The minimalist suitcase generates buzz

 25 Oct 2016 - 15:55

The minimalist suitcase generates buzz
The founders with the suitcase inside their shop

By Kim Bhasin / Bloomberg

At the Away store in New York, Steph Korey glides through a demonstration of a light blue suitcase—the phone charger on its strong polycarbonate shell, the small nylon bag to separate dirty clothes from clean, the mesh that separates compartments, the compression pad that keeps stuff compact...

But that’s all Korey really has to say about the bag by the luggage brand she co-founded last year. The minimalist luggage that’s generated such buzz since it hit the market last year has no lengthy features list for sales people to rattle off. Instead, Korey hopes it offers what travelers want most.

Away is trying to transform a staid, unglamorous industry with a few well-designed takes on a simple product that one rarely needs to buy.

“If luggage had never existed, what would it be?” Korey asks after the demo, seated with co-founder Jen Rubio on wooden bleachers in the store in Manhattan’s fashionable SoHo neighborhood—Away’s first-ever permanent location, with lots of big windows, exposed brick, and displays of fancy headphones and travel guides.

Both women are familiar with industries that spent decades unchanged until jostled by a newcomer. Before founding Away, both worked at Warby Parker, which upended eyewear by bypassing middlemen and retail markups. Casper, whom Korey once consulted for, used a similar strategy to rattle the mattress market.

Korey and Rubio started Away early last year, compiling consumer research to figure out what people actually demand from their luggage. They began selling their first bag, a carry-on, by year’s end and expanded to three more sizes. Prices range from $225 to $295.

“We really saw a need in the luggage industry—you know, there’s not a good luggage brand that people can resonate with,” says Rubio.

The global luggage market is about $31 billion, led by brands like Samsonite and Tumi, according to data from P&S Market Research.

Now Away is on track to sell 50,000 suitcases and hit $10 million in annual sales this year, according to Rubio.

The company is not yet profitable because it’s focused on growth, the founders say. Thus far, it’s raised $11 million in venture capital funding from investors like Jay Z, Jeff Kearl of Skullcandy and Stance, Brian Lee of the Honest Company, and Andy Dunn of Bonobos.

Even the luggage’s end look was born of practicality. Its top is flat so travelers can put a second bag atop it when wheeling around airports. Horizontal ridges add strength to its structure. The trim surrounding its zipper exists to prevent rain and mud from seeping inside.

“Everything serves a purpose,” says Korey. “It’s a simple enough aesthetic that it won’t overpower your personal style.”

Yet the bags have managed to become quite fashionable. Enamored of its sleek style, Vogue declared Away’s smallest bag “the perfect carry-on.” Refinery29 wrote that if there were an “It” suitcase, Away’s would earn the title. Allure fell “in love” with the bags.

Away intends to leverage its fashion status. Next year, it plans to launch several collaborations with people in fashion, art, music, and food.

Existing suitcases don’t give shoppers much to be excited for, Away’s founders argue. Many travelers stick with beat-up bags they’ve used for years, spending their cash on another trip rather than new luggage. And as the pair sees it, traditional luggage sellers peddle their wares like a department store rep would pitch a kitchen appliance—ticking off a list of features that may or may not matter to shoppers.

Korey dismisses that tactic as baloney. Nobody really wants, say, to unlock their suitcase with a button on their phone.

“It’s a feature for the sake of the feature,” she says. “Not for the sake of a travel experience.”