The Things We Carry: Luggage Is This Year's Hottest Fashion Accessory

When it comes to luggage in 2018, it’s really not what’s on the inside that counts.

At this year’s Hypefest, a festival dedicated to streetwear and the culture around it, I stood in front of an airport luggage carousel. Groups of kids in Supreme, one with a Bape jacket zipped all the way to the top of his head (effectively blinding himself), milled around and tried desperately to buy a special-edition product on their phones. They were standing outside a brand’s booth pestering the attendees—it’s not working, they’d argue when their purchases failed. That was all normal. The less-normal thing? The extremely hot desirable product was a piece of luggage. Pulled along by a slow-moving conveyor belt were see-through Rimowa carry-ons stuffed with magazines covered by the collaborator responsible for the luggage: Virgil Abloh. Kids at Hypefest got upset about all sorts of failed purchases, and it wasn’t just standard streetwear fare like hoodies, sneakers, tees. In 2018, luggage, too, is now something to be coveted, hunted, collected, and mad about.

While it’s typically what’s inside the luggage that matters, the exterior is turning into a fashion item all on its own. (Also at Hypefest: an influencer pulling a Rimowa x Off-White carry-on.) Luggage brands collaborate with hot designers, produce runs made in small batches, and do big numbers on the resale market. This year, Rimowa collaborated with Supreme, Fendi, Anti Social Social Club and Off-White; Tumi worked with brands like Kith and former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook; and popular direct-to-consumer brand Away maintains a constant stream of celebrity partnerships with Dwyane Wade, Rashida Jones, Karlie Kloss, and others.

The collaborations signal how luggage is changing—but also how millennial attitudes toward travel in general have morphed enough to require bright-red luggage with the Supreme logo on it.

Luggage has a storied history as a status symbol. If you were a somebody in the mid-1800s, then chances are pretty good that you owned a bag from a house like Goyard. The brand dedicates a section of its website to clientele: “celebrities, and many illustrious artists, captains of industry, heads of state or royals.” And a year after Goyard was founded, a 31-year-old Louis Vuitton started making custom trunks for the Empress of France. The general contours aren’t so different today: the one percent still prefers to get luggage from a certain Louis Vuitton designer.

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Like so much else in the world of Instagrammable fashion, cool luggage is downstream of Virgil Abloh. Giving him credit for shaping the entire luggage industry might be overreach, but the Off-White/Louis Vuitton designer’s work goes a long way toward explaining how and why our luggage is changing. For years, Abloh has proudly made the airport his second home. The designer’s given the chronic traveler lifestyle—typically tinged with loneliness and meals at Chili’s—a makeover on his social media. It’s not just that Abloh is posting photos of the destination. He’s sharing from the airport lounge or the luggage carousel—the act of traveling alone is both the means and the ends of living an #influential life.

The new Instagram backdrop is, not surprisingly, affecting luggage brands. “Even the concept of standing with your luggage at an airport and taking a picture is so weird,” Jen Rubio, Away’s co-founder, told me. “That didn’t exist a few years ago but now everyone posts at the airport. That’s played a big part in Away’s customers’ decision to buy luggage for the first time.” The luggage in Abloh’s airport photos were always a focal point, too. Before he worked with either, Abloh showed off luggage from Louis Vuitton and Rimowa. “Hip travel has always existed. It’s nothing new,” said Hector Muelas, Rimowa’s chief brand officer. “It’s the social media algorithm that is making it more accessible.”

Muelas pointed to the fact that brands like his are benefiting from a broader shift in culture. “Travel is one of the fastest growing industries in the world,” he said. “The number of travelers is increasing year after year, signaling a behavioral shift across the board.” Findings from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) support Muelas’s claims. IATA found that there were 4.1 billion airline passengers in 2017, up 280 million from the previous year. “Travel is at the core of the experiential economy, so luggage, which historically has been a very functional and dull category, has taken center stage,” Muelas said.

No brand has taken advantage of this change like Muelas’s Rimowa, which maybe not coincidentally is now run by the only-26-years-old Alexandre Arnault who is a big fan of his Off-White luggage. Rimowa’s beat-em-up aluminum cases have long been the (supremely pricey) luggage of choice for people like Abloh—and before there were official collaborations, people covered their exteriors with stickers to make them ‘Gram-worthy. Now, the company is opening up its design studio so Supreme can streak the brand’s classic aluminum luggage in its signature cherry red, and Abloh can make the whole thing totally translucent. With the collaborations came streetwear customers, who have started to treat luggage the same way they do a hot sneaker or hoodie. Resale site Grailed is now littered with people trying to sell luggage for multiples of the original price.

And for the brands I spoke to—Rimowa, Tumi, and Away—it’s not just that the nature of travel is changing, it’s who’s traveling that makes a difference. “I’ve been with the brand for 15 years,” said Victor Sanz, Tumi’s creative director, “and when I first joined, I thought I had this idea of who this Tumi customer was. In my head it was this guy that wears a suit, and he’s a CEO in his 50s. And then over the past decade, that’s really changed… It was the DJs who were traveling 280 days a year, it was artists who depended on the bag to get their gear places, it was athletes, it was everyone in between.”

Like any other industry touched by young fashion-conscious customers, luggage has been swallowed up by streetwear. The catchall term for practically anything adjacent to graphics, logos, or sneakers is the dominant trend of the time, and it’s why luggage brands are hungry to collaborate with the biggest players from that world: Kith, Anti Social Social Club, Supreme, and Off-White.

For luggage brands, engaging with this world is a no-brainer. There’s a lot more money to be made by marketing luggage as fashion items rather than selling customers on the idea that they just need one perfectly made piece to last a lifetime. “For the first time ever, people are thinking about luggage as a fashion item,” Rubio said.

According to Rubio, today’s Away customers collect different pieces of luggage to bust out in various situations, just like they would any other accessory. Part of this is price: a brand like Rimowa is the legacy luxury brand while Away is the cheaper “disruptive” option. “Because of the price point, people are starting to collect [the luggage],” Rubio said. And in the process, the way these items are marketed has changed, too. “If you look at luggage advertisements of the past, it’s been all about the zippers and the wheels and the materials,” Rubio said. But that dry pitch is not what stirs the heart of customers to buy multiples. Rubio wanted to sell luggage the same way people sell fashion. “If you are coveting a jacket, maybe it’s because there are certain buttons or the cut or fabric gets you interested,” Rubio explained. “But then you think about yourself and where you’re going to wear it and what you’re going to be doing when you’re wearing it. [People] think about how it fits into their lifestyle or the lifestyle they want to have. That’s how we’ve always approached the way we talk about Away.”

This sort of pitch makes sense in the everything-is-documented era. Before, we endured the uncomfortable seats at airport lounges and the smells wafting over from the terminal’s Auntie Anne’s. We waited outside the luggage carousel as time stood still. A vacation didn’t seem to start until we could get to our hotel, tip the luggage onto the ground, and begin to unpack it. Now, all these moments are opportunities to show off. Luggage, Muelas said, is “a piece that becomes a part of everyone’s personal narrative.” If the person who coined the phrase It’s the journey, not the destination were around today, they’d probably be spouting it off—while popping a ‘Gram—with a piece from the Supreme x Rimowa collection at their side.

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