In March 2012, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs resurrected the Gare du Nord in the 1920s as a fashion show motif. They built a fully functioning steam train that chugged its way into the courtyard of the Louvre and out popped the models once it had come to a stop. Alongside each mannequin was a porter who carried regular size ladies handbags.
If they were looking for authenticity, the porters, without the aid of the trolley would have been struggling with oversized Martin Maier trunks, wrapped around with oak and iron slats for extra heft. Baggage allowance wasn’t really a concern on a cruise ship or train, which is why everything was so oversized.
Checking in a comparatively diminutive Jenny Lind trunk (what at boarding school we called ‘tuck boxes’) at an airport is still too much effort, so as with the rest of the luxury industry, it has had to roll with the times, so to speak. On one end of the scale, no modern, serious laptop case comes without a leather band on the side to slip down the handles on your suitcase. At the same time, don’t expect a compartment in your carry-on to have a pull out drawer for shoe polish and coat hangers.
Canvas was the big game changer. Initially it was just placed over wood as a protective measure so that wasn’t much help with weight. Soon enough though it was coloured khaki and made into standard issue duffle bags for various militaries (some stuck with the more expensive leather). The need to transport military paraphernalia during the second world war in luggage that wasn’t as heavy as its contents, bled out into the wider public once the war was over and especially when aeronautical travel became commonplace. Brands like Louis Vuitton and Goyard, still iconic brands, began to see competition emerge with the likes of Samsonite, Rimowa and more recently Tumi. All of whom create variations of the same idea, highly manoeuverable luggage with lightweight but strong materials. Wheeling around your own luggage is, even by the standards of velour-clad aristogarchs, no longer infra dig. Rather, the latest carbon-fibre wheeled suitcase is a fashion accessory.
Believe it or not this is a key time for luggage. People are spending their money on items that are practical; it’s a buy less, spend more market. Luxury cases are quieter and much less monogrammed than five years ago. Bling is losing out to provenance, artisanal integrity and subtle personalisations. Louis Vuitton will always have the edge even when they make trollies and so on, but brands including Globe-Trotter produce really stunning carry-ons that are all made with the trimmings of an old-fashioned suitcase. This could be a bit kitsch for anything other than a British brand but they execute it with visual authenticity and the luggage is genuinely practical. Plus, putting some investment in something smart could be a fast track to an upgrade for respectable looking patrons.
Stylistically I understand the temptation to stick to canvas black suitcases that can be thrashed about in the luggage hold. Compromising on quality for something that’s bundled in with all manner of other gear makes perfect sense. The argument for investing a little bit more has never been stronger, though. Security, aesthetics and longevity are key. Modern day malletiers for serious brands throw in touches that give a whiff of the olden days allied to the practicality of modern travel. Rimowa has invested in creating truly niche travel items, including its portable wine case. But their aluminium cases are straight out of the 50s Americana, Greyhound coach adventurism.
It’s all a marketing ploy, of course, and should not be taken too seriously. However, this is what the luggage industry has always been about; evocative and creative pieces that inspire travel and the seeking out of opportunities far away. Excess in luggage has been streamlined and new technology makes everything easier. Buying decent cases is money well spent and, God knows, you can’t say that about much these days.
Tom Chamberlin is the editor of The Rake