A TOUCH OF snobbery plays a significant role in the mystique associated with luxury labels. There's nothing like the feeling that you got there first, that you discovered a young designer or a long-established but previously dormant brand before it became cool. It's like a badge of honour, the feeling of belonging to a club of in-the-know insiders.
If you're looking for an accessories house that currently has that rarefied cachet and is building a global but not yet far-reaching presence among connoisseurs of the finer things in life, you'd be hard pressed to find a better example than Delvaux, a Belgian (yes, not French or Italian) maison founded in 1829 and still operating out of a workshop in Brussels.
The low-key and self-deprecating attitude associated with Brussels, a city that often gets a bad rap as a dull bureaucratic capital, is also a trademark of Delvaux. The company makes bags that are luxurious but not ostentatious; expensive looking but never in your face. For most of its long history, the label was a sleeping beauty, lacking the cool factor that finally emerged when Christina Zeller, a veteran of Karl Lagerfeld and Givenchy, took the reins in 2011.
The super-chic and impeccable Zeller, a Parisian who's always clad in sky-high heels, skin-tight leggings and oversized blouses, and dripping with jewellery, engineered a complete turnaround at Delvaux, injecting a much-needed dose of energy and managing a hard-to-pull-off balance of tradition and modernity.
We met the fun, approachable and business-savvy Zeller in her loft-like office overlooking Delvaux's Brussels atelier, where we also met workers who've been with the company for three decades as well as recent hires repairing longworn hand-me-downs that loyal customers send to the workshop for mini-facelifts.
WHAT WAS YOUR PERCEPTION OF DELVAUX WHEN YOU JOINED?
I knew about its craftsmanship, its beautiful classic bags and its tradition, but I was afraid that it would be too difficult to put the brand back on the map. But after just one week I fell in love with the product. I also wanted to keep my mind free from influences. I had no obligation to look at the archives; I just wanted to feel what the company was about. I had a crush on the brand; something happened. It's a sign of destiny, too, because Le Brillant, Delvaux's iconic bag, was designed in 1958, which is also my birth year, so I felt it was a sign.
DO YOU THINK IT WAS AN ASSET THAT IT WAS LITTLE KNOWN AND BELGIAN?
Yes, because luxury clients are very spoilt and always looking for something new, so we had the advantage of offering history, craftsmanship and modernity, which was what people were looking for. It's not just a fashionable bag, but a product with a soul. It's not something you buy for three seasons, but something that even if in five years you're bored and put it in the closet, you can always bring it back out because it's so timeless that you'll carry it again. Or if it's not you, it will be your daughter or granddaughter.
Belgium is not a country known for luxury products or fashion in spite of the well-known Antwerp designers. One of the assets of the Belgian fashion industry is that brands here have always been independent and never part of a luxury group with huge teams, in which a brand's identity is often diluted by too many marketing people. Belgian brands have always been focused on their values without pleasing everybody and every market.
YOU SEEM TO BE VERY INVOLVED IN THE BUSINESS SIDE.
It was very important at the beginning for me to be hands-on because the most challenging part of a business is to be coherent and focused; the communication and marketing have to match the product. It may seem like a kind of dictatorship, but I'm not against dictatorship if it's needed. Paris wouldn't be what it is without Haussmann [who rebuilt the city in the 19th century] because he had a vision. It's very important to have a strong vision.
Delvaux needed a new proposal for the international market. It's a huge help for me to be business-minded; that's my background. I like to say that I stick to the floor but my head's always in the clouds. For me to have this double responsibility of design and marketing is very helpful because I know the rules of marketing and my challenge is to balance the two. Achieving a balance between creation and marketing is key. The business cannot survive without creativity.
One of the nicest compliments I got is that I'm not only the artistic director but the spirit director. The success of a company never belongs to just one person. If you can get people to follow your vision, you'll be successful. You have to convince them to follow you and this new energy. Everybody in the company has their responsibility, but it's like you're the chef in a kitchen. Everybody could be a good player alone, but they can be much better working together. The team here had a lot of talent, but it just needed to be awakened.
DID THEY WELCOME YOU WITH OPEN ARMS OR WAS IT CHALLENGING AT FIRST?
At the beginning they were resistant: a French girl, a Parisian from the fashion world, must be very arrogant, coming here to teach. They were probably concerned about me because there are some bad clichés of fashion people acting like stars. But because of the small scale of this company I couldn't act this way. I turned up my sleeves, and if I have to help clean the shelves before a presentation, I'll do it. That's how people will respect you. It's not just saying what I like or don't like but convincing people that you're professional and that you're not the star in the company. The star is the company.
It may sound surprising for a creative director to behave like that, but for me it's just normal. That's why maybe recently we've seen unknown members of studios becoming creative directors, because the success of a company is not only in the hands of the artistic director. I need around me people who are competent and know about leather, research and development and quality control so I can put my ideas to the test and make them happen. By being surrounded by professional people, you understand that no one is more important than the rest of the company. Many brands have made the mistake of making creative directors too powerful, with no limits in what they could do.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATIGN NEW PRODUCTS AND REVIVING THE CLASSICS?
The first challenge was to identify the bags with the potential to be successful. Le Brillant is a great example, and it also reflects my sensibility because I like radical lines and graphic design, strong statement pieces. Le Brillant, Le Tempête and Le Madame are like that because they're matching market needs and are both beautiful design pieces but also functional. We finetuned small details such as the construction, the thickness of the hardware, the ropes of the handle. The look is the same but there were in fact many changes that are not visible to the eyes. The challenge was to bring some modernity, which can be just a small detail. You don't need to kill a bag to revamp a bag.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT WHAT YOU'VE ACCOMPLISHED FOR THE LABEL SO FAR?
We're very happy to see the growth of the brand, but we'd been unseen for so many years that we have to manage the growth. We like the fact that we're very discreet, almost like a secret, a hidden brand, known through word of mouth. And people enjoy the story of our brand, so the key is how to keep this sense of being exclusive. This also links to the size of our shops. I believe that shops that look like a department store don't feel exclusive, and that's why the format and size of our boutiques reflect the strategy of the entire company. We're not trying to be everywhere.
I feel that a lot of brands now are realising that they're overexposed in markets such as China. In the end, too much kills desire. You have to make people dream of what they'll buy next. Maybe now when they're young they can't afford Le Brillant, but one day they will. I remember when I was young I wanted to buy a Birkin, and I'm glad I couldn't buy it then because I still kept it in mind and then got it when I got older. I'm always happy when I hear daughters of friends or young girls say that one day when they have money they'll buy a Delvaux. That to me is real success: that I'm preparing the next generation for Delvaux. The point is not just to sell to people who can afford it now but to future generations too.
You have to seduce the ones who one day will be able to buy Delvaux. I want them to discover why they have to buy it, because they're buying not just a bag, but our legend, a piece of history.