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Why heritage brand Rimowa thinks you need a $1,000 suitcase

120-year-old luxury luggage maker Rimowa, facing intense competition from less pricey startups, launches major new marketing push to millennials.

Why heritage brand Rimowa thinks you need a $1,000 suitcase
[Photo: courtesy of Rimowa]

Even if you’ve never heard of Rimowa, you’ve likely seen the suitcases the 120-year-old company produces.

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The brand’s iconic aluminum hardshell cases with grooves are the stuff of spy movies. When A-listers like Kanye West, Cara Delevigne, or Gwyneth Paltrow are photographed by the paparazzi on vacation, there’s a good chance they’re wheeling their Rimowa around with them. The brand is particularly popular with creatives. Its customers include fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, Apple’s chief design officer Johnny Ives, and chef Massimo Bottura. Virgil Abloh, a longtime fan of the brand and Louis Vuitton’s new creative director for menswear, has just collaborated with Rimowa on a totally transparent version of the iconic suitcase.

Virgil Abloh at Rimowa [Photo: courtesy of Rimowa]
The problem is, while Rimowa has its fans among the rich and design-obsessed, it doesn’t have the same name recognition as many other heritage luxury brands. Last year, it was acquired by the LVMH group, which owns brands like Louis Vuitton, Celine, Fendi, and Christian Dior. The company appointed a new CEO, Alexandre Arnault, son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault. The younger Arnault’s goal seems to be to transform Rimowa from a niche luggage maker into a globally recognized luxury brand.

And today, it takes a step towards turning this vision into a reality. In January, the brand unveiled a new visual identity, and today, it fully rolls it out by incorporating it into its entire brand and product range. It has updated its logo and packaging, to provide a cleaner, more modern look. And it’s changed its iconic suitcases by updating the wheels, handles, and interiors. To the untrained eye, the changes are fairly subtle. But Rimowa is leveraging these small, but significant changes to tell a deeper story about the brand’s obsession with design and artisanal craftsmanship.

This luggage is pricey, running around $1,000 for the classic silver-colored aluminum carry-on and $650 for a polycarbonate version. But Rimowa’s fans say the quality of the products is unparalleled. The hardshell exterior is solid, protecting your stuff from hard knocks or the elements. The wheels offer a smooth ride, making it easier to get through airports. All of this, says chief brand officer Hector Muelas, has to do with Rimowa’s unique production process.

[Photo: courtesy of Rimowa]
Unlike much of the luggage industry, which makes suitcases in large factories in Asia, 80% of Rimowa’s production process happens by hand. The aluminum cases are all made in workshops in Cologne, Germany, with each of the nearly 200 components assembled in more than 90 steps. Muelas says that Rimowa owns all of its factories to ensure that it can better control the manufacturing process. “It’s workmanship that is unheard of in this industry,” Muelas says. “Every suitcase is really one of a kind.”

Rimowa is now focused on telling this story about quality and craftsmanship. This seems to be driven, in part, by the spike in new luggage brands entering the market, all touting their superior quality.

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Three years ago, the market was flooded with startups claiming to offer high quality cases at affordable prices. The most notable is two-year-old Away, which has now raised $31 million to fund its explosive growth. The same year, a former Louis Vuitton executive launched a brand called Arlo Skye. And earlier this year, former Tumi executives launched a brand called ROAM. These brands’ carryon suitcases range in price from $200 and $500, which is more expensive than the cheapest luggage on the market, but are a fraction of the price of a Rimowa case.

It’s not easy for new brands to enter this space. This year alone, two luggage startups have folded: Raden and Bluesmart. The companies that failed focused largely on the high tech features of their cases, and were negatively impacted by rules imposed by airlines last year that banned suitcases with built-in batteries. But the fact that they collapsed so quickly reveals that they may have been on shaky ground to begin with.

[Photos: courtesy of Rimowa]
Still, Muelas treats these startups as legitimate competition. In addition to creating good products, brands like Away have helped turn luggage from a commodity into a design object. Earlier this year, Rimowa gifted every TED attendee a suitcase, showing that the brand is interested in making a mark with influencers in the tech, business, and creative industries–people who would otherwise be exposed to primarily luggage startups that market their products online. “More and more consumers are thinking about what their luggage says about them,” he says. “It’s not just a functional object anymore; people care about the story behind their suitcase. And this helps us because we’ve always been in the business of creating beautiful products.”

Ultimately, Muelas thinks that this sudden flurry of startups in the luggage space is a good thing, if only because it means young people are thinking about luggage more. They’re doing more research before buying a suitcase and are more knowledgeable about what constitutes a good product. And if Rimowa plays its cards right, today’s Away or ROAM customer may graduate to Rimowa in a few years time. “We’re really excited about this new energy we’re seeing in our industry,” Muelas says. “It means that people suddenly care about a brand like ours, that has spent a century perfecting the art of crafting a suitcase. Now, it’s our job to make sure we get our story out to them.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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