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A suitcase with cult status for millennials
SAVE for Louis Vuitton steamer trunks, luggage has never had a particularly sexy connotation. (Recall Holden Caulfield complaining about his Gladstones banging the hell out of his legs.) The 1 per cent of yore hired people to carry their belongings, and some celebrities still glide through airports with nary a suitcase in sight.
But about a year ago, amid the sea of black polyester-nylon that dominates most airports, I started noticing something new: sleek, colourful, grooved hard-shell rolling suitcases with built-in chargers. They're made by Away, a two-year-old luggage startup with US$81 million of investment. Fans include Rashida Jones, Karlie Kloss and Dwyane Wade, all of whom have designed limited editions with the company.
In December, at an airport in India, I saw a woman fight back tears when a gate agent told her that she might have to check her Away carry-on, owing to overhead compartments that were more compact than average. In April, at Away's light-filled store in West Hollywood, I watched a woman storm in, demanding to know all the colours the carry-on came in.
Cults have formed around merchandise like face cream and butt-lifting leggings. But rolling suitcases?
Shelley Bazemore, 60, a counterintelligence analyst in Maryland who served 21 years in the Army, said: "Sometimes, when I really miss my luggage but I have no place to go, I'll just open up my luggage on the floor and fill it." After reading about Away online and researching like she "was researching for a doctorate", she bought six Away suitcases and half a dozen personal items.
In 2015, Jen Rubio was working in brand marketing for the British fashion label AllSaints. She found herself travelling a lot for work, and while wheeling her black nylon "no name" bag through the Zurich Airport, a zipper burst, spilling her clothes all over the floor. Thanks to some duct tape, the bag made it back to London, where she lived at the time.
She relayed her travel woes to her friend Steph Korey, and, as young people are wont to do these days, they figured they could make something better. They interviewed hundreds of friends and associates and conducted anonymous online surveys before introducing Away's first suitcase, a polycarbonate carry-on that came in four colors.
Ms Rubio, 31, said: "The whole paralysis of choice was one of the things we wanted to solve when we started this. You go into a department store, you see a US$600 bag and you see a US$60 bag, and you don't really know the difference."
Away fills the space in the middle. Its most popular suitcase is the US$245 "bigger" carry-on, which has an ejectable lithium-ion battery for charging smartphones, tablets and other USB-cord-addled devices.
The first iteration of the suitcase required a screwdriver to remove the battery; last year, when airlines changed their rules regarding lithium-ion batteries because of their tendency to combust mid-flight, Away scrambled to reach its early adopters and retrofit their luggage.
They weren't able to contact everyone, and in that time, United Airlines confiscated actress Emmy Rossum's carry-on suitcase and made her stuff her belongings in plastic bags because her carry-on wasn't compliant with its rules.
The company contacted the miffed actress and United to explain that the charger could have been removed. Away also sent Rossum a new suitcase.
Other luggage brands are also trying to entice a new generation of wired travellers. Tumi corralled a group of Instagram personalities to post about its 19 Degree bags, its first aluminum luggage collection. It's hard not to see the line's rose-gold suitcase as millennial catnip.
In December, the German brand Rimowa set up a pop-up shop in Beverly Hills, California, and invited celebrities with large social media followings.
Most hard-shell suitcases from the fancier brands start at around US$1,000, but Away says it offers the same quality for a lot less. Its suitcases range from US$190 for a child-size carry-on to US$595, for a large aluminum check-in.
Market research firm NPD Group estimates that some 47 million suitcases were sold in the US between June 2017 and June this year; since February 2016, Away has sold about 500,000 pieces, said the company.
NPD analyst Beth Goldstein said: "They might have half a share point, but they're pushing the whole market toward innovation. Their message is innovative. They're making luggage cool and positioning it as a way to make travel easier." NYTIMES