The History of Delvaux – All You Need to Know about the “Belgian Hermès”

There are thousands of videos about luxury handbags, especially about Chanel or Hermès. And what do most of them have in common? They are based in the major fashion hubs such as Paris. But in this video, we travel to a city which is not necessarily famous for fashion – we travel to Brussels and discuss the history of Delvaux – a luxury house which has been around for almost 200 years. Some even call it the Belgian equivalent of Hermès. You will see a lot of similarities to the history of the French houses, as Delvaux similarly benefited from a new age – the industrialization in Europe and the beginning travel boom. It is a brand which is not as known as some of the other luxury houses from France but that does not mean its history is less interesting, especially when it comes to female leaders driving its success.

You can also watch my video here:

The Beginnings of the Delvaux Business

The Delvaux business was set up by Chalres Delvaux and his wife Jeanne-Joseph Présent in 1829. The Brussels-based workshop operating under the name “Delvaux-Présent” sold trunks and travel goods which also reveals the family history of its two founders, as their family had worked as wheelwrights, saddlers, dressmakers, chest makers and merchants. Delvaux is very much linked to Belgium’s history. According to Kaat Debo, one of the editors of the exhibition catalogue at the occasion of 180 years of Delvaux even said “Belgium has grown up with Delvaux”[1], as the shop was already operating when Belgium was founded in 1830. Brussels was recovering from the Battle of Waterloo 14 years prior, which took place basically at the doorstep of the city and the end of the Napoleaonic wars led to a period of relative peace in Western Europe and travel re-started again for trade and, increasingly, for for pleasure. The area of the Southern Netherlands – which became Belgium – was a bustling place – a hub of the European textile industry benefiting from Europe’s accelerated industrialisation and Antwerp was one of the busiest ports on the continent.[2]

The Delvaux flagship store in Brussels.

The Delvaux business benefited greatly from this overall environment, especially from the changing ways of travelling – more people started to travel, they wanted to carry more things on their travels, and the production of goods became more sophisticated. The founding year of Delvaux coincided with the invention of the first steam locomotive and. In 1835, the first railway line using a steam locomotive between Brussels and Mechelen was opened leading to a train network within Belgium by the 1940s. Delvaux adapted its products to the needs of this new type of travel – they sold leather wallets for documents, sample cases for salesmen and even bags with dividers between business and personal items, if the trip lasted for a few days.[3] 

Roughly at the same time, Louis Vuitton came up with his standardized flat trunks in France. Delvaux has a similar heritage as a “malletiers”, a trunk maker, but their trunks were a bit different. Due to the weather in Belgium with heavy rains, the Delvaux trunks were rounded at the top so that water could run off. Furthermore, the first handbags were used during travel. Many passengers parted with their luggage during their journey and it was stored at a different part of the train or at the back of the horse-drawn carriage. But they needed certain items at hand during the journey. The handbag was invented and in 1908, Delvaux registered a patent for such a handbag. Due to the structure of their trunks and the other products Delvaux sold, it can be assumed that their major clientele was domestic travellers within Belgium. Nevertheless, their affluent clientele also travelled abroad. It was also the time of transatlantic travel via the Red Star Line and other operators. Antwerp established itself as the major port connecting continental Europe to America, due to its direct rail line to Cologne, Germany. Travelling first class on these transatlantic liners was luxurious and the various social events required travelers to bring many different outfits and accessories – good business for Delvaux and its competitors.[4] 

Delvaux trunks had a rounded top to facilitate water running off.

Furthermore, Delvaux’s development also reflects another change in society: shopping for leisure. in the 1840s, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a covered shopping arcade, were constructed in Brussels inviting fashionable “flaneurs” to pass their free-time shopping. This was an overall development in Europe with department stores being opened in many major cities, e.g. Harrod’s in London. Already back then Delvaux advertised its quality, craftsmanship, leather and competitive pricing rather than building the brand around heritage or chic. We will see how this approach changed a bit over time.[5]

Unfortunately, there are not many sources documenting marketing and image promotion efforts of Delvaux during their first 100 years in Business. Delvaux built a name with small-scale production and it took time and effort to establish credibility as a luxury business. The largely domestic customer base had to be convinced that luxury products can also be made outside of the famous cities such as Paris or London. One major step towards this credibility was when Delvaux secured the right to supply the Royal Court in 1883. They also became a supplier of the military. Securing the royal warrant must have been a tedious effort, as it can be assumed that it was only granted after supplying the court for at least ten years. Needless to say, this royal warrant allowed Delvaux access to the aristocrats in the country. In addition, they also targeted the modern and fashionable travellers and “adventures” of the early days of the democratization of travel.[6]

Queen Mathilde of Belgium with a Delvaux Brillant bag.

