Look before you leap – a glimpse at luxury branding in Belgium

19th Jan 2021
Entre les lignes

Luxury does come with strings attached…

One of the quintessential characteristics of being a luxury brand is not having to cater to the whims of the public. You get to rise above it all and craft a product that is distinct, exists for its own sake, that the world covets, and a select few own.

Would that it were so simple! Because while that tenet may hold true in many places, in Belgium, it’s negotiable at the best of times. And at the worst?

Chuck that prized luxury strategy manual in the can, because it won’t do you any good here…

Why?

Belgium is a relatively young country with a somewhat complicated history, three official languages, a fourth language used more than one of the official three, and an elite that’s nearly impossible to pin down. The issue in a nutshell?

  • The creative freedom that usually goes hand-in-hand with luxury brands is a scarce commodity in Belgium.

  • To make those eyes sparkle and put swagger in their step, you need to target which elite you have in mind.

  • Historic sensibility could be a make-or-break factor in your success.

At the end of the day, like all luxury brands, consistency is still key. Maybe your focus will be craftsmanship, perhaps it will be design genius, or it could be an illustrious and incomparable tradition that radiates quality and sophistication. It could be the perfect mix of all the above, and still…

Making your luxury brand truly incomparable in the Kingdom of Belgium is a choice between kid gloves and in an ineffable sense of your audience or a steely resolve to rise above whatever the cost.

Curious about how things play out beyond the realm of the marketing conceptual? Well, there’s a yellow brick road ahead, and unlike Glinda, we won’t disappear into glittery pink mist. 

We’ll start by giving you a quick history lesson on Belgium’s elite — a must for understanding branding in Belgium. We’ll follow that up with a closer look at a few choice Belgian luxury brands — Delvaux, NATAN, Dries Van Noten — and their strategies!

Entre les lignes helps luxury brands flawlessly communicate their ideals no matter the audience. Want to know how we can creatively pen your brand to splendor? Get in touch today.

A sneak peak at the history of Belgium’s elite

As a nation state, Belgium has been around for less than two hundred years, which as far as countries go, is a mere drop in the bucket. Before 1831, the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, the Austrian Netherlands, and the French Republic all took turns parceling out and controlling what we know as Belgium today.

La lingua franca est la lingua français   

If you wanted to move up in Belgian society, from the nation’s founding until as late as 1976 – when Dutch-speaking secondary schools started to flourish –you had to speak la lingua Franca, i.e., French. French was the predominant (if not only!) language of academia, government, the military and, all too importantly, culture.

As Elke Vermeire notes:

As the official state language, as well as that of the political economic elite, French became a status symbol. It was associated with progress, culture, and universality… anyone who wished to better himself would be wise to learn French and at least become bilingual.[i] 

The long and short of this is that luxury was the exclusive purview of Belgians with a good command of French, from the noblesse Belge to the political powers that be to the ambitious and prescient pioneers of the fashion industry, like Charles Delvaux. It was the language of the Enlightenment, of international prestige, and the aristocracy.

From Flemish underdogs to paragon of design and economic prowess

While Dutch was spoken by a significant proportion of the Belgian population after the Revolution, as a language it was considered inferior. Once a language associated with mercantile might, it had long ceased to garner that kind of prestige. So, to swim the heady waters of Belgium’s elite, Flemish speakers were forced to forsake their mother tongue.

For many, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Not only was it a repudiation of their language, but a rejection of their rich tradition of art (The Flemish Primitives) and history as well. To some extent, the outcome of this resentment was predictable – a Flemish Movement arose, with a petition sent ‘round in 1840 requesting that French and Dutch be used in equal measure in schools, administration, and the courts.[ii]

Source: Verfransing van Brussel, Wikipedia.org

Since then, however, that movement – and a radical shift in the Belgian economy – has revolutionized the elitescape of Belgium. Where Belgium’s economic seat of power once was housed in Wallonian industry and French held sway over not just the Belgian elite, but the international elite as well, the Dutch service economy and English have since gained the upper hand.

That shift is evident in the transformation of Belgium’s elite. The country’s top universities are all Flemish-speaking, three-quarters of the richest Belgians call Flanders home[iii], and one look at the Antwerp Six[iv] tells you all you need to know about which way luxury fashion is trending.

Enter the internationals, the EU, and the Brussels expat crew

So, does the shift above simplify luxury branding in Belgium once-and-for-all? We’re afraid not. Why? Because Belgium – Brussels specifically – is the heart of the EU. That adds yet another layer of complication to luxury consumption in Belgium.

