By the time Rimowa’s 26-year old CEO, Alexandre Arnault, sits down to an 8:00 a.m. breakfast meeting at The Beverly Hills Hotel, he has already had . . . well, two prior breakfast meetings. Before said appointments, he’d been at the gym. A productive jet lag cure, considering he’d flown in from Paris, nine hours ahead of Los Angeles, a day and a half ago? “No,” he says, “this is just how it always is.”
Arnault—the youngest scion of Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH (which announced in 2016 that it was acquiring 80 percent of Rimowa, reportedly at Alexandre’s urging)—cuts a long, lanky figure. Even sitting down at the Polo Lounge’s plush, banquette-surrounded table, he looms tall. Arnault is dressed in low-key manner, but stylishly; his sweater is from the Ralph Lauren and Palace Skateboards collaboration. The day earlier, at a preview for a collaborative suitcase that Rimowa will bring to market with the artist Alex Israel this summer, he was wearing a discreet, skinny khaki trench coat, standing next to a heat lamp in an atypical Los Angeleno downpour. This is the thing you quickly learn about Arnault: He’s clued-in, he knows fashion from the macro level (LVMH owns Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi, and many more) downward, but he is pretty understated. Rarely does he let slip any hints of the immense privilege and access of what it is to be an Arnault; he keeps much of himself inconspicuous—including in presentation—and is only here to talk business.
And business has been good. Before LVMH’s Rimowa buy-in, and Arnault’s appointment shortly thereafter (in January 2017), the luggage-maker, based in Cologne, Germany, was certainly known, albeit to a smaller circle of travelers. Its cachet landed more on pragmatism; the hard-sided grooved aluminum cases, Rimowa’s signature, were more utility-based, and far less pop-culturally relevant. They were not, really, fashion items.
Since Arnault rolled in, much has changed: Rimowa’s product line has undergone a redesign, as has the brand’s logo; the company has been partially moved to Paris (with production remaining in Germany); and a plethora of collaborations have propelled the label to a wider, younger, and hungrier audience. Those collaborative partners include: Off-White, Fendi, Supreme, and, now, the above-mentioned artist Israel. More are in the pipeline for 2019 (though these were not yet disclosable at the time of this interview). Arnault has also introduced new product categories—namely an especially good-looking iPhone case, which quickly sold out—and has made managerial alterations, too, like pulling out of wholesale. Another major adjustment? Rimowa has ceased all print advertising; it was the first of those in the LVMH portfolio that advertise in print to do so.
Here, Arnault provides insight into his vision for the future, the upswings and challenges of modernizing what is—for most intents and purposes—a legacy brand, and an out-of-this-world (but not impossible) pipe dream.
You’re well into your position as Rimowa’s CEO, after LVMH purchased a majority stake in the German luxury luggage-maker at the end of 2016. And you’re on a roll. What have been the highs—and the lows—of the job, so far?
I’ll start with the lows. The whole reorganization of the business, from the ground up, has been the biggest challenge. It’s not something I talk about too often because it’s not consumer-facing—it hasn’t been the launch of a new suitcase or a new promotion. The challenge has really been the rethinking of our operational strategy, from software to distribution, like cutting back with wholesale, to supply chain to production. All of it. We had to start that from the very beginning in order to scale to where we are now, and for where we aspire to be.
And a high note? A payoff?
There have been a few payoffs, one of which is seeing our initiatives work, particularly scaling back from wholesale and ramping up our own retail. The store in Tokyo is doing particularly well, as is the store in Paris. Part of our thinking was to place Rimowa alongside luxury brands, and that strategy has worked. This has built an association around the company. Then, on the product side, it has been great to see that we’ve made new and desirable suitcases. This was quite difficult to think about, because the existing suitcases were extremely functional and we had to answer: How do we make them both functional and desirable? This is where the collaborations came in, at first. First we did Fendi, then Supreme, then Virgil [Abloh] with Off-White. These sparked excitement around the cases, which was great to see. It was validating to read comments on Instagram, to see these products in airports, and to see people collect these suitcases as more than just objects of utility.
Absolutely. The collaboration streak has definitely put Rimowa in front of more eyes.
You know, though, these projects take a long time. For example, with the Alex Israel project we just launched, it took a year. It started here, in Los Angeles. We had breakfast at the Bel-Air Hotel, had the idea, and two days later he sent me some renderings. But it took us a year to find the suppliers, work the technology, and make sample after sample after sample. It’s a really, really tedious and industrious process.
That’s interesting. A lot of people may think that a collaboration is something that can be done quickly. Slap a logo on a suitcase, and you’re good to go.
If you look at timing, we launched the Supreme collaboration in April 2018. I took the job in January 2017. The idea of the Supreme collab came up just a month later, in February. So it took over a year for us to get those perfect. It doesn’t happen instantaneously. The development also justifies the prices in certain cases. The Alex Israel suitcase takes four times as long to build and will cost approximately three times as much. Usually, a suitcase takes around an hour and a half to be built, and this one takes six hours.
