Brenda’s Business with Rimowa’s EMELIE DE VITIS
If I am seated at a dinner with fashion people I haven’t met before, there are a few go-to conversation ice breakers I can always rely on. “What was the last designer item you bought at full retail price?” being one of them. My other classic is “are you more of an aluminum or classic lite traveller?” This is followed up with a heated discussion on whether to sticker or not to sticker. The one thing that is always mutually agreed upon is that there are no airport crushes without a Rimowa.
The suitcase company just turned 125, and the worshippers—myself included—are taking a pilgrimage to New York to see their “Seit 1898” exhibition. On display are the old classics, suitcases designed for the first cars, and the new classics that have been introduced since the LVMH reign—from Supreme to Off-White to Aesop to Porsche to Dior. A personal highlight of the exhibition were the busted pieces loaned by the brand’s loyal customers, showcasing just how intimate a suitcase actually is. Takashi Murakami, Adwoa Aboah, Patti Smith, Peggy Gou, Martha Stewart, and Dr. Woo were among the clients who provided their personal items to be on display.
At a star-studded opening party with a Central Cee performance, the brand announced a Tiffany & Co. collaboration and unveiled their new campaign starring Rosé, Lewis Hamilton, and Kylian Mbappé, all on the same night. Every brand representative I speak to however insists that Rimowa is still a very small company. It’s kind of believable when you hear them talk about the construction of a suitcase with such passion that it sounds like a couture garment. And who says it isn’t? In my notes app I wrote down, “Every suitcase takes a minimum 90 steps of assembling, consists of minimum 200 parts and is 80 percent hand crafted.” Information that I will definitely use for my next fashion dinner conversation.
The morning after the grand opening, I met with Emelie De Vitis, chief marketing officer turned senior vice president of product & marketing, to talk about this small brand from Cologne that managed to make their suitcases a non-negotiable part of the fashion industry’s travel outfits.
EMELIE DE VITIS: What did you think of last night?
BRENDA WEISCHER: Very fun. My favorite part of the exhibition were the personalized suitcases. Martha Stewart had the best one in my opinion.
EDV: She was there last night! Did you see her?
BW: Of course, but I was way too shy to say hi.
EDV: She would have loved it.
BW: When I walked into the party, she was actually talking to my friend. I asked him, “How do you know Martha Stewart?” But apparently she just started talking to him. I loved how everyone mingled in the crowd. Central Cee was also hanging around after his performance. How was the night for you?
EDV: I’m super happy! It was a big day yesterday because we launched the campaign as well. It was a lot to do in one day, but all went well. I think it is always a lot to have someone like Rosé attend an event. You see the crowd she brings. The event still felt intimate, very New York, like a block party.
BW: One thing that always gets mentioned when talking about the Rimowa universe is the word “cult.” As we increasingly become addicted to measuring relevance in numbers, “brand” is something that cannot accurately be described in KPIs. In your opinion, what are the indicators that prove or measure a brand’s cult status?
EDV: First of all, you’re right. It’s very rare to be cult, and it’s even tougher to stay cult. And I think how we measure it is very subjective. But I would say it’s stuff like the number of brands that approach us for collabs. That is a strong indicator of how hot, if I may say, the brand is.
Another is when we approach ambassadors to work with us. You know, we’re a relatively small brand. Yet we are able to work with some of the biggest names out there. So, for me, this shows the attraction of the brand and the fact that if you work with Rimowa it says something about you. You embrace the values of purposeful travel. This is how I get a pulse for how the brand is doing.
Of course, sales is a strong component, and we suffered during the pandemic. But we’ve had a very strong rebound, and more and more people buy into our commitment to the unconditional lifetime warranty we offer with our products. I think this is a commitment that our clients really respond to. We manufacture all our suitcases, which really sets us apart, and it’s a strong commitment, but one that we feel very comfortable doing. Because we’re constantly investing in improving our suitcases, making them lighter, more durable, improving things that you might not pick up on—from wheels to locks, etc. I think it’s what makes Rimowa cult at the end of the day. Word of mouth is “If you want the best suitcase, just buy a Rimowa, and it’s for life.”
