To those who aren't familiar with the work of Belgian artist Rene Magritte, a handbag with candy floss clouds set against a light blue sky, or a wallet with a bowler hat logo would mean nothing. The designs may even come across as childish rather than charming. But then again, luxury leather house Delvaux has always sought to appeal specifically to an in-the-know clientele.
The brand collaborated with the Magritte Foundation to reinterpret the Surrealist artist's masterpieces, including The Promise, The Golconda and Man in a Bowler Hat. After all, endless monograms and in-your-face logos are no longer the stuff that high-end handbags are made of, with the idea now being that the more unique a product is and the more conversations it sparks, the more luxurious it is considered to be.
The Magritte collection is full of other hidden symbols for its buyers to discover and delight in. A handle echoes the outlines of a bowler hat; a bag is finished with a discreet Golconda lining; pouches play the trompe-l'oeil trick; and a leather-encased lock alludes to the artist's keyhole motif.
Other words that lend themselves well to this new climate of luxury purchases are: rare (think mined diamonds versus man-made stones); one-off or limited edition and; most importantly, hand-crafted. Here, Delvaux ups the artistic ante, with a collection of bags for the 2019-2020 season that are crafted by tricking leather into behaving like fabric – one has an upholstery effect, another channels corduroy, while a third actually makes leather look like smocking.
Each technique is famously difficult to execute, and like the brand's Magritte collection, the bags are all the more coveted for it.
Delvaux was founded in Brussels in 1829, making it the oldest luxury leather goods house in the world. Since 1883, Delvaux has been the official purveyor to the Royal Court of Belgium, and it is also credited as the inventor of the modern handbag, filing the first patent in 1908.
"Modern" is the key word here. Despite celebrating its 190th birthday this year, the brand has trained its eye firmly on the future. For example, while it continues to fulfil the demand for "real" leather bags (as opposed to employing more ethical vegan skins), the house only works with tanneries that adhere to the European REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) norm, in a bid to protect human and eco health.
It also acknowledges social media as "an incredibly important communication channel", says artistic director Christina Zeller. "It gives us the opportunity to speak directly with our clients, and to share our values and savoir-faire in a creative way that reflects our DNA," she adds.
But – now – back to those masterfully crafted leather bags: Zeller takes us through the process of creating the collection's five standout pieces. First up, is the bag that looks like a couch. "The Quilt animation is inspired by a piece of iconic British furniture, the Chesterfield sofa with deep buttons, which was created in the 1900s," says Zeller. "The Brillant Mini Quilt is a padding of black calf souple leather decorated with 49 buttons. In between the Arizona lining and the external leather, we add a thin foam, which gives this bag its unique cushiony feel. Each button is leather-wrapped by hand, also using calf souple, and the 49 buttons are riveted to the leather to hold them in place."
While pure black leather is classic, those who want to make a more vibrant statement can look to Tempete Mini Victorian, a dual-toned bag with ruffled leather in pink and red – a colour combination we don't see nearly enough of. "This pleated technique was inspired by the ruffle collar worn in Western Europe in the 19th century," says Zeller. "To create this three-dimensional effect, the calf souple leather is first cut into fringes, which are twisted by hand, one by one, and stitched on the edges. By twisting these fringes, we discover the bicolour effect of the bag."
There’s the burgundy-blush version pictured above, but the bag is also available in a beautiful, eye-catching noir-ivory combination.
Shades of peacock leather are also to be found in this collection, most notably in a pair of bags that look as though they are made from corduroy and tartan.
The first employs Nubuck Cheyenne Corduroy, a unique calf leather that has a velvety look and feel. "The leather on the Brillant Mini Derby bag is first gently sanded and then stamped with the typical corduroy striped pattern, such that it reminds us of an elegant pair of Oxford men's shoes," says Zeller. "The Cool Box, meanwhile, was directly inspired by traditional tartan. The leather pieces are sent to a specialised artisan who perforates the leather with a laser-cut technique. This allows the coloured leather strip to be laced through by hand. These lace-leather strips are made from calf souple or calf metal leather, and each is about four metres."
Finally, we come to the star of this leather show: the bag that looks like smocking, an entirely unique concept from the leather house. Zeller reveals the trick here is to combine calf leather with a thin and rare lambskin. "Inspired by the smock dresses extensively used in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tempete GM Smock stands out for its graphical structured lines effect," she says.
“Two lambskins are needed for the smocking pattern, and every pleat is done by hand. In total, 76 to 78 pleats are created on the front part of the bag and each is then stitched to a calf souple frame.” Each bag takes about 24 man-hours to create. In a market saturated with mass-produced and monogrammed offerings, the Delvaux range, which is available at Harvey Nichols-Dubai, is one for connoisseurs of luxury with a twist.