Delvaux kept operating during the two World Wars and also managed to survive economic crises. Until the wars, Germany used to export tanning chemicals and also hides to other European countries, however, during the wars, there were only little supplies available and the little leather available was used to produce essentials such as shoes. (It is no surprise that handbags in Europe of the 1920s and 1930s were often made from other materials such as silk or even beadwork.)[7]

Acquisition by Franz Schwennicke in the 1930s

In the first half of the 20th century, many products using a Delvaux label were not produced in-house but under a license. Therefore, Delvaux was rather operating a sales company until Edmond Delvaux (the great-grandson of the founder) sold the business to Franz Schwennicke in 1933 – all that was left was an old name and one storefront. Schwennicke had recently returned from the Congo where he was chef de service for the Union Minière du Haut Katanga in Elisabethville. He had no experience in luxury at all and even admitted this later in writing later. He said it took him five years until he understood the business. Schwennicke’s major success only happened much later – in 1946 with the Avia Airess suitcase which was heavily influenced by the increasing popularity of commercial air travel. He may have been a good businessman but he was also an inventor to a certain degree, as he came up with a lightweight frame made from aluminum for this suitcase. As it was easy to (dis-)assemble, it was not only practical for travelers but also facilitated exporting the products abroad. He registered the suitcase model globally (the frame was patented in 1946) and worked with manfucturers to produce it under a license, if he could not send the finished product to a particular country. By 1948, over 3,000 Avia suitcases had been sold in Belgium alone. Its success was also rooted in the fact that it was aimed at a wider target group – not only at the upper class who usually had staff carry their belongings. Avia was made for travelers who carried their luggage themselves – the “adventurers” of the time – and it was available in five models: Transocéan, Contintental, Pullman, Weekend and Mail-Coach.[8] 

A model with the Brillant bag in the 1950s – the photograph emulates the Jackie Kennedy-style which was also very popular in Europe.

Schwennicke radically changed the business strategy and moved the design and production in-house. Furthermore, he knew that the company needed strong branding and added an emotional perspective to the aspect of quality and craftsmanship – chic and heritage. (This is mix has become quite a common strategy with many luxury brands today.) In 1938, Schwennicke tried to re-obtain for the royal warrant again – similar to Charles Delvaux, it was a lengthy process which ended up even longer than the first time: 25 years. Schwennicke also introduced their signature “carrosse logo”, featuring the silhouette of a horse-drawn carriage,in 1951 and used it on their advertsing material, Delvaux had to be creative, the times had changed. A royal warrant alone was no guarantee for customers. Pop-culture and the American lifestyle heavily inlfuenced Europe. Delvaux invested in advertising campaigns, advertorials and photographs of their studio and, to address the growing female clientele, featuring the female designers in informal work-settings. Schwennicke also was quite creative and tried to bring the American lifestyle to Belgium: Delvaux even had a basketball team with a Volkswagen tour bus.[9]

Over time, Delvaux added less structured bags to their product portfolio to not only reflect fashion trends but also the needs of the modern woman.

Avia was the first step into the very intense and successful 1950s in terms of creativity at Delvaux. In 1953, Delvaux started with men’s travel bags (with camera, tobacco and other compartments) and handbags received complex fastenings (to prevent pick-pocketing on the client’s way to work on the Brussels tram).  Furthermore, Delvaux kept producing classic structured bags but also added bigger shopper or bucket bags to their product range. Thanks to the designers of the 1920s and 1930s, handbags became an important part of a woman’s ensemble and designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli included them in their collections. In a way, handbags are also a reflection of female empowerment, as I mentioned in my video about the basic facts about Coco Chanel. Firstly, it reflects that women started to travel independently. And secondly, shoulder straps had been popular during the war years for practicability reasons. The “New Look” during the 1950s and early 1960s went back to more traditional bags but with the female movement in the 1960s, bags with shoulder bags allowing women more freedom came back into fashion (e.g. the Cobalt in 1969).[10] 

Delvaux supplied handbags for the World Fair in Brussels in 1958.

Heritage alone was not enough. Delvaux needed to be chic. Therefore, the house associated itself with French Haute Couture and sent their own designers to fashion shows to stay up-to-date regarding fashion trends – a strategy which they also heavily advertised. Delvaux introduced a cycle of two annual collections which they have been following until today. Schwennicke also collaborated with 30 other Brussels-based companies in a the so-called “Trentaine” which involved Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, amongst others. This network not only collaborated in regards to advertising, it also established itself as an important part of the affluent Belgian society by supporting cultural events. This collaboration mainly served a necessity: at the start of the 1960s, with the beginnings of mass production and synthetic materials, luxury had become something regarded old and dusty.[11]

