A de­tailed case study of Ri­mowa’s ruggedly stylish lug­gage

For more than a cen­tury, Ri­mowa has at­tracted a cer­tain class of world traveller. New CEO Alexan­dre Ar­nault is set to ex­pand its hori­zons.

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Jon Roth

“When some­one trav­els, they travel with their most pre­cious be­long­ings. Cloth­ing, jew­ellery, presents. They need to trust the suit­case they are car­ry­ing. They need to know that no mat­ter what, it will pro­tect what is inside, and it will never break.” That’s Alexan­dre Ar­nault talk­ing. At 25, he is the new co-CEO of Ri­mowa, a com­pany you know by its prod­ucts if not its name. Ri­mowa’s suit­cases — boxy, cor­ru­gated, usu­ally a cool, brushed alu­minium — are in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able on bag­gage carousels around the world, tele­graph­ing a no-non­sense Ger­man ap­proach to en­gi­neer­ing. A lot of bags of­fer ei­ther con­ve­nience or good looks. Ri­mowa aims higher, for func­tion and de­sign.

Ar­nault’s age makes him a bet­ter can­di­date for a tech start-up than a lug­gage em­pire, but he’s had ex­actly the right train­ing. He’s the son of Bernard Ar­nault, who heads up all of LVMH. Born into a multi­na­tional lux­ury em­pire that counts Dom Pérignon, Ber­luti and Dior as as­sets, the younger Ar­nault could come off as a son of for­tune handed a com­pany as an in­her­i­tance. But then you re­alise that Alexan­dre Ar­nault knows ex­actly what he’s talk­ing about.

“Ri­mowa was per­fectly po­si­tioned as a pure player within an in­dus­try in rapid ex­pan­sion,” he says, ex­plain­ing the logic be­hind LVMH’s £504m pur­chase. “The travel sec­tor is due to in­crease from 3.8bn to 7.2bn pas­sen­gers over the next 20 years.”

Ar­nault isn’t a spoiled heir or a Sil­i­con Val­ley dis­rupter. He’s a mil­len­nial, and a savvy one. He knows that this lat­est, spendy gen­er­a­tion is all about ex­pe­ri­ences. And what do you need for your next ex­pe­ri­ence? A bag that will hold all your stuff, look good do­ing it, and never break.

Ar­nault is hardly start­ing from scratch. Ri­mowa has been in busi­ness for more than a cen­tury. The com­pany was founded in 1898, the brain­child of Paul Morszeck, who man­u­fac­tured ul­tra­lightweight wooden suit­cases.

Decades later, his son Richard took con­trol. In the Thir­ties, a fire de­stroyed the fam­ily fac­to­ries in Cologne. Thou­sands of wooden suit­cases were re­duced to ash, but in the ruins, Richard found a sil­ver lin­ing — or at least one of a sim­i­lar metal. The tim­ber had burned away, but the fac­to­ries’ alu­minium stock — used to re­in­force the suit­cases and pro­tect their cor­ners — re­mained in­tact. He used the ma­te­rial to make new cases: stronger, lighter and more re­silient ones.

It was such a good idea, they re­named the com­pany af­ter him. (Ri­mowa is a poly­syl­labic crunch of Richard Morszeck Waren­ze­ichen.)

In the Fifties, Ri­mowa con­tin­ued to push tech­nol­ogy, this time in­tro­duc­ing its trade­mark grooved de­sign — a cor­ru­gated rip­ple, en­gi­neered for greater dura­bil­ity and in­spired by the Junkers F13 air­plane. And in 1976, Ri­mowa went wa­ter­proof with its Trop­i­cana line: a col­lec­tion of cases re­sis­tant to heat, hu­mid­ity and cold as well as wa­ter. It was a boon for film, TV and pho­to­graphic crews look­ing to pro­tect their equip­ment in ex­treme con­di­tions. The lug­gage be­came a fix­ture on shoots around the world, ex­pand­ing Ri­mowa’s range of in­flu­ence.

