Carine Gilson’s perfect weekend in Brussels

The queen of silk and lace lingerie for three decades browses for books in an old dance school, absorbs the city’s architecture and takes time over a picnic sur l’herbe

Belgian fashion designer Carine Gilson at Maison Saint-Cyr, one of Brussels’ finest art-nouveau buildings
Belgian fashion designer Carine Gilson at Maison Saint-Cyr, one of Brussels’ finest art-nouveau buildings | Image: Serge Leblon

“I was born in Brussels and cannot imagine living anywhere else. It’s a place of contrasts: it’s artistic and serious, creative and rigorous. I need these two dimensions. What we do is imaginative, but we must also be very precise – especially with couture pieces. 

I bought my atelier in Anderlecht when I started the business. It’s a beautiful building dating back to 1928, when it was a petticoat factory – I like to remember that when I’m designing nightdresses. I built an apartment in the loft and live above the atelier. 

Brussels, being so small, is a great place for a weekend on foot. The architecture, especially the art nouveau and art deco buildings, are inspiring. On Saturday morning, I love to wander in the 19th-century Galeries Saint-Hubert, perhaps Europe’s grandest shopping arcade. Hidden in there is Tropismes, my favourite bookstore. It’s in an old dance school with high, ornate ceilings – a lovely place to browse the art books, some of which have little handwritten recommendations from the staff. The Galerie de la Reine has traditional, upmarket Belgian brands, from Delvaux’s impeccably crafted bags to Pierre Marcolini’s exceptional chocolates, and a very good lace shop, Manufacture Belge de Dentelles, which still has antique pieces. It’s easy to imagine how elegant the Galeries were a century ago.

In good weather, I’ll walk to Rob, my favourite epicerie, to buy the ingredients for a Sunday picnic. It’s a treat for the eye but the food is extraordinary too – especially the black-truffle biscuits. That will make me hungry, so I’ll lunch at Vini Divini, a tiny Italian restaurant right next door to Hotel Le Berger, which is also worth seeing – it’s a restored “rendezvous” hotel. The restaurant has been run by Vincenzo Marino for years and is a Brussels institution. 

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After that I’ll have the energy to stroll up the Boulevard de Waterloo for all the international luxury brands – including, for the past year, my own flagship – and then on to the best architectural walk in the city. It starts from the Place du Châtelain and the Horta Museum, in the original home of Victor Horta – our best-known art nouveau architect – and goes on to the mysterious Palais Stoclet, by the Austrian Josef Hoffmann (in Vienna Secession style – it’s like a forerunner of art deco). Inside, there are apparently amazing decorations by Klimt, but the owners keep it closed up. Then there is Maison Saint-Cyr, Maison Delune, Maison Autrique… about 30 beautiful buildings; I’ll keep going till I’ve had enough. 

If I’m celebrating a special occasion, my favourite place for dinner is two-Michelin-star Bon Bon, where chef Christophe Hardiquest and his wife have brought exciting modern design into a traditional building – it reflects his contemporary take on classic French food. The vegetarian tasting menu is very special, but my favourite is the tomato shrimp. For dinner with friends I love Le Vismet, meaning “fish market”. It’s quite traditional, very relaxed, and does what it says: the freshest fish, cooked in interesting ways. For a nightcap, I like the bars in nearby Dansaert, which was quite gritty when I opened my first shop there but is now very energetic and trendy. My favourite is L’Archiduc, which combines live jazz with art exhibitions. You can also window-shop Brussels’ most directional stores – Stijl for younger Belgian talent like Jean-Paul Lespagnard and Sofie d’Hoore, as well as the big names; and MAD, which supports emerging local designers.

On Sunday I’ll often get up early to browse the Marolles flea market and antiques shops in Rue Blaes and Rue Haute, part of the historic Sablon area near the Royal Palace. There is a charming church, Notre Dame du Sablon, and by it one of the city’s secret gems, the Square du Petit Sablon, which is a neo-Renaissance garden like a mini Versailles, with works by 19th-century sculptors. For rainy days, Brussels has unique museums – the Magritte for our most famous surrealist, and the wonderful Fashion & Lace Museum, where I first became fascinated by lace. It’s not made here any longer – it’s too expensive – but we have it made in northern France and our silk comes from Lyon… so, French materials and Belgian craft. The museum is exhibiting my work and I hope it puts over the sense of intimacy and sensuality I love to convey. 

Afterwards, I’ll have brunch on the roof of the Musée des Instruments de Musique, which has fantastic views of the city, or I’ll walk to Friture René for the best mussels or steak frites. If it’s a sunny day, though, I’ll take my Rob picnic and go first to the Villa Empain, a wonderful art deco house that the Boghossian jewellery family has restored as an art foundation and exhibition space. Then I’ll relax with my déjeuner sur l’herbe in the Bois de la Cambre, a huge, unspoilt forest area with paths for rambling and wildlife-spotting, really close to the city centre. There is a “chalet” restaurant there on an island that you reach by boat – a final Brussels idiosyncracy to finish the weekend.”

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