Delvaux opens Brussels museum with a surreal touch
Picture Western Europe in the late 19th, early 20th century. Post-industrial revolution, a small transit country like Belgium was in a state of flux both literally and figuratively. As the country with the highest density of rail networks in the world by 1875, the way people travelled there changed drastically.
That’s around the time when Delvaux, the Brussels-based leather goods brand, made all the difference. Founded in 1829 – one year prior to the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium – Delvaux swiftly progressed from its luggage-making origins and became the first brand worldwide to file a patent for handbags in 1908.
The realisation that women would want to keep their most precious belongings close to hand in practical, small bags during their travels turned out to be a visionary move.
Surreally, the grand opener of the Musée Delvaux in Brussels – which was completed at the beginning of last year but opened just recently to coincide with Delvaux’s 190th anniversary and to celebrate a period of increasing international expansion – is a monumental black epoxy resin Brillant handbag, the house’s emblematic style, lacquered seven times over to bestow it with a true-to-life leather effect.
‘A disproportionately large bag in that space – I just think it’s fun,’ smiles Bob Verhelst, the scenographer who was tapped by Delvaux to devise the Musée’s concept, and is the mind behind over ten of the Antwerp Fashion Museum MoMu’s most recent exhibitions.
The story of Delvaux is very much one of collaboration, and the brand’s choice to work with Verhelst is a serendipitous one. ‘If you look at how Christina [Zeller, creative director of Delvaux] draws the collections, how she subtly edits the classic designs to turn them into contemporary pieces, I see a parallel,’ he says. ‘I, too, am quite classical in my outlook, but there’s always a twist to my work. We have a similar frame of mind.’
As the oldest fine leather luxury goods house in the world, it could seem Delvaux has a dusty burden to bear. But even in the process of building a museum, the brand manages to keep things light and playful, even when the subject at hand is historical and reverential.
Creating a museum, Delvaux’s chairman and CEO Jean-Marc Loubier says, ‘is quite the challenge even if you have interesting elements to show. I saw it as a necessity, because Delvaux has a very long legacy, but, even more because the brand is an inventor.’ He continues: ‘My approach for the Delvaux Museum was to consider it as a meeting and melting pot or moment. It tells three correlated stories: the story of Delvaux, the history of the handbag and the story of Belgitude. The Museum conveys our specific identity which is about being historical, open and Belgian.’
Housed in former military barracks occupied by Delvaux since 1994, the museum occupies the same building as the brand’s design studio and atelier. Before entering the exhibition space, original Delvaux designs in dust bags tagged with the year they were created line archival shelves – testimony to the heritage of a house nearly two centuries of age. The Musée, however, disdains chronology.
‘We combed the archives and formulated themes,’ explains Verhelst. ‘There is a different story to tell compared to other leather goods brands. Delvaux made luggage only for a brief moment. Our focus lies with the history of the handbag, of which Delvaux holds the oldest patent.’
Older archive pieces were selected with on the basis of their design particularities, such as special locks or crocodile leathers. As Delvaux launches a new collection twice yearly, more recent styles will also be displayed in vitrines on rotation.
With such a wealth of designs to choose from, editing down the huge archive was not an easy task. ‘It was bit of a puzzle to include every aspect of the brand in an intelligible way,’ Verhelst admits. ‘I wanted to avoid an overload of information and imagery.’ In the end, the Musée radiates exactly what he aimed for: ‘The experience is pleasurable and calm; the same feeling you get when you step into a Delvaux store.’ §