On a sticky summer evening in early August, fashionable men and women spilled out of a tiny studio space in London’s Soho neighborhood, drinking BrewDog’s canned gin and tonics. Inside, a rotating cast of model slash DJs played bass-heavy tracks. Paparazzi snapped photos of punk fashion designer Pam Hogg as she walked into the building. The vibe was young. It was on-trend. Everyone and everything was photogenic.
This was not a fashion party, but the launch of luggage brand Horizn Studios’s temporary Soho store. A few weeks later, Away’s extremely Instagram-friendly brick-and-mortar store opened just a stone’s throw away in Seven Dials, one of London’s most premium boutique shopping districts. And, then in early September, the newest (and now seemingly omnipresent) ad campaign for Rimowa dropped online and IRL, featuring a cast of characters including supermodel Adwoa Aboah, tennis star Roger Federer, and Louis Vuitton designer Virgil Abloh.
All of this begs the question: Exactly how did luggage get so hip?
Traveling has always been aspirational, so it makes sense that the bags we bring along on our journeys would be, too. But until pretty recently, the market was rigidly defined. At the top, you had the type of luggage made by Louis Vuitton and Gucci—brands whose owners were unlikely to be schlepping their own cases from the airport onto the train. In the middle, stalwart brands like Tumi and Samsonite telegraphed a certain kind of “you’ve arrived” businessman prestige, but were hardly the terrain of cool kids and hypebeasts. And then there was everything else—a mishmash of department store brands that, beyond promising to hold your stuff, didn’t say a whole lot of anything.
And yet for a certain traveler, in just a few short years, luggage has gone from something you have to buy to something you covet. The story of how it got there is one that is not just about market disruption and product innovation, but also a reflection of the changing way we travel.
According to Cassandra Napoli, associate editor at trend forecaster WGSN, direct-to-consumer brand Away and legacy brand Rimowa are the two most responsible for this shift in the luggage space. She says they pioneered the idea of “offering a luxury luggage product at a premium price point,” giving consumers a design-led product that doesn’t necessarily need to break the bank. (Though it’s worth noting that, with a limited edition Fendi cabin bag that costs around $2,000, Rimowa still boasts a luxury price point for many of its products.) She adds that both brands also excelled at forging culturally relevant collaborations and brand spinoffs (Rimowa’s cold press juice pop-up in LA, for example) that reach the right audience.
That said, the two companies have wildly different histories. Rimowa was an established legacy brand owned by the same German family for 119 years until 2016, when French luxury powerhouse LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton acquired a majority stake of it. Meanwhile, Away was founded by two entrepreneurs in 2015, Steph Korey and Jen Rubio, both alums of direct-to-consumer eyewear company Warby Parker.
But the two brands started disrupting the industry around the same time. The 2016 sale of Rimowa was at the behest of 26-year-old Alexandre Arnault, whose grandfather, Bernard Arnault, is chairman and CEO of LVMH. The younger Arnault was installed as Rimowa’s CEO and set out to make the brand relevant to the Instagram generation, staking out partnerships with Supreme and pulling stunts like a transparent suitcase designed by Virgil Abloh.
Meanwhile, from the outset of its founding in 2015, Away has sought to position its minimalist, functional luggage as a part of a broader lifestyle package—launching a podcast, magazine, and well-lit, well-located shops to bolster its image.
Another unusually hip luggage brand is the aforementioned Horizn Studios, founded in Berlin in 2015. In addition to being the first direct-to-consumer luggage brand in Europe—and boasting collaborations with none other than Design Hotels and Soho House—Horizn also sells its bags with a personal travel concierge, in partnership with British concierge group Quintessentially. Co-founder Stefan Holwe says he came up with the idea for the company when, fed up with his old-school Rimowa and looking for a replacement, he realized that that the “Nike of luggage” didn’t exist.
“There is so much innovation going on in travel, but the one piece that we actually travel with all the time has stayed super analog,” Holwe said, noting that more than 90% of luggage sales in Europe happen offline, despite suitcases being an inherently shippable product. “The biggest luggage innovation in the past 30 years was they went from two wheels to four wheels.”
The bags of Away, Horizn, and Rimowa bear some similarities. Hard-side cases are unequivocally in, as are clean lines, charging capabilities, and muted but pleasing colors like pistachio and millennial pink. And, as Away demonstrated with its dented aluminum product shots—which, in fact, were a nod to classic Rimowa bags—these cases are designed to be not just seen but used, rather than gingerly carted from the town car to first class check-in.
This is consistent with the kind of demographic they speak to: frequent travelers who are upwardly mobile, but not necessarily traveling on a limitless company expense account. They are people who have benefitted from and grown up with the great democratization of travel, and are accustomed to traipsing through cobblestone streets to find their Airbnb and chucking their carry-on into the overhead bin while traveling on a basic economy ticket. Horizn’s founder thinks of them as creative class “urban nomads” or “people that actually still carry their bag themselves and take the tube [metro] to the hotel—that’s the kind of audience we’re talking to.”
This design-led sensibility is another reason the luggage market was ripe for disruption. These days we don’t just ferry ourselves from airport to airport, we Instagram the entire process. (As Arnault said in a recent profile in the New York Times Styles section, “If you follow me on Instagram, you see … just a lot of stories of suitcases everywhere.”) And frankly, a black soft-shell nylon bag may be functional, but it just isn’t that photogenic.
Napoli, who wrote brand case studies on both Away and Rimowa noted, “When people Instagram their Away case, they do so with a latte or a certain shot in mind—it’s very curated.” She adds that millennials—a generation said to value experiences over things—tend to see the trips they go on as a crucial part of their identities.
“Travel is the new currency, and millennials are the driving force here,” Napoli said. “They’re willing to pay for an experience more than a product. But you need luggage to have that experience.”
This post has been updated to change Away Travel to simply Away.