Alexandre Arnault, son of LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, is probably tired of people characterizing him by his age and lineage, but the former is particularly impressive: At 25, he's the CEO of 80-year-old luxury luggage company Rimowa, of which he led LVMH's acquisition late last year. It would be easy to dismiss this appointment as nepotism, but as a member of one of the industry's most important consumer groups — and with more knowledge of technology and startup culture than many of his peers — the younger Arnault is perhaps, in some ways, better equipped than someone with more business experience under his belt. (He graduated from Télécom ParisTech before getting a master of research in innovation from École Polytechnique and was involved in LVMH's launch of e-commerce site 24 Sèvres.)
Though it's a pretty wild appointment for a top luxury conglomerate, in the startup world, a 25-year-old CEO is not unheard of. Take the rapidly expanding activewear brand Outdoor Voices, whose founder and CEO Tyler Haney was only 25 when she started the company. Outdoor Voices may actually be more in line with the way Arnault is repositioning Rimowa — not to mention newer, disruptive competitors in the luggage space like Away and Raden, both of which sell stylish, affordable, tech-enabled suitcases directly to consumers online.
On Tuesday, Arnault was in Los Angeles to open a Rimowa pop-up in Beverly Hills that is the world's first physical representation of his new vision for the brand. (Rimowa's permanent LA store, also in Beverly Hills, is under renovation.) Simi & Haze deejayed the opening party for guests like Pharrell, Alessandra Ambrosio and Jasmine Sanders in the modest space, which is designed to resemble a baggage claim conveyor belt with suitcases displayed artfully on pedestals, in circular formations and atop very high shelves. An assortment of third-party, high-end items like pressed juice, travel-size beauty products, T-shirts, books (like the "Monocle Guide to Business" and "On the Road"), Kaweco Sport pens and niche magazines like 032c are sold alongside them.
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"If you look at our former [retail] concepts, they were very white and very old-fashioned and we want to modernize our stores and make them more — it's going to sound like every other brand — but more experiential," Arnault explained earlier that day at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "We're thinking about some cool add-ons to the store to make it more relevant to the kind of crowd to which we appeal which is, you know, obviously millennials and more established people, but only travelers at the end of the day."
While the LA pop-up may have been born somewhat out of necessity while the permanent store is being renovated, Arnault plans to continuing rolling out pop-ups, which have been a popular retail format for brands lately. "Pop-ups are very exciting because they allow you to test things that you can't do in more permanent places, and then I think also it's a cool way to pop up in locations that you're not expected to be to launch new products, to launch new collections."
While Rimowa might be a bit behind some competitors in the direct-to-consumer space when it comes to technology and retail, Arnault is hard at work catching up (which, to be fair, can be more difficult for a global brand). Rimowa does not yet offer e-commerce in the U.S. for example, though it's a top priority for 2018. ("It's so easy to buy a suitcase online and nobody wