Case Study: How Rimowa Became The Most Sought-After Luggage Brand In The World

09 February 2020
Style, Luggage, Hyped, Travel, Rimowa, Dior, Supreme, Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones, Alexandre Arnaud
Images: Supplied
Alexandre Arnault, Rimowa CEO explains how he turned a German luggage manufacturer into a hypebeast favourite

If genuinely pressed on the matter, you would have to say that Cologne, in October, is a little sleepy. The sky interminably slate grey, the air sharp, the atmosphere subdued. “Kölners are a different breed to the rest of the country,” they tell you. “More laid back, more relaxed.” That they have in their midst one of the most hyped brands in the world right now, seems a little at odds with the environment. There's an argument to say that the brand in question, Rimowa, likes it that way.

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Sitting in typically minimalist room, tucked away at Rimowa HQ, sits a fresh-faced Alexandre Arnault, his complexion belying the fact that this is interview number 14 of the day and fatigue is setting in fast (too many of the same questions, apparently). He also has a plane to catch. Tomorrow, Rimowa is launching an exclusive capsule collection with Dior, and Kim Jones requires his company at the Champs-Élysées.

Much has been written about the 27-year-old son of LVMH chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault, particularly after being handed the reigns of the 121-year-old German luggage brand in the fastest of fast-tracked time. A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, Arnault's speedy assent to CEO-status followed just three years at his father’s Arnault Group holding company and, unsurprisingly, the appointment made for raised eyebrows and lazy headlines. But away from the tabloid jabs lies a great deal of industry confidence. As LVMH casts its eye towards the young, affluent, tech savvy consumers of tomorrow, many within the corridors of power believe that the oldest of Arnault senior’s three sons is exactly the man to lead the charge.

As CEO, his model certainly tunes into the zeitgeist – hard yards, one would imagine, from the methods of his father. When in town – his base remains in Paris – he shuns the power lunches in favour of grabbing something at the canteen along with everybody else. Stylishly dressed (but not be-suited) and sporting an Apple Watch and expensive sneakers, he appears to have found a natural place in the tech start-up millionaire mold.

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For many, the Rimowa acquisition appeared a passion project for Arnault, and he was said to have been heavily involved in the two-year $640 million process. As a consumer, he had long-since embraced the brand – much to the dismay of his family – and had remained loyal ever since. On the day the takeover was announced, Arnault tweeted: “Can’t feel guilty about using Rimowa suitcases anymore.” He included a smiley face. See, different CEO model.

At the repair centre, in Cologne, you learn three things pretty quickly. One, they can refit a new zip in around 45 seconds. Two, people who buy Rimowa invariably have a long relationship with the brand – cases in for repair are stacked high to the rafters, most of them are personalised with stickers and badges, all of them uniquely dented. Amongst the mass of mashed and mangled aluminium, one case has two stickers requesting that you ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’. That's three: Texas is not to be messed with.

In 2016, when LVMH acquired the 80 percent stake in Rimowa (the  other 20 percent remaining with Dieter Morszeck, grandson of Rimowa founder Richard Morszeck) the company was performing well. This was no Hail Mary for a sinking ship. In fact, reports had Rimowa performing at five percent better than the market projections, but Arnault would rip apart the operating manual anyway.

“We take acquisitions on a case-by-case basis,” he explains, in what almost certainly wasn’t intended as a luggage pun, but that was absolutely taken as being one. “Many of our recent acquisitions were already enjoying great success, just like Rimowa, but still we had to transform the business entirely. To our mind, it was highly B2B driven and not hugely desirable – although the products had always been great. We wanted to change the business model in terms of distribution, as well as adding a little more creativity to the products themselves.”

Out would go a slightly staid blueprint with broad distribution channels. In would come a refined strategy – dialling up desirability with cases only available at brand retail points and specialist stores – and a mood of direct-to-consumer disruption. New colour palettes, high profile collaborations and new stores in hand-picked and emerging cities around the world would all be part of the mix.

