and admiring the impressive collection of historic porte-monnaies and purses,
Anne shows us some of the unique creations that all laugh of Belgitude. Belgitude the term coined in 1976 by Claude Javeau is all about keeping absolute discretion with a touch of humour without taking oneself all too serious. We walk past the unique creation of a “Moule” (mussels) bag that was made once on special order and of which the prototype is in display in the museum.
We glimpse at the installation of the Manneken Pis celebrating the 184 years of Delvaux and enjoy diving into nostalgia when seeing and listening to the 1985 advertisement for Delvaux on the tune of Le plat pays of the most Belgian of all Belgians Jacques Brel. An advertisement that does not even mention the name Delvaux, but alludes to it – discreet here also in branding as consistently done within its creations.
We equally take pleasure reviewing past designer collaborations notably with the young Martin Margiela in 1983, before he embarked on his own design journey with Hermès and the Maison Margiela and the collaborations with for example Niels Peeraer, - not to mention the playful and surreal association with the Magritte foundation.
The nec plus ultra for us really was to see the golden book – digital and real version. One of our passions is to research the history of the bags, the names, the year of creation. Enter the bible. If only there was more time to deep dive… .
Delvaux kept the visit light and amusing. It was fun and time flew.
Anne, having been with the Maison already for 38 years made it particularly exciting, as you could feel her conveying her own pride and passion for the Maison. Small anecdotes i.e. on past shops, such as the 22 Rue Adolphe Max, or about the handbag in shape of Belgium, which the princesse Claire de Belgique wore in 2008, made this time together particularly special.
At the end of our visit, Delvaux invited us to a great lunch near the Atelier, where we could continue our exchange on all subjects - from fashion, economics and culture. Just as the visit, it was light, open, friendly and fun – the brand really lives and breathes the Belgian way and it was a true privilege to spent the day honouring their heritage together.
Thank you Anne and Vincent for this special moment, it was a real pleasure.