Belgian brand Libeco has been working with flax fibre for almost 160 years. Today, the firm’s uncompromising passion for this natural material gives it a thoroughly modern vibe.
It was in the Belgian city of Courtrai that linen cloth merchant Paul Libeert first founded his firm in 1864, initially naming it Libeert&Co before rapidly changing the name to Libeco. Linen is one of the oldest-known textiles around, and its origins can be traced back to well before the age of Antiquity. Over time, it found its natural home in the rich planes around Flanders, nestled between France, Belgium and the Netherlands. 80% of the world’s supplies continue to be produced in the region to this day, cultivated in a croissant-shaped area that stretches from the French town of Caen in Normandy down to Amsterdam in Holland. Albert, Raymond and Jean-Loup Libeert all followed in Paul’s footsteps, driving the firm forward through the years, with Raymond (junior) now holding the reins as the fifth generation of Libeerts to head up the family business. Needless to say there’s nothing this family doesn’t know about linen. Libeco has had to surmount numerous challenges over the years. In 1904, Paul made the move from being a cloth merchant to actually weaving cloth on a mechanical loom, setting up his factory in Meulebeke, some 9 miles from his firm’s original home. Prior to that, linen had always been spun and then woven on handlooms during the winter months by farming families who grew the plant in summer. As the years rolled by, the company stood strong, defying competition firstly from cotton and then later from synthetic fabrics. Linen is one of the most eco-friendly fibres in the world, and Libeco has always turned its back on combining it with any other fibre except, at times, wool, albeit in tiny proportions. In 1997, the firm even merged with its honourable neighbour, Lagae, the fine linen fabric specialist, founded by Victor Lagae in 1858.
Time has proved the firm’s decisions right. As consumers have become increasingly aware of environmental issues, they have begun re-engaging with the authenticity and nobility of linen. In the 1980s, Libeco diversified its operations, initially manufacturing clothing and then applying its expertise to interiors. Today, Amy Behn, an American stylist and Raymond Libeert’s wife, creates veritable lifestyle collections overflowing with table linen, bed linen, bath linen, cushions, pouches and bags. The fabric, which has been refined and softened, is simply emblazoned with stripes of every kind, but the style itself remains timeless, offering endless opportunities to mix-and-match as the seasons roll by. “Linen is full of irregularities, which is precisely what makes it so beautiful. It doesn’t need a Jacquard or herringbone weave to enhance its appearance - its luxury comes from its simplicity” comments Bart Vandamme, Libeco’s co-CEO. Behn’s best-seller was to come in the form of her “Belgian towel”, a linen adaptation of the iconic Tunisian fouta, which serves as both a throw and a towel. 95% of the collection is now exported overseas and is retailed in 65 countries worldwide. “We have been loyal supporters of Maison&Objet ever since the very first edition,” says Vandamme. “In the 1990s, our stand was filled with nothing but tablecloths and bed linen. Today, we showcase a more global range with items for the whole home. This trade fair is absolutely crucial for our business. It not only gives us the opportunity to glean some initial feedback from our clients on our collections, but also allows us to meet our more long-distance clients who travel over from Asia.”
The technology employed by the factory in Meulebeke has also moved with the times and the looms are now electronic, but very little else seems to have changed. Expertise in working this complex fibre has been handed down through the generations from father to son to grandson, and every last metre of fabric is still manually inspected and hand-repaired as required. The buildings, however, are gradually being converted to run on solar power, and the raw materials are locally grown, meaning Libeco has been totally carbon neutral for the past few years. “We offset our emissions by supporting a scheme that combats deforestation in Uganda. Sustainability is rooted in our DNA.”
By Caroline Tossan
Illustration ©Sarah Bouillaud