Alexandre Arnault was 18 when he realized his urgent need for a suitcase: “It was for this big trip I was about to take to the US.” This problem was a problem, you’d think, with an obvious solution. Given that his father, Bernard Arnault, is the founder, chairman, and chief executive of LVMH group—the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate—he could have proceeded directly to Louis Vuitton. However, recalls Arnault: “I didn’t want to have, you know, a logo suitcase to put in an aeroplane.” So instead he headed to the famous Parisian department store Le Bon Marché (also part of the family-run group) and started scouting. “I looked at the luggage—and this was quite random—until I saw this product I loved. To be honest, I had no idea about the brand.”
That brand was Rimowa, a company founded in Cologne, Germany, in 1898. Since 1937 it has been making cases in grooved aluminum (and later polycarbonate) which were originally inspired by the manufacture of the world’s first all-metal airplane, the Junker F13. Amongst certain cognoscenti of the luggage carousel—whose ranks Arnault was about to join—Rimowa had long been relished for these instantly recognizable cases, appreciated for their supreme toughness, their restrained industrial design, and the fact that the more beaten up, sticker-covered and dented they get, the cooler they look. “I started seeing them, more and more, in airports. I started paying attention, learning more and more about Rimowa.”
Fast forward to 2016, when Arnault was both instrumental in LVHM’s acquisition of Rimowa and appointed its chief executive. Since then Rimowa has engaged in a series of eye-catching collaborations with other brands—some LVMH owned, others not—including Off-White, Dior, Moncler, Fendi, and Supreme. And Arnault, now 28, has been behind a drive to expand Rimowa’s purview way beyond the airport, introducing phone cases, the Kim Jones-approved clutch Personal bag (which goes on pre-sale tomorrow), a watch case (announced earlier this month), and now a new line of day-to-day luggage—totes and backpacks you’d just as happily transport to the grocery store or on a dog walk as to the departure gate.
The collection, named Never Still, was developed “by paying close attention to evolving traveler trends” says Arnault, and in development long before the pandemic. Yet in a year during which traveler trends have not so much evolved as imploded, this new emphasis on day-to-day journeys, smaller, more intimate, and local, seems especially timely. Below, with edits, is what Arnault had to say on Zoom from Paris, shortly after the city went into its second lockdown—and shortly before the first announcement of a hopefully imminent vaccine.
This new collection is a meaningful departure for Rimowa, because—ironically for a travel brand—you’re entering a territory it’s never visited before. Can you outline the thinking behind this expansion?
Alexandre Arnault: “You know, suitcases are the core of the business—they’re 95% of our sales. But you are going to see Rimowa release more and more products that are not suitcases but which still help people, in their day to day lives, to go from point A to point B. And more products that protect items that are important, like our iPhone cases… they’re doing super well, and they protect your phone with the same quality and assurance as the suitcases protect your other items.
The collection, the Personal bags you’re about to release, and those phone cases all suggest that you’re thinking outside of Rimowa’s traditional box, which is air travel.
“And maybe people will think that we pivoted because of COVID, but we did not! One of the things that was frustrating for me and everyone at Rimowa is that people are only in touch with the product at the dreadful parts of travel. Rimowa is a great brand with great products, but you only have your suitcase with you when you’re at the airport, which nobody loves. And then when you’re at your destination your suitcase is in your room, open in half, and you don’t really have any interactions with it. So it makes the relationship between the brand and the product kind of strange. So we decided a year and a half ago to develop products that would have the same craft, the same DNA, and the same heritage as the suitcases, but that could be used on a daily basis.”
Travel is what Rimowa is known for, and this year it has been severely hampered…
“All my friends, and all the generation that I’m in, everybody’s waiting to be able to travel again, to be able to move again… In my opinion we are in this big parenthesis right now that will be reopened. So, we’ve taken all the measures necessary to mitigate costs and everything due to the virus, but we also purposefully haven’t cut a single Euro of R&D investment because we believe that we want to be the strongest possible whenever this comes back, and we’re lucky to have the LVMH group behind us agree with this vision. I think that once a vaccine arrives, and if people get vaccinated, then things will return to normal quite quickly. Although I do think that business travel will change. Being my age, I am surprised that it took a global pandemic to discover that Zoom exists, but they did discover it, and I think that in the future companies will look more closely at who needs to travel, and at what range… but while travel has changed, mobility has not. Even during lockdown people need to go from point A to point B. So I think we’re due to become much more a mobility company as well as a travel company.”
You’ve grown up in a family whose business is about identifying and nurturing brands so that they expand to really resonate with people. Was it hard to integrate Rimowa into that process?
“It was quite easy. Because our family group is all about quality, craftsmanship, DNA, and desirability. And those were four things that were also present in Rimowa, and that still are—the products are super-strong, the best in the world, made with unbelievable craftsmanship and possessed with that great DNA. So I think it was a no brainer! And you know, when people talk about ‘luxury,’ I don’t love this word because it’s too linked to price. Our suitcases aren’t as expensive as a Dior bag or a Celine jacket, but I don’t think that makes them less of a luxury product per se. Because it was made with the utmost craft and attention to detail and is of great, high quality. To me anything that is of high quality can really be seen as luxury.”
Speaking of which, all of these new Never Still bags are made in Italy…
“We’re in constant pursuit of the highest quality materials and most skilled partners that can flawlessly meet our product expectations. We set the bar high, but we believe this is what functional luxury is all about: exquisitely executed details finished to perfection by the world’s most renowned craftsmen. And Italy has long undisputed skills in the industry for leather goods.”
Finally, what’s the next fresh direction on the horizon for Rimowa?
“Well we’re not going to launch, say, jewelry or ready to wear anytime soon. But I don’t see Rimowa as not being a brand that is able to embody all of these categories. First, though, accessories—and then we’ll see what happens.”