Thinking Inside The Boring Black Box
Luggage Resists Livelier Design Trends
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page F05
Design has been a powerful influence in the retail world in recent years. Stores such as Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Target have injected style into our homes in ways that are at once transforming and affordable.
In the furniture business, executives talk about how consumer "taste levels" have been rising. Even in the fashion world, the cutting-edge offerings of fashion retailer H&M are making an edgy, modern look more accessible to the masses.
So, I wonder, what is the deal with luggage? Walk into just about any luggage store or travel section of a department store and the blandness of the suitcases on display is positively overwhelming. Over here, six black boxes. Over there, five black rectangles. A smattering of navy and olive rounds out the main collection, with perhaps a few pieces in red.
If we can have beautiful chairs, elegant dishwashers, showy toothbrush holders and hip toasters, why is the typical suitcase still so uninspiring? If I see another black canvas box coming around the baggage claim conveyer I'm going to scream.
In fact, we must largely blame ourselves for this predicament. That, and the way luggage is sold, which largely prevents manufacturers or retailers from offering customers much of anything that departs from the norm -- even if they'd like to and even if customers routinely ask for it.
"People always ask for different looks and different colors, but they oftentimes end up gravitating back to the black again, to the same styles," said John Misiano, senior editor for Travel Goods Showcase, the magazine of the Travel Goods Association.
I'd never really thought much about luggage until I got a call this spring from Tumi, the super-high-end maker of cases and bags of all kinds -- generally black, generally boxy. I know Tumi to make a high-quality, durable product. But the company was interested in talking about its new retail strategy, including its first Washington area store at Tysons Galleria, along with its fashion-forward collections aimed at women.
"It doesn't take Einstein to look around any kind of business-class or first-class section to realize that it's not 100 percent male," said Chad Mellon, vice president of marketing for Tumi. "There's a lot of affluent, frequent-flying females who need good luggage, and no one's really targeting them."
But my trip to Tumi's store, and to several other luggage retailers, made it clear that the introduction of a design aesthetic in the travel-products industry is primarily happening on accessories and small bags. In totes and backpacks, purses and briefcases, one can find a distinctive and innovative look pretty easily (for a price). But the carry-ons, suitcases and garment bags? Still, for the most part, snoozers.
To be fair, it's clear the luggage industry has actually been working pretty hard at coming up with better products, but the redesigning has been all about function. The suitcase of today is lighter-weight, is easier to pull and lift, has more-ergonomic handle systems and sports better pockets, sections and straps. Great.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company