Although remaining in textile manufacturing in Europe is a challenge, one Belgian company with a 125-year history, including early entry into the elastic fabrics market, continues to innovate. Debra Cobb reports.
The tradition of the family-owned business runs deep in Europe, and nowhere is it more evident than in the textile and apparel trade. Passion and pride are the emotions that drive textile companies to succeed, sometimes against all odds, transitioning from one century to the next by dint of hard work and forward thinking.
Belgium’s Liebaert, a textile company specialising in stretch fabrics for intimate apparel and various technical end uses, is a prime example of a family success story as it celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2012.
In 1887, 17-year-old Marcel Liebaert started a business in Deinze, in the province of East Flanders, making elastic ribbons for braces and suspenders. While his son, Henri, spent four years serving in the trenches during World War I, the family factory was destroyed by artillery fire. The factory was rebuilt and in 1919 Henri and his brother Robert entered the business. A second factory followed in 1926 to supply elastic ribbons to the corsetry trade. Samples of these products are carefully preserved in the company’s archives.
In 1960 the third generation of the Liebaert family, André and Jean, entered the firm, just as the invention of Lycra elastane by a DuPont scientist began to revolutionise the lingerie business. Liebaert was quick to move into stretch knitted fabrics and in 1962 added a third factory dedicated to the production of elastic raschel knits. The company was one of the first in Europe to knit with Lycra, and today remains a leader in the use of Lycra-based technology with its current line of Lycra Beauty certified fabrics for shapewear.
During the 1980s Liebaert participated in the expansion of the lingerie business, introducing the concept of well-designed and targeted collections incorporating seasonal tendencies to the line. This sense of European style and know-how combined with the company’s reputation for innovation and quality to create a global market for its fabrics.
In 1989 Alain Liebaert became the first member of the family’s fourth generation to enter the business; in 1999 he was joined by his cousin Pierre. During this decade, Liebaert was one of the first companies in the world to switch from regular polyamide to microfibres, working closely with Nylstar to help improve the Meryl range.
“Liebaert has always been at the forefront of machine and yarn development, and we have become a real ‘laboratory’ for new elastic fabrics,” confirms Alain Liebaert. “By the mid 1990s we moved towards finer gauge machines, and by 2009 we convinced Karl Mayer to develop the finest warp knit machine in the world, the 50gg tricot machine.”
The company continued to grow, and today the company’s knitting plant runs some 35 tricot machines (including four 50gg machines), 40 raschel machines, 35 weft knit machines (with and without jacquard, single and double bed); along with dyeing and finishing equipment, two digital printing machines, an automated colour kitchen, automatic inspecting and packaging equipment, and its own water treatment plant.
Liebaert has an annual capacity of seven million metres of knitted fabrics, and continues to run its woven and knitted narrows business, with an annual capacity of 40 million metres. The company has ISO900, ISO14001 and Oeko-Tex certifications, and in 2011 Liebaert enjoyed a turnover of just under €31m.
Today Liebaert’s two factories remain in Dienze, employing some 250 people. With a European focus, the company is internationally recognised in the lingerie-corsetry and swimwear markets, and provides fabrics for ready-towear, active sportswear, medical and automotive applications.
Its innovative fabric brands include Magic Curve - fabrics with over 30% Lycra for superior support and modulus, which are bi-elastic, mouldable and clean-cut; Body Flow, a group of breathable and dimensional structures including spacer fabrics and jacquards; and Nanostitch, featuring bi-elastic knitted fabrics in the world’s finest gauges, with stitches that are virtually invisible, even after moulding. Liebaert also develops a swimwear collection along with stretch fabrics and narrows for menswear.
A long-time exhibitor at Interfilière, Eurovet’s textile trade show for the intimate apparel and swimwear industry, Liebaert was selected as Designer of the Year in 2011. In January 2012 it celebrated its 125th anniversary with a new booth, designed through a competition organised within the Mons school in Belgium; and treated visitors to exquisite Belgian chocolates by Bart Van Cauwenberghe.
At the forthcoming July version of the fair, Liebaert will introduce a celebratory collection of fabrics for spring/summer 2014. Designer Joan Bebronne describes the collection as “characterised by a renewed technicity and creativity, a timeless modernity and a great sense of detail. The sensual hand provided by the exclusive fibres is emphasised by the chosen innovative colour ranges. A multitude of printing and finishing techniques enrich the collection as a whole, with digital printing allowing almost unlimited possibilities in design and flexibility in production. The jacquards are becoming more precise and refined, mainly due to a well-considered use of specific yarns and special bindings.”
The collection comprises three themes. Uniquessence presents a daring compound of handmade or arty looks with the “hyper” technical; new colours of silk, teint, blush and menthol revive powernets with a vintage cotton accent. Polarisation offers sparkling crystalline shades as an antidote to the economic crisis, with a newly subtle and compact Nanostitch satin imparting a purified and well-cared-for look in shades of nectar and citronade. Geo Eclectique incorporates structures and print designs inspired by craftsmanship and folklore; braiding, raffia and volume through texture are the main elements. An ultra-dull, ultra-light nanostitch base features a colour range of chalk, grey and mustard neutrals, balanced by saturated colours such as Diva Green or Bubble Gum Rose.
Certainly Liebaert stands out for its 125 years of success, as well as for its creativity, quality, technology and values; but in today’s economic climate there are many challenges for European textile mills.
CEO Alain Liebaert offers his assessment of the company’s future: “Textiles will always be an uphill battle, but we continue to see the future of our family company with optimism. We intend to stay in Europe and offer a unique ‘European’ handwriting and quality to our customers worldwide.
“Liebaert profiles itself as a financially strong and stable company, always at the forefront of new technology. Yet human values remain at the centre of our philosophy because they are the engine that fuels passion and motivation. We believe people make the difference and we have a team that proves this day after day.”
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