So, who are these folks and what difference do they make?

To begin with, internationals in Belgium are an elite within an elite…  There’s some crossover with the Belgian-born elite (Flemish and French-speaking) simply because the group who can afford luxury is limited to begin with.

Secondly, this elite, while often multilingual, almost exclusively speaks English. They are globetrotters with excellent connections and an appreciation for the finer things in life. But…if they have a default language, it’s generally French.

French continues to be associated with haute couture, high literature, and a certain worldliness. And this elite won’t necessarily bat an eyelash if the luxury brand they love peppers their English with French. It only adds to the high that comes with exclusivity.

All roads don’t lead to luxury, do they?

As you can imagine, Belgium’s rather complex situation presents luxury brands with a teensy bit of a conundrum, linguistically speaking.

Traditionally, luxury brands are exempt from overthinking their clientele’s wishes. In fact, Vincent Bastien and Jean-Noël Kapferer have written a whole book about it in The Luxury Strategy.  One of their anti-laws specifically states: “Don’t pander to the client’s wishes.”[v]

In Belgium, however, that simply doesn’t work or, not across the board it doesn’t.

So, what does? Belgian luxury brands have taken a variety of “unconventional” strategies, all with a different nuance in mind.

Neutrality at all costs

One viable avenue is NATAN couture’s carefully curated neutral approach. NATAN, luxury fashion brand and royal favorite of Queen Mathilde of Belgium has a House identity founded on:

  • Passion

  • Creativity

  • Know-how

It prides itself on supporting upcoming Belgian design potential and exudes a heady sense of artistic flair.

From a linguistic perspective, however, they’ve gone the Swiss route to preserve their continuity and navigate the potential minefield of Belgium’s elite sensibilities. The website is available in three languages: English, Dutch, and French.

(O.K., maybe they aren’t 100% neutral, since German, an official language spoken by less than 1% of the population, isn’t listed… But it is what it is.)

The choice of languages isn’t particularly surprising, but their multilingual copy stands out for a sensitivity that many outsiders might not pick up right away. The subtext?

  1. NATAN’s English pointedly lacks French loan words. In fact, there’s nary a French word to be found. That means House, not La Maison, and know-how, instead of savoir-faire. That way the Flemish-speaking elite won’t be offended and the French speakers? Well…they’re focused on the French, n’est ce pas?

  2. NATAN’s Dutch is similarly French-free. There was a time when some of the choice words above might have been in French, but notably, Edouard Vermeulen is Flemish born and bred. He is also of a later generation, more open to the idea of luxury beyond French-language borders.

Being Belgian, and neutral, it should come as little surprise that NATAN is prized among the Belgian monarchy – the emblem of Belgian unity.

Source: Wedding Wednesday: Princess Mathilde's Gown on Order Of Splendor

Faux pas or couture wisdom

Next up we have Belgium’s Delvaux, the world’s oldest fine leather goods brand, famous for their ‘Le Brilliant’ handbag designed by Paule Goethals. And lucky us, Entre les lignes translation agency, we get to creatively translate and write copy for them! 

Like NATAN, the languages available for Belgium are Dutch, French, and English. But aside from this, luxury, and being a Belgian fashion brand, that’s where the similarities end.

Delvaux is all about:

  • Craftsmanship

  • Savoir-faire

  • Quality

  And…there’s a clue in that list about their strategy. You spotted it, right?

Delvaux wholeheartedly embraces the connotations of luxury, sophistication, and quality associated with the French language. It’s a strategy that appeals to tradition, the old elite, and the new, international elite. This is old-school luxury fashion branding at its best.

Distinguishing characteristics of the multilingual copy we do for them:

  • The English is liberally interspersed with French words to evoke that haute couture feel. Why refer to Delvaux’s “Golden Book”, when you can conjure visions of grandeur with their Livre d’Or?

  • The Dutch avoids the linguistic purity trend. Instead, Delvaux maintains words classically associated with quality, savoir-faire, for instance, but allows hat tips to the Flemish-speaking elite. (La Livre d’Or becomes Het Gouden Boek in Flemish.)

  • And the French? L’académie Française approved, of course!

In a sense, Delvaux’s approach is classic. It plays on timelessness, tradition, and exclusivity. It evokes an almost Holly Golightly feel with its miniature collection, and its sometimes-quirky sense of sophistication almost renders the linguistic issue moot.