On the topic of collaborations, what will Rimowa do for people that have . . . let’s call it, collaboration fatigue?
We’re always going to have collaborations that are relevant, that make sense and that excite people. I mean, even I have collaboration fatigue, for sure, but for example I am wearing a sweater by Ralph Lauren and Palace Skateboards because I think it’s one of the coolest collabs ever done. It is probably the only collaboration piece I’ve bought, personally, in the past year. So outside of this arena, we are going to update our existing range with new shapes, new colors, travel accessories, and things that are part of our core offering that are not going to be as . . . big of a social media craze. Maybe we will do a pink suitcase. Maybe it won’t say Fendi, maybe it won’t involve an artist—it could just be that some people want a pink Rimowa suitcase.
Earlier, you mentioned Instagram and being able to see validation and feedback through the platform. Have you received any negative feedback?
One piece of negative feedback that we have been seeing is that we used to have this part on our suitcases called a “hanging hook.” It was a strap on the front of the case. We never explained its purpose, and we found in focus groups that nobody was using it. We decided to remove it and invest that money—$6 million a year—into perfecting our aluminum alloy to make it more resistant and more durable. We had, say, 15 diehards who decided to trash us on every single post and comment saying, “You’re killing the brand.” We still moved ahead, and so far it has proven to be the right decision. That’s the most visible negative feedback I can recall. Also, when we redesigned the identity, we received some pushback, but hey, Céline is getting trashed. Burberry is getting trashed. Balenciaga got trashed. People like to trash, but they get used to it. I don’t know for what reason, but negativity can help sell, I think.
So what’s next? What are the next steps?
The next step is to really get out of pure suitcases and move towards other kinds of products. That should come by this summer. You’ll see backpacks and weekend bags and things like this—kind of an extension of the travel experience. They’ll represent Rimowa, but they won’t be in polycarbonate or aluminum, so it’s stretching and going outside of our home turf, which is a big bet, but it is exciting.
The iPhone cases you introduced were very successful.
Super, super successful. We’re totally sold out. I can’t say how many units we made, but we made a lot more than I thought we would, and they’re all gone.
Will you reissue them?
That’s likely another space where a collaboration would go over well.
Yes, though it may be difficult because it’s actually a very price sensitive market.
The Tokyo store is a statement for us because we opened it on the most renowned shopping street in Ginza, right in the mecca of luxury brands. We found a great, large space and we decided to overinvest in the design to make it in-line with our neighbors and in-line with local tastes. That’s kind of why I think it is the most thought-through and well-designed store. But the important thing is, it has been working like crazy. There are days when we sell almost 100 suitcases per day from that store. It’s also validating the strategy of developing our own retail and placing Rimowa [adjacent to, and within the pool of] top luxury houses.
What mistakes have you made as CEO, and what have you learned so far?
At the beginning, we went very fast on a lot of different topics and made some decisions that we had to come back on—especially with people. We wanted to hire as many people as we could, as fast as we could, and we needed talent everywhere. Obviously, you win some and you lose some. We’ve also had a few product launches that didn’t work, but that’s the life of every brand.
Can you say what those products were?
Yes, we used to have a small leather goods line that we were not able to make as distinctive as we’d hoped.
Calibrating rhythm and pace, especially in this chaotic day and age, must always be on your mind.
You know, sometimes not going [fast enough] is actually the problem. A decision can be on the table and you’ll say, “Hey, I’ll wait six months to finalize this,” but then six months in, you wish you’d done it earlier. This is the case with pulling out of specialty retailers in the U.S., for example. Luggage shops. It was my intuition from day one. We’re still not fully out, it’s about a year away, but I could have told you this idea in January 2017 and now we’re here, over two years later.
What are you doing to attract the next wave of consumers? Namely, those who cannot afford Rimowa yet, but, if they’re paying attention, will know of the brand and perhaps eventually be able to buy the suitcases.
Perhaps at this point, they can afford an iPhone case or a backpack. It’s all about awareness for us, especially in the U.S., and trying to better tell our story. This is the one major thing we have to focus on: to market to new generations, and always staying innovative in everything we do. I remember a while ago when people started advertising on Snapchat. I wasn’t at Rimowa then, but if I had been, we would have been the first to develop a special filter. I’m always trying to be the first one in a lot of different things. You know we’re the first LVMH brand that doesn’t do print [advertising] anymore? That hasn’t hurt as at all, so far.
What’s your wildest dream with Rimowa?
To send a suitcase to the moon. It’s not in the works. [Maybe] if NASA reads Vogue, it will be. I have this fantasy of the suitcase opening and everything starting to fly, no gravity. I’ll go to space myself to do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To read on Vogue Runway, please click here.