BW: Okay, that’s the thing I’m wondering about. As a brand that wants to sell products, how do you find the balance in communication between lifetime warranty and keeping the conversation going about a product that, besides seasonal colors, kind of stays the same? How do you make your stores a hub if I am supposed to keep my one suitcase forever?
EDV: Firstly, there are more and more people traveling, so that in itself is a source of business. One thing to keep the conversation going is the role of collaborations. Raising awareness in a different category. The collaboration we did with Porsche might have introduced a lot of new people, as it’s a huge brand. But we also love to collab with niche brands. Someone who is the best in their field. That’s a way to drive the conversation and awareness. We also like to play with our codes. We’re quite a maverick brand. In our last “As Seen By” exhibition, we lent our suitcases and gave components to artists for them to reinterpret our codes and have some fun. Not that many brands would feel confident giving carte blanche to artists, but we love these artistic collaborations, and they’re a talking point.
BW: You said in one of your first sentences that getting approached by a lot of brands to collaborate is a good indicator. What are your factors to say no? Because, in hindsight, every collab we look at from Rimowa feels like it just makes sense.
EDV: Well, that’s a perilous exercise. It’s tricky because you know we’ve all read about “collab fatigue.” Collabs shouldn’t be an easy solution. For us, it’s about surprising and delighting. On top of that it can’t just add a logo on a suitcase and say, “There you go! It’s done!” It’s about really joining forces with the brand we’re collaborating with. Going into their codes, their archives, working on what their values are, and how we can build products that really embody those values.
To come back to the example of Porsche: we made a product that perfectly fits the dimensions of a Porsche trunk. And they have never agreed to have the Porsche shield on anything other than their cars before. This is years of working together. You might say we’re quite slow, but that’s because we really want to come up with a product that is really well thought through and that has a rich storytelling. It’s also a way for us to test new solutions and see if there’s appetite on the market.
BW: Speaking of pace, how long do these collaborations take, from the first conversation to product launch?
EDV: I would say it’s two to two and a half years until release. Defining the products, where we come up with what we’re going to do, would take at least a year. We define how we’re going to collaborate artistically together, and then there’ll be a design freeze. And then it will take us at least 12 months to get things produced, because suitcases are very complex to produce. Molds, engineering, it’s a lot of testing. That’s why collabs are not a commercial exercise for us. We don’t do big volumes when we do collabs. Porsche was 911, divided by Porsche and us. It’s not a lot. That’s all we produced. We could have easily sold ten times the amount but it’s more about rewarding our loyal clients and making sure that it sells out instantly, so that buzz is generated.
BW: I also wanted to touch on your ambassadors and how you choose them. Obviously, now they’re the most famous people in the world. But it feels like they approach you first, as clients, because they’re already using the product. What is a good brand fit for you?
EDV: Yes, above everything, they are clients themselves. Patti Smith for example, she’s been traveling with Rimowa since the 90s. So, this felt extremely authentic. We want to work with ambassadors that stand for purposeful travel. The notion of enriching yourself when you travel. Breaking barriers. Staying curious. Open minded. Commitment to charities is important for us; Kylian has his charity, Lewis has his charity, and they really stand for a lot of significant values. We love this quote from Mark Twain: “travel is fatal to prejudice.” If you’re traveling to enrich yourself, to better yourself, then this is really what resonates with Rimowa, and what we’ve always stood for.
BW: Tiffany x Rimowa was just announced. When did that conversation start? What can we expect?
EDV: [Laughs] That is going to be a very short answer, my dear.
BW: You can’t say anything…
EdV: [Points at the communications team] I can’t say anything because those two are here. Well, you see, hopefully you’ll find a lot of what I just explained on collabs with this. I’m sure you can imagine the kind of product we’re going to be coming up with. I can’t say how many products or pieces, but you know, it will probably be sold out immediately because it’s going to be very true to Tiffany with Rimowa engineering behind it. It’s going to surprise you. That was the purpose of the collab, we want each one to be a surprise. I think we’re announcing it on the 19th, and it comes out at the end of the month.
I stop my recording and before I’m ushered out, I use my last ten seconds to give Emilie my collab wishlist, which she definitely didn’t ask for. While no one is looking at us, she hints that one brand on my list just might be in the works.
“Seit 1898” is now open to public in New York, September 8—17, with other locations for 2024 still to be announced.