Jean-Marc Loubier on nourishing a luxury brand like Delvaux
There is a standard argument, which even novices make, that in the world of high style it is accessories, and not clothes, that really make money for fashion and luxury brands.
Indeed, often the highest profile and most profitable labels are, historically, purely accessory businesses – Louis Vuitton and Hermès leap to mind.
Though it is in Belgium, not France, that can be found the most venerable of all accessories houses. It is named Delvaux, and it is the planet’s oldest fine leather luxury marque, launched in Brussels in 1829. Delvaux is currently enjoying a real renaissance. In January, it opened a spanking new boutique on one of the most prestigious street corners in luxury. Fifth Avenue and 59th street – looking onto Central Park, the Plaza Hotel and Bergdorf Goodman. A two-story boutique with Venetian parquet floors; customized staircase, and upper level velvet lounge overlooking the park, framed by an antique chandelier culled from a Flemish church.
Last week in Paris Delvaux showed its latest array of ideas: notably a new link-up with the Magritte foundation. That included super gents' briefcases with the painter’s signature keyhole design, or chromatic black and white wallets with a cut-out in the shape of René’s legendary bowler hat. All the way to a mini-handbag, on which was printed a pun on Magritte – ceci n’est pas un Delvaux.
It’s brand that manages to blend super high-level finishes; offbeat humor; novelty and the elegantly quirky surrealist creativity for which the Belgians will always be admired.
So, we caught up with Delvaux Chairman and CEO Jean-Marc Loubier, a highly experienced luxury exec who has been an executive vice president of Louis Vuitton in charge of products, communications and retail; and CEO of both Celine and later Escada. This is his take on this atypical marque and where he plans to take Delvaux.
FashionNetwork.com: Tell us about your new New York store?
Jean-Marc Loubier: Each of our boutiques in different, whether Brussels, Milan or New York. The new store is right beside Harry Cipriani restaurant in the Sherry-Netherland hotel. We have ancient cutting tools on the wall; a regency consul that we brought to the US, once owned by the Gould family; the Belgium flag on the stairway – black, yellow and red, under each stair. Playing with the history of the house, and including the blazon of the Belgium royal family. We are the official purveyor’s to the Royal Court. And from upstairs, there is a great view of Central Park. Often people stay inside the store admiring everything, walking up to the first floor. Extraordinary.
Who founded Delvaux?
Charles Delvaux in 1829, one year before Belgium! In the 1930s a Belgian family called Schwennicke bought Delvaux. Then I bought it in 2011, with three partners in First Heritage Brands. The Fung family and Temasek of Singapore.
How large is your business?
You know, when I bought Delvaux, the brand did only 3% of its turnover outside of Belgium. Now nearly 90% of our turnover is outside of Belgium.
I cannot give you the exact turnover, as we don’t need to be quoted on a stock market, but it’s between 100 and 200 million euros annually. It’s a good deal more than the 10 million euros or so when we first bought it. We have since multiplied sales tenfold.
What has been your growth strategy?
Back then we had about 10 boutiques, now we have 42. We work essentially with our own stores. We are at a moment when luxury has become standardized, there is a certain massification. We bring a little freshness, and something unexpected; a discovery of our savoir-faire with strong creativity. We put in a policy of opening stores, but the concept is no concept. It’s vital that each one of them is different. There is not one mold.
How do you differentiate your marque?
There is a certain detail and spirit – we like people to know we are Belgian. We have artists working on the concept of Flemish furniture – a little dark and quite heavy. But we have lightened them physically and you'll find the furniture in our stores is now blond. We like to explain our DNA. We are nourished by our heritage, and nourished by our culture.
What are your unique selling points?
The historical aspect. Innovation; our master artisans. And a capacity to recount a story.
Where do you manufacture?
We have three plants. One in Brussels. One in the south of France, near Valence. And a new third in the east of France, near Besançon, where we already have 120 people, whom we trained. Eventually there will be 250 people working there. I’m proud to be able to say that in the past few years, I have managed to create 500 manufacturing jobs. Between our factories and all our sub-contractors. Never mind how many jobs we created in our retail network!
In my view, the best leather manufacturing of leather goods is still in France: Hermès, Delvaux, Vuitton and Chanel. In Italy they do great things, but they have more of a fashion element. At the highest level it is still France.
We’ve also invested substantially in our headquarters in Brussels. We’ve even created a museum. It recounts three histories: the history of Delvaux; the story of Belgium, and the history of the handbag. How the handbag began as something for men, how it was developed, and became made of fabric; and then in leather in the end of the 19th century. And Delvaux was a key player in that development. Delvaux was the first brand to actually register a patent for a handbag back in 1908. The brand was called the Princesse. So we are true inventors.
Isn’t Delvaux quite expensive?
Not at all! We have bags from 2,000 euros up to 130,000 euros.
Define your clientele?
I’d say quite young for the world of luxury. Just ask Barneys, our American partner. We are in five of their department stores. And, they shall tell you that of all their luxury brands, we have the youngest customer.
What are your digital plans?
We are very active, in terms of telling our story. But we don’t sell anything there yet. Why not? Because I want people first to understand how we are different. It’s not a question of the scent of our leather or materials. But we want people to have their first experience of our objects in our stores. We have found our voice and it speaks about a different reality than other brands. We respect our competitors, but we are a Belgian brand.
Belgium is the land of radical fashion and great history. So there is always this measure of hot and cold in our collections; serious but smiling. That’s how we can work with Magritte. That’s our universe. Not a question of look, but of form and construction. The quality of leather, and our very special buckles. A subliminal element that lasts for a long time. We are not in fashion, but we play with fashion. We are not conservative, we are classic. Classic means that which allows you to express yourself in the long term. That allows you to welcome creativity.
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