Last year, LVMH saw that the com­pany might be due for an in­fu­sion of new blood. Cue the court­ing, the fac­tory vis­its, the pur­chase. Cue the in­stal­la­tion of Alexan­dre the wun­derkind, who’d stud­ied at Télé­com ParisTech and the École Polytech­nique. He’d al­ready worked on dig­i­tal strat­egy and in­vest­ments at his fa­ther’s hold­ing com­pany. And he hap­pened to speak flu­ent Ger­man.

He moved to the com­pany’s Cologne head­quar­ters im­me­di­ately and started mak­ing the rounds. “The big­gest surprise for me was the level of at­ten­tion to de­tail in the man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions,” he says. “See­ing how ob­ses­sive the work­ers were about ev­ery suit­case — that made me feel con­fi­dent and proud.”

Chief brand of­fi­cer Hec­tor Mue­las is more spe­cific:

“It’s not just en­gi­neer­ing; it’s Ger­man en­gi­neer­ing. They’re in­cred­i­bly proud, in ev­ery sense. Pre­cise, tech­ni­cal, fo­cused — very de­ter­mined. It takes 117 min­utes, it takes 205 com­po­nents and 90 sep­a­rate steps to build that suit­case.”

That rig­or­ous ap­proach should pay off now as Ri­mowa hits sev­eral ban­ner years. Last Oc­to­ber, the com­pany cel­e­brated the 80th an­niver­sary of its alu­minium cases by ex­hibit­ing the lug­gage of its most loyal (and high-pro­file)

cus­tomers. Suit­cases ar­rived on loan from Karl Lager­feld, Vir­gil Abloh and David Fincher.

In De­cem­ber, Ri­mowa launched a pop-up shop in Los An­ge­les. (Ar­nault was in at­ten­dance, as were Phar­rell and Alessan­dra Am­bro­sio.) And as the com­pany en­ters its 120th year, Ar­nault hints at global store openings, prod­uct re­designs and fresh col­lab­o­ra­tions. (Al­ready it’s cre­ated a suit­case with Fendi, another LVMH prop­erty.)

But suc­cess isn’t as sim­ple as some cre­ative cross-pro­mo­tion. Ri­mowa is re­vamp­ing as new com­peti­tors have hit the mar­ket: lug­gage star­tups such as Raden and Away fea­ture sim­i­larly min­i­mal­ist de­sign, plus tech-friendly fea­tures like USB charg­ers and lo­ca­tion sen­sors. Two years ago, Ri­mowa made its run for dig­i­tal dom­i­nance with the E-Tag — an elec­tronic-ink panel that al­lows cus­tomers to check in and track their lug­gage via an app.

Mue­las sug­gests Ri­mowa’s new com­pe­ti­tion might just help it in the long run: “They’re telling cus­tomers, ‘Hey, you should care about your suit­case.’ The dif­fer­ence is whether you want to buy the de­sign ob­ject du jour or an in­vest­ment piece that’s go­ing to last a life­time.”

Ar­nault is bank­ing on that longevity: both the in­sti­tu­tional ex­per­tise of a his­toric com­pany and the phys­i­cal strength of its prod­uct. Ri­mowa’s pieces take on a patina over time. “Alu­minium has per­son­al­ity. It ac­quires char­ac­ter,” Ar­nault says. “The stick­ers, the dents, the scratches: the suit­case be­comes well-trav­elled with you.”

It’s not the sort of sen­ti­ment you ex­pect to hear from some­one barely out of univer­sity: a com­mit­ment to tra­di­tion, re­li­a­bil­ity and authen­tic­ity. As Ar­nault con­tin­ues re­mak­ing Ri­mowa, it’s clear he’s got a tight grip on the val­ues that mat­ter most.

Ri­mowa suit­cases are rugged, light­weight and wa­ter­proof, thanks to their cor­ru­gated alu­minium shells

Alexan­dre Ar­nault, new CEO of Ger­man lug­gage mak­ers Ri­mowa

Above: new alu­minium shells and frames await assem­bly in one of Ri­mowa’s fac­to­ries Right: a 2018 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Supreme pro­duced a 45l carry-on and an 82l suit­case in black or red

The cor­ru­gated alu­minium used on pre-WWII Junkers air­craft (a Ju-52 tri­mo­tor, be­low), in­spired Ri­mowa’s tough grooved metal lug­gage

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