Lifestyle luggage is back

Once a status symbol, baggage is becoming glamorous yet again as designers experiment with new ranges, says Sarah Balmond

Jerry and Joe, down and out musicians dressed in drag, ogle the ukulele-playing siren Marilyn Monroe – aka Sugar Kane Kowalczyk – as she sashays down the train platform, all stilettos, steam and suitcases.

The 1959 classic film Some Like it Hot encapsulates a bygone era of travel when suitcases and luggage were as much about status and lifestyle as about function and form. Flash forward about 50 years and the scene appears somewhat different. Carousels spit out generic-looking suitcases on to conveyor belts as the travel-weary hunt for their baggage among the snakes of dull grey, testimony to the lack of imaginative design throughout the 1990s.

However, a changing travel culture combined with overseas competition and a burgeoning UK love affair with all things aesthetic – household products being no exception – is dramatically evolving the market. Designers are experimenting with technology, colour and form to create products that are ushering in a new era of luggage design.

Samsonite, one of the oldest international travel brands, is leading the way with Quentin Mackay, newly appointed global creative director, at the helm. He is steering a strategy to steadily push design up the 95-year-old company’s agenda, as part of a wider initiative to relaunch Samsonite as a high-end luxury travel and accessory business (see News, page 4). He reports directly to chief executive Marcello Bottoli, formerly chief executive of Louis Vuitton. Mackay is busy setting up the company’s first global design headquarters in London to ‘build a multinational team, a buzz centre for design’. He will head an 11-strong team and is recruiting key designers from the company’s regional markets to work together in a single location for the first time. The office will also include ‘global marketing and top management staff’. It is scheduled to open next February and will be located near Heathrow.

The team will work on developing more luggage ranges, but Mackay has ideas up his sleeve for a whole host of new product areas, such as eyewear, watches and shoes.

‘We are not a luggage brand, but a travel solutions brand. These developments make sense and have all been discussed. It is very exciting – there is lots going on, but it is very early days,’ he says.

Mackay believes that luggage is being designed to meet new demands in the travel sector, such as tighter security and smaller storage allowance.

‘Everything is being squeezed with restrictions on what to carry. People need to have questions answered with functional solutions as well as elements of surprise in the designs. The most important thing is to have innovation, to think outside of the box and push the boundaries,’ he adds.

Samsonite is launching four new product lines this year: Scope, designed by Marc Newson, Vintage, Pro DLX and X-Lite, all created by Samsonite’s in-house team. The concepts are varied and range from über-trendy, space age pod-like cases made from materials typically used for trainers, through to vintage trunks with hardware accents. Mackay says he is in talks with another leading designer to develop a series that he aims to launch in the first or second quarter of 2007.

David Fisher, design director at Seymour Powell, has worked with many of the leading travel brands, including GlobeTrotter, Connolly and Tumi, which recently remodelled its core line. He also alludes to an evolving travel philosophy that is informing design briefs.

‘The churn rate on luggage is increasing; it is no longer a life purchase, but a fashion buy to suit specific vacation needs. For example, you may have a big trip planned for Ibiza and want a pink suitcase. This is driving differentiation among brands. They are creating ranges that consumers can buy into,’ he explains.

Fashion plays a central role in this process, with Prada, Fendi and Louis Vuitton all raising the bar with luxurious models that boast bespoke detailing.

‘There is a need to identify your luggage on the conveyor belt. Individuals are looking at ways of customising and accessorising. There is a search for authenticity,’ he adds.

Pelham Group owns Delsey UK, which is run as a separate company and distributes Tumi, LongChamp, Bric’s and Cellini to retailers across the UK. Commercial director Pete McGuinness says, ‘There is a quest for newness all the time.’ To meet this demand, he says Delsey scraps a product range after four years ‘unless exceptional’ and gives its designers ‘free rein’ to come up with models, a strategy that has only emerged in recent years.

Next year, Delsey will launch up to five lines and continue to roll-out one-off ‘innovative brand extension products’, such as its So Irresistible roll-up women’s handbags, due to launch on 15 October.

McGuinness sees a trend towards a casual look, with more of an urban style. ‘Colour is very big, as is fabrics, pattern and print. Luggage is very much a fashion statement, it is part of your wardrobe now and consumers want to feel good as they walk through the airport,’ he says.

The days of the generic-looking suitcase may well be numbered if design continues to evolve along this exciting, exotic track.

KEY PLAYERS

Samsonite

• Brands include: Samsonite, American Tourister, Lacoste and Trunk and Co

• Net sales of $903m (£512m) for fiscal year ending January 2005

Delsey UK, established in 1946 and now present in 105 countries

• Chief executive, Tony Gram

• Produces more than 3 million items of luggage

Delsey-owner Pelham Group also distributes Tumi, Bric’s, LongChamp and Cellini

• Commercial director, Pete McGuinness

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