More importantly, their strategy is a testament to the brand’s consistency. Like Louis-Vuitton, Delvaux began its venture with travel in mind, as a luggage maker, and they have perfectly positioned themselves, in terms of product and branding, as a go-to for the jet set life.

Rise above

There’s one facet of luxury branding that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s exclusivity. One of the profiling strategies for luxury brands is to purposefully limit accessibility. In the past, that would mean zero availability of your products online. The best you could hope for would be a “request a quotation” form.

Most luxury brands fail that test nowadays due to the shift to online business and a pandemic. But there are other ways of limiting accessibility, and one of them is language.

Antwerp luxury fashion designer and brand, Dries Van Noten, has taken that tact. Van Noten eschews the multilingual approach altogether with an English-only website. And in doing so, he deftly sidesteps Belgium’s language minefield altogether.

And embraces the wide world of the international elite.

However… We should note that Dries Van Noten is a bit of a genius maverick who also intentionally bucks the “immutable” anti-laws of luxury strategy. (Cue Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”) Luxury is about exclusivity but is also inherently about making your own rules because you can.

Why rise above? Dries Van Noten doesn’t just tailor unique pieces for Queen Mathilde or Cate Blanchet and Maggie Gyllenhaal. He also makes ready-to-wear pieces for those who can afford them because:

I don't like the idea of showing things that you don't sell in a store. It's not being honest to the client.[vi]

His boutiques around the world also avoid the cookie-cutter approach that so many other luxury brands take, instead favoring originality and appreciating how his clientele is precisely what makes his brand unique.

Source: Dries van Noten, Photographs by Viviane Sassen

Despite all that, there’s no question that Dries Van Noten is luxury at its finest. And while his boutiques might not be uniform, the brand’s message is consistent. Dries Van Noten stands for:

  • Creative integrity

  • Independence

  • Quality

The Holy Grail: Consistency, Desirability, Timelessness

Despite their divergent strategies, each of the Belgian brands above achieves the luxury holy grail. Their products are gorgeous, must-have items (if you can afford them!) that when not worn or used, could easily be passed down to the next generation or showcased in fashion history museums all over the world.

Delvaux handbags feature a timeless beauty due to their clean lines and fine craftsmanship, and they have a playful edge to them that lends extra staying power. Their linguistic strategy only reinforces the elite quality of the brand – which is consistent from Brilliant to Tempête.

Dries Van Noten’s designs are consistently beautiful, sophisticated, and a little unorthodox – all hallmarks of an artist (and brand!) for the ages. Only time will tell if his English-only approach is timeless, but the brand and its desirability are incontestable.

And NATAN? NATAN’s classic designs, royal allure, and expertise are proof that they understand luxury better than most.

The only question that remains is, how do you make sure your brand reflects and safeguards the luxury holy grail?

Guardians and Gurus of the Holy Grail

More than anything, every holy grail needs a guardian, and that’s where Entre les lignes comes in.  Ensuring your brand’s consistency, desirability, and timelessness is not a task for the faint of heart, especially if a tricky case like Belgium is involved. It calls for the wisdom of a guru and the unflagging devotion of a guardian.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1874), Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Sounds a little over the top, no? Well, we get some of the eccentricity that comes with being a luxury brand.

And…we recognize how important it is to curate branding language, whether it’s just one, or several, to preserve your holy grail. We step in and take care of research, think:

  • Brand identity

  • Cultural nuance

  • Aesthetics

We brainstorm with you to ensure consistency while persistently turning up (subtly or with a flash of chutzpah) desirability. Above all, we know how to intuit your je ne sais quoi (Of course we went there; we specialize in French! 😉 ) and get that across to your target audience(s).

You don’t have to and shouldn’t go it alone!

Entre les lignes helps luxury brands flawlessly communicate their ideals no matter the audience. Want to know how we can creatively pen your brand to splendor? Get in touch today.


[i] https://www.docu.vlaamserand.be/node/12910

[ii] https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/magazine/49791/the-flemish-movement-how-language-shaped-belgium/

[iii] https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/en/2015/06/08/who_are_the_richestbelgians-1-2362216/

[iv] https://theculturetrip.com/europe/belgium/articles/the-antwerp-six-belgium-s-most-influential-avant-garde-fashion-collective/

[v] https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/250745

[vi] https://web.archive.org/web/20090906030551/http://www.asiaone.com/Just+Woman/News/Beauty+%2526+Fashion/Story/A1Story20071112-35975.html