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.
“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