Women in the Lead

One very important piece of the Delvaux history and brand DNA is the importance of women as creative forces and leaders of the company from the mid-20th century onward. Until then, the company had largely served a male customer base but the customer base became more and more female after 1945. Delvaux understood there needs – the leading designers for Delvaux were almost only women, among them Mme de Dryver (with Delvaux from 1945-56), Mme Goethals (1953-89), Mme Hallez (1953-60), Mme Deshayes (1960-79), Mme Naiken (1977-2004) and Mme Mergaerts (1986-97), to name the longest-serving ones. After Franz Schwennicke passed away in 1970, the company was handed over to his son of his first marriage and to his widow, Solange. She was a mother of three children under the age of ten and had little formal education or experience in the business. But never underestimate a woman! By 1979, she managed to more than double the sales of the company (100 million Belgian francs, compared to 42 million in 1970). Needless to say, the success did not come with a personal struggle to establish herself as the head of the company as a woman in the 1970s while establishing Delvaux against brands from Paris and London. Over time, Delvaux turned Solange Schwennicke’s personal success into an asset for the brand. In 1979, the Benelux edition of Marie Claire featured her as the first woman profiled in the magazine for a new section about women in business. Delvaux’s signature “D”-logo had already been used on designs in the 1960s, such as the Brillant, but Solange Schwennicke turned it into a key feature, in a new sans serif style. She knew about the power of house codes and insignia, nevertheless, she always tried to bridge the gap between the discreet heritage and fashion trends.[12]

Launched in 1958, the Delvaux Brillant is still one of the most iconic designs of the brand.

The 1980s were also the period of the biggest expansion of Delvaux leading in a high-profile boutique in Paris in 1994. This was also the time when her son Francois took over the leadership at Delvaux. The company was independent during the 1990s and early 200s and also launched the “Deux”-collection to attract a younger and more international customer base. Nevertheless, the main market remained the domestic market in Belgium. Christian Salez who had been on the board, joined Schwennicke as CEO in 2007. 

In the course of the research for this article, I tried to find more concrete information about the current state and strategy of the business, but there is little data available. In 2011, the investment arm of the Hong-Kong-based Fung Group, First Heritage Brands, who also owned Sonia Rykiel at the time, acquired a majority stake in Delvaux. In 2021, the brand was acquired by the Swiss Conglomerate Richemont – who you may have heard about, they also own Cartier, for example. I assume that they will revamp the brand and business strategy. I already see that they are more active regarding influencers and social media, similar to competing brands owned by LVMH or Kering. But this is may personal perception.[13]

In 2022, Delvaux opened a museum in Brussels.

The Delvaux Bags, Production & Renovation Ethos

According to experts cited by the exhibition catalogue from 2009, there are hardly any differences in the craftsmanship of contemporary Delvaux bags and those from the 1940s. Production underwent some changes, especially in the field of automisation – e.g. laser-cutting for the leather – but the finishing techniques allegedly have stayed the same and they are as time-consuming and labour-intensive as in the past. Another point which is stressed by the brand is their archive of old leathers dating back as far as the 1970s, as Delvaux repairs and renovates old and damaged bags. It is mentioned in the 2009-catalogue that the company renovated or repaired about 8,000 bags per year – almost as many units as the brand sold. Apart from some quirky skins such as metallic kangaroo skin (which was obviously used to please certain regional markets), the brand sticks to specific house grains and finishes – 80% is calf leather from a tannery in France. The leather is aniline dyed (instead of heavily pigmented) so that the bags will get a patina and mature rather than get damaged over time.[14]


Footnotes

[1] Judah et al. 2009, p. 10, 67.

[2] ibid.

[3] Judah et al. 2009, p. 10, 15, 18, 67.

[4] ibid.

[5] Judah et al. 2009, p. 10, 69.

[6] Judah et al. 2009, p. 9, 13, 18, 21-22, 69-79.

[7] Judah et al. 2009, p. 9, 13, 18, 21-22, 69-79.

[8-11] ibid.

[12] Judah et al. 2009, p. 21-22, 79, 82.

[13] Fashion Network 2024, Judah et al. 2009, p. 27, 82, Women’s Wear Daily 2024.

[14] Judah et al. 2009, p. 28.


Sources

Fashion Network, Delvaux appoints Christina Zeller artistic director, published on 25 October 2015, last accessed on 29 May 2024.

Hettie Judah/Kaat Debo/Martin Lambert, Delvaux. 180 Years of Belgian Luxury, exhibition catalogue, Tielt, 2009.

Women’s Wear Daily, Delvaux Artistic Director Christina Zeller Exits Brand, published on 11 October 2020, last accessed on 29 May 2024.


Picture Source Title Image

Official Website and Instagram Account of Delvaux.

See Also
Coco Chanel Beyond Her Black Legacy The Surprising Love Affair with White Title


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of the author, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. All information as of the date of publishing/updating.


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