A new visual identity was also created by teams at Munich-based Bureau Borche and Commission Studio in London. The result being a stripped down, sans serif logo and a monogram combining the sharp spires of Cologne's famous cathedral and the round edges of Rimowa's iconic cases. From top to bottom, every element of design was re-thought and re-worked. Hector Muelos – previously with DKNY and Apple – was an early hire in the CBO slot. The iPhone experience was something Rimowa wanted to try and replicate and he could help. This was about total user experience, even down to the luggage tag that would now come in a smart white box, tucked neatly away in the mesh of the case.

“It never happens as you expect it to, of course” says Arnault. “The three-year plan always changes, and we improvise a lot. We took some risks but they paid off quite quickly... we’re very happy with where we are with the brand right now.”

But while disruption was – and is – the methodology, the long-standing mission statement for the brand remains the same. Arnault wants Rimowa to grow beyond the confines of luggage, with a plan in place to make the 121-year-old German label the go-to for luxury travel essentials. It's not surprising. This is a category in rude health, with figures from Euromonitor predicting that luxury travel goods will grow by 33 percent – to $6.4 billion – by 2023, up from $4.9 billion in 2018.

But even though change at Rimowa was deemed essential, the core of creation remained almost untouched, with only minor adjustments made to the factory process. Even here, the iconography of the brand is utilised, with six award-winning factory buildings shaped in the classic Rimowa silhouette. There are around 200 employees housed here, with a process that remains only marginally automated. Each Rimowa case sees more than its fair share of human interaction, and there are three quality checks en route to a case leaving the assembly line and being boxed up for delivery.

There's a geeky fascination that comes with watching an aluminium sheet take on the classic, ribbed form. Bent into shape by robot arms, punched, riveted and turned into a case, then bashed and bopped by a man with a mallet, testing durability along the way. This is why you'll see collaborators and fans regularly make a pilgrimage to the factory itself. It’s a journey that Louis Vuitton creative director and Off-White head honcho, Virgil Abloh made recently, too. Building on the Rimowa hype in the process. After sharing an Instagram shot of himself at the factory, two Abloh devotees travelled three hours to come and hopefully catch a glimpse of the man himself, allegedly getting some signed shoes for their troubles.

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Rimowa’s collaboration with Abloh and Off-White was a big part of what makes the brand appeal to a younger audience more than, say, Tumi or Globe-Trotter. Along with the 2018 collab with Supreme, it signposted the credibility of the brand in a hypebeast era. As a sidenote, it also proved that if you want to establish a product's credentials, there can be no better thing to do that slap a Supreme logo on it (shout-out to the Supreme brick, still going strong on eBay).

“We’ve done two quite vocal collaborations in that area for sure,” says Arnault. “One with Virgil and one with Supreme. But we've also worked with Fendi, we're working with Dior right now, we worked with Aesop, too… brands that have nothing to do with this culture. I think we're lucky to be embraced by this part of society, but, of course, our main aim is to stay true to ourselves.”

If staying true means the luxury market, then it’s most recent collaboration is certainly doing that. After working on a series of adverts with Dior Men creative director, Kim Jones, the pair decided to collaborate on a five-piece capsule collection, featuring a first-ever clutch bag and a made-to-order champagne case, complete with leather ice bucket, champagne flutes and six bottles of Dom Pérignon.

And so, the day after we speak, Arnault is in Paris with Jones on high-profile launch duty, replete with Snapchat roll-out and Dior monogrammed face filter.

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From Paris, the collection went to Japan, China, Miami and Dubai, with the rest of the world getting access in January.

Out of all of it, that Snapchat launch appeared most significant of the shift in strategy of which Arnault is overseeing – a balancing act measuring heritage with luxury and new market trends.

“You can’t go too modern because you’ll alienate long-time lovers of the brand,” admits Arnault. “But if you remain too historic then you never invent anything or modernise.” He pauses. “It’s a question that we think about on every product, every time. We are always looking to find the perfect balance.”