From medicine to mattresses, no industry seems exempt from the start-up shake-up. The luggage sector – globally worth €17bn in 2016 and set to grow by almost 8 per cent by 2023 – is no exception. Though the luxury end of the market is still dominated by the likes of LVMH-owned Rimowa and Samsonite, there are newcomers who sense a chance to make millions from a simple idea. Chief among them is US label Away.
Founded in 2015, Away occupies an entire floor of office space in New York’s Soho neighbourhood, where number “1” and “2” balloons hover above desks to mark work anniversaries for the more than 250 staff. The space feels more tech campus than luggage purveyor – and in many ways it is. Away wants to do away with what co-founder Jen Rubio calls an “inherently broken” wholesale-retail approach marked by staid shops, replacing it with a direct-to-consumer, digital-forward model. In some ways Away’s success is hardly surprising – this is a script that’s worked for numerous arriviste start-ups.
At the heart of the company is the idea of promoting not just products but an entire lifestyle; it even has its own travel magazine, Here, which makes no mention of luggage. (Rubio calls the publication a “step towards owning the entire travel space”.) Having sold more than a million products – from the now-familiar polycarbonate and aluminium hard-shells to soft bags – and raised €72m in venture funding, Away has grasped a vital branding lesson when it comes to luggage: making it sexier sells. “No one was really talking about the experiences and trips that people were going to take their bag on,” says Rubio, who met co-founder Steph Korey while both were working at similarly “disruptive” eyewear company Warby Parker.
Rubio says Away’s success is partly down to the fact that it was the “first mover” on the new luggage scene. But it’s also due to its decision to target the middle of the market. “For people who are used to a certain type of brand or quality, we’re giving them what they want for a much lower price point. And for people who are used to buying at a certain price point, we’re giving them a much better-quality bag.”
Luggage can nonetheless be a volatile marketplace and there are far more direct-to-consumer players around now than when Away started, from Arlo Skye to Horizn Studios (see panel, right). Rubio argues that the close feedback loop the brand has with its customers has protected it by keeping it “nimble and responsive”. So when airlines banned carry-ons with built-in batteries, for example, Away was quick to adapt its products to make removing them easier (the original case only allowed you to do it from the inside). Other less- adaptable companies, such as Bluesmart and Raden, had to pack it in as a result.
Following other start-ups, Away has moved into the bricks-and-mortar sphere in the US and London, a “no brainer” that Rubio says acts as a “profitable billboard” that increases web sales. The company, she argues, is just getting started. Up next? “We’re thinking about our share [of the items] you’ll be packing in your bag.”
The brands packing heat in the luggage market
1. Arlo Skye, USA
“Luggage is like the car industry: all cars get you from A to B but the car you buy comes down to engineering, user experience, look, feel and what the brand stands for,” says Arlo Skye co-founder Mayur Bhatnagar. Formerly at LVMH, he joined Mauricio Issa and Denielle Wolfe to launch a handsome – if slightly familiar-looking – line of polycarbonate and aluminium suitcases in 2016. Pegged as bags for “the design-obsessed”, they also have extra-quiet wheels.
2. Ookonn, Hong Kong
Inspired by the spherical shape of vintage hat boxes, Anson Shum decided to try the shape out on luggage. “We wanted to provide what people couldn’t find in other generic travel labels,” says Ookonn’s co-founder. Since launching in 2016 the Hong Kong brand has been picked up by high-end retailers and sold tens of thousands of pieces. With TSA locks, 360 spinner wheels and a sturdy polycarbonate shell, it’s as easy on airport floors as it is on the eye.
3. Horizn Studios, Germany
Three months after launching Horizn Studios’ model M – a hardshell with a soft front pocket of Varchetta leather – founders Stefan Holwe and Jan Roosen had sold more than 10,000 pieces and travel accessories. Four years later sales have reached 300,000, helped by backing from the Rolex family, co-branded editions with Soho House, BMW and Lufthansa, plus shops in Berlin and London. “We aim to build the leading luggage and travel brand for the next generation – on a global scale,” says Holwe.
4. July, Australia
Melbourne-based July is the new kid on the block. Designed in five pared-back matte tones, including navy and charcoal (no silver here), its cases have specially enforced rubber wheels, a fast-charging battery pack and a water-resistant interior. “We came to the game a bit late so we needed to innovate,” says founder Athan Didaskalou. The company is on track to hit €1.9m in revenue this year, with 75-litre and 100-litre cases on the way.
5. Lipault, France
Although a bit older, Lipault was an early innovator. Born in 2005, the idea was to create an elegant, colourful item with a soft shell for easier storage. The winning formula has led to revenue of €26m, 20 standalone shops and, in 2014, a new owner in Samsonite. “Our vision is to be a brand with colour and style and to keep making unstructured, playful bags and suitcases,” says general manager Jonathan Dory.
by Rob Crossan
It was able to give traffic updates, it could weigh itself on demand and, fatally for now-dissolved luggage brand Raden, it came with fire-prone lithium ion batteries that couldn’t be removed and were deemed a flying hazard. That’s what happens when you attempt to make luggage too smart: the constant shifting of airline rules means that today’s innovation could easily be tomorrow’s security threat.
But the real lesson here is that quality luggage should never be about digital dazzle. A bag that looks like it’s seen years of service and, more importantly, is sturdy enough to do a few more, should take precedence over hi-tech embellishments. Billingham bags, for example, were originally designed for field photographers and are tough and low maintenance. As a result they carry an air of resourceful, independent can-do travel imperiousness about them that fits just as well in Oslo as on the Okavango Delta. Japanese brand Ace’s carry-ons have a similar feeling of indestructability.
That’s the real secret of good luggage: strong and sturdy but not ostentatiously smart. The same maxim applies to both globetrotters and the gear they carry: nobody likes a show-off.