High rolling

Ri­mowa’s new CEO on smarter suit­cases

Wallpaper - - March - Por­trait: Al­brecht Fuchs Writer: Amy Ser­afin

A worker in­tently stud­ies an alu­minium suit­case on the as­sem­bly line at the Ri­mowa fac­tory in Cologne. He opens and closes it re­peat­edly, lays it flat, pounds a hinge with his mal­let, stands it on its wheels and starts over again. Un­til this bag is per­fectly bal­anced, it will not leave the fac­tory. Such labour-in­ten­sive qual­ity has been in Ri­mowa’s DNA since Paul Morszeck founded it in Cologne in 1898.

With its im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able alu­minium cases and grooved de­sign, Ri­mowa is a cult brand, the type that bonds own­ers in a kind of un­spo­ken club. The Ger­man com­pany turns 120 this year, but there will be no one spe­cial event, says Alexan­dre Ar­nault, the new 25-year-old CEO, who finds the idea of a party ‘out­dated’. Rather, it will be a whole year of cel­e­bra­tion, of tak­ing a fresh look at the suit­case brand that pi­o­neered alu­minium and poly­car­bon­ate, and finding ‘a cool way to re­mind peo­ple who we are’.

Tall, poised and im­pec­ca­bly dressed, flu­ent in French, English and Ger­man, Ar­nault is the third child of LVMH CEO Bernard Ar­nault and it was his idea that the lux­ury goods con­glom­er­ate ac­quire Ri­mowa. He had been us­ing a matte black ‘Salsa’ model since age 17 or 18, when he moved to New York for an in­tern­ship. ‘My fam­ily wasn’t too happy when I trav­elled with it,’ he re­calls. ‘But when they looked at it care­fully, they un­der­stood the beauty of the prod­uct, the craft be­hind it.’ The fam­ily op­er­a­tion has high-pro­file lug­gage brands of its own, of course, but when Louis Vuit­ton started to mod­ernise its suit­case line with lighter and four-wheeled mod­els, Ri­mowa’s par­tic­u­lar set of skills be­came clear.

LVMH bought Ri­mowa in Jan­uary 2017, after two years of ne­go­ti­a­tion, and Ar­nault was ap­pointed CEO along­side Di­eter Morszeck. He has been ac­tively shep­herd­ing the brand ever since, with col­lab­o­ra­tions, new stores, a pop-up, and no sign of slow­ing down. ‘What I’ve learned from grow­ing up

in my fam­ily and see­ing other CEOS is that you have to be in­volved in the prod­uct on ev­ery sin­gle level,’ he says.

In June he hired Hec­tor Mue­las, for­merly of Ap­ple and DKNY, as Ri­mowa’s chief brand of­fi­cer. Early this year they un­veiled a new vis­ual iden­tity, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mu­nich­based Bureau Borsche and Lon­don-based Com­mis­sion Stu­dio. The pill-shaped frame and rounded let­ters of the pre­vi­ous logo have been re­placed with an un­der­stated de­sign, with a re­fined sans serif font that ‘en­cap­su­lates the time­less and con­sid­ered na­ture of the brand’, says Mue­las. The colour blue has dis­ap­peared in favour of neu­tral shades – black, white and grey.

The team also de­signed a new mono­gram in­spired by Ri­mowa’s orig­i­nal from 1898. It fea­tures sharp­ened ver­tices like the spires of Cologne’s fa­mous cathe­dral, in­ter­twined with an­gu­lar curves that mir­ror the in­dus­trial forms of con­tem­po­rary Ri­mowa suit­cases.

Both the logo and mono­gram ap­pear on a re­designed range of pack­ag­ing. Once an af­ter­thought, Ri­mowa’s pack­ag­ing now as­pires to be as pleas­ing as that of an iphone. There are dust bags, shop­ping bags with straps held in place by riv­ets, and gift boxes for carry-ons. Demon­strat­ing a price tag that slides out of a lit­tle folder, Mue­las says, ‘With ev­ery sin­gle piece of de­sign, we put a lot of con­sid­er­a­tion into how it would make peo­ple feel. When you buy Ri­mowa it’s a magic mo­ment. It’s got to have a rit­ual.’

Pa­per ac­ces­sories such as an owner’s man­ual and note­books are em­bossed with fine par­al­lel lines to mir­ror the suit­cases’ grooves. Geo­graphic co­or­di­nates ap­pear here and there, mak­ing oblique ref­er­ence to mean­ing­ful lo­ca­tions for the com­pany, such as the fac­tory where each case was pro­duced.

The num­ber of mean­ing­ful lo­ca­tions is in­creas­ing, as last year saw a slew of new store open­ings in cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Tokyo. Ar­nault wants each one to give cus­tomers an ex­pe­ri­ence, and he plans to hire in-coun­try ar­chi­tects to de­sign in­di­vid­ual stores for dif­fer­ent mar­kets. Be­yond suit­cases, cus­tomers in larger cities will discover unique life­style prod­ucts made by lo­cal tal­ents es­pe­cially for the brand. In Paris, for ex­am­ple, the new flag­ship is sell­ing choco­late bars by Pa­trick Roger, avail­able un­til mid-fe­bru­ary.

Ar­nault is also ex­cited about the pop-up con­cept, hav­ing launched the com­pany’s first in Bev­erly Hills last De­cem­ber, built to look like a lug­gage con­veyor belt and sell­ing prod­ucts such as fresh juice and travel and de­sign books, as well as alu­minium pens by Kaweco and T-shirts by Ger­man brand Merz b Sch­wa­nen. ‘A pop-up in a new place for six months al­lows us to try a new store con­cept, a new de­sign. If it works, great, we learn from it. If it doesn’t work, we also learn from it.’

As for col­lab­o­ra­tions, Ri­mowa teamed up with Fendi for a lim­ited-edi­tion suit­case with a belt, leather han­dles and the dou­ble F logo melded onto the alu­minium sur­face. Also launched last De­cem­ber, the cases came with a price tag of €1,700 and sold out within a week. While more such team-ups are on the hori­zon, Ar­nault is keep­ing the de­tails to him­self. What he does ad­mit to is his dream col­lab­o­ra­tion, with Nasa. He plans to con­tact them soon.

This goal re­flects Ar­nault’s love of tech­nol­ogy (he’s a grad­u­ate of Paris’ pres­ti­gious École Polytech­nique). In 2016, Ri­mowa in­tro­duced elec­tronic lug­gage tags, and the young CEO is con­sid­er­ing what other dig­i­tal in­no­va­tions might add value for the cus­tomer. Noth­ing gim­micky, he in­sists. A suit­case with an in­te­grated bat­tery charger would be heavy and un­nec­es­sary, while one with its own scale seems prac­ti­cal.

For the 80th an­niver­sary of its sig­na­ture alu­minium suit­case last year, the house pro­duced a fully dig­i­tal cam­paign – por­traits of Ri­mowa cases be­long­ing to Karl Lager­feld, Martha Ste­wart and the Ital­ian chef Mas­simo Bot­tura, among oth­ers. Reached at his re­cent Gucci Gar­den restau­rant open­ing in Florence, Bot­tura re­calls, ‘I bought my first Ri­mowa after years of lug­gage envy, watch­ing other trav­ellers wheel their metal cases around with ease. In par­tic­u­lar I was fas­ci­nated by the Ri­mowa pho­tog­ra­phy cases, these big alu­minium boxes that pro­tected frag­ile equip­ment. Fi­nally, a wheel broke on a black plas­tic trol­ley I had and I bought a Ri­mowa sil­ver bul­let trol­ley at the air­port to re­place it. And that was the begin­ning of the ob­ses­sion.’

At a time when many brands talk about sto­ry­telling, suit­cases are nat­u­ral ve­hi­cles for it. ‘They’re travel com­pan­ions,’ notes Mue­las, wit­nesses to the ex­pe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries that mark a jour­ney. In­deed, when LVMH an­nounced the ac­qui­si­tion, Ar­nault re­ceived notes from peo­ple around the world telling him their Ri­mowa sto­ries. He says, ‘There’s an amount of love that ex­ists out there for this prod­uct that I’ve rarely seen be­fore, and I think it’s linked to this re­la­tion­ship of trust. Our suit­cases are so ro­bust that peo­ple trust us with their most per­sonal be­long­ings, their most valu­able things.’∂

‘What I’ve learned from grow­ing up in my fam­ily is that you have to be in­volved in the prod­uct on ev­ery sin­gle level’

Ri­mowa’s re­designed iden­tity ex­tends to de­tails such as a mono­grammed rivet on price tags The new tags see the price tucked dis­creetly within a lit­tle folder A lug­gage tag in grey leather sits within the re­designed pack­ag­ing, com­plete with owner’s man­ual

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