Tradition in textiles as a global value

In the history and tradition of European textiles, there are many countries that can boast to have played an important and characteristic role next to Italy. In the past, textile manufacturers were spread throughout the continent. With the passing of decades, however, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, many nations saw their textile manufacture transform from factories to commercial and distribution outlets. One country that survived, at least in part (apart from Italy, obviously), is Belgium that has a solid textile tradition, especially in the field of furniture upholstering. Who can say they have never heard about ‘Flemish cloth’, which in Italy is often simply known as ‘Fiandra’ (Flanders) not to indicate a region in Northern Europe but the type of cloth itself, used to embellish an important dinner table for instance?

A historically famous Belgian linen manufacturing company represents the heart of the textile industry in Northern Europe. This makes it the perfect starting point in our exploration of the trend and market indications expressed by the exhibitors at Proposte coming from that geographical area. They are industries, factories, textile families that have not only a solid background and outlook but have also defined the style and the trend of global textile furnishing by creating very precise and successful aesthetic models.

Here we are, ideally transported to a place halfway between Bruges and Brussels, at the Nelen & Delbeke mill, an historically famous Belgian firm that since 1923 has been championing the tradition of Flemish cloth. This industry, that is on the brink of celebrating its first century of activity, has seen a succession of three generations of Nelen and four of Delbeke with a type of management that is still ‘family based’. This is practically a dynasty of absolute value founded on linen and therefore proudly exhibiting at Cernobbio for Proposte and at Frankfurt for Heimtextil.

What we wanted to know, first of all, was how similar or different are, in our textile companies and in those of Northern Europe, the typical dynamics that make up the activity of a textile industry, from the creation of the collections to the choice of trends, from the approach to the global clientele to the competition on the international markets. In short: here in Italy we continuous speak of and exhibit the ‘Made in Italy’ concept, but outside our borders, when considering the manufacturing firms of value, can one speak of ‘Made in … their country’, or are other marketing levers being used?

One must say, first of all, that in the case of Nelen & Delbeke the similarities with the activity of our Italian firms are much more evident than the differences: namely, tradition, textile industry experience, high quality fabrics and materials, exclusive cloths, historical references. In other words, allow us to playfully state that, if it were not located in Kruisem, this Belgian textile factory could easily be located in Brianza!

We put a few questions to Liesbeth Imschoot, who in Nelen & Delbeke works in the commercial area, in order to better comprehend and picture their activity starting with the questions pertaining to trends and products.

Q. – What are the main aesthetic and material trends you are proposing in your next collection?
A. – Our history and our expertise has always been based on linen, which plays the leading role. This is why, regardless of the aesthetic and of the decorative and colour choices we make, it is always the natural material and how it is woven, the choice of yarns and of the weaving and finishing processes, that define the trend indications. Even when we venture outside the classical realm of our Flemish linen, our research focuses mostly on the discovery and use of structured yarns of great value and naturalness, obviously, such as jute and wool.

Q. – Is there still a precise and recognisable profile of the famous ‘Flemish cloth’ on the market or has it become a historically obsolete definition?
A. – Oh yes, it still exists. In this respect, we still receive lots of requests and the desire for reassurance from our clients. It is still a very important added value as regards the success of our collections, and the origin of our yarns is always one of the first aspects our clients verify. And more so, the fact that we are a company that still uses Flemish linen very often sparks the desire for contact and curiosity in our clientele that does not know us well, and gives clients the opportunity to delve into the origin and history of natural fibre. So, for us it’s a primary defining factor: flax has always grown in Flanders and we are proud to process it.

Q. – Do you propose a universal ‘Nelen & Delbeke’ style, or do you adapt the collections to the requirements of each market you operate in?
A. – Suffice it to say that we apply both strategies. We start from the assumption that linen has its own typical appearance and consistency. We all know, for example, that linen is fresh in summer and warm in winter, that its feel is exalted mostly by relief weaving techniques. So, clearly, the profile of our collections has a unique personality and is recognised everywhere. Nelen & Delbeke is a linen manufacturer, and this is so throughout the world. What is also true is that we focus with great care on the clients’ requests, and we are willing to create totally customised products, even on an exclusive basis, from the chosen collections. This means, in this case, that we perform veritable ‘localisations’ on the design and composition of our products.

Q. – Your company is on the brink of celebrating its centenary. You have never abandoned your linen-based approach, but do you think that in recent years the clients’ relationship with natural materials has changed?
A. – If you are referring to the clientele’s loyalty to the natural material fabric, then I can say that it has been and is still thriving after all these years. We have a loyal and faithful clientele. Generations change but the familiarity with linen fabrics and the reliability we guarantee as a company are persisting values. There is a strong traditional component in all this. Obviously, though, we cannot base everything on preserving our clientele. We must always propose innovation in order to attract new clients and new generations. Hence our research to discover new yarns. We are conducting much research, for example, on texturization and on the ensuing weaving processes, on new ennobling and finishing processes so as to add stimuli and provide innovative values to our products. In short, quality is the constant value and is what makes the client come back, while the collections expand and evolve and trigger curiosity. I believe this is the reason why we are growing especially in the field of furniture manufacturing.

Q. – Jacquard, textured fabrics, false plain or plain solid colour textiles: what do your markets of reference demand the most?
A. – Historically speaking, the more simple cloths are those that are best suited when flax is the main material, and indeed they have always led our sales. This said, our mission as weavers has given us excellent expertise in jacquard, resulting in highly decorative products in our collections, featuring predominant patterns, small all-over decorations or the more classical textured fabrics made on dobby looms.

Q. – Within the market segment you refer to, is price becoming an increasingly important variable?
A. – I am aware that on the global market today the price is becoming an increasingly important variable that alone can determine the success or failure even of previously solid businesses. Our clientele, however, knows we base our business on linen and that therefore we are tied to a fiber that grows naturally and whose price is subject to the quality and quantity of each year’s harvest. Consequently, we can only partially establish the final price of the cloth that cannot be considered an absolute distinction. This factor partly limits our work but, to tell the truth, it somehow protects it too, because any client knows this state of affairs and cannot ignore it. It is not by chance that the market we are aiming at for important growth is a rich market with high economic availability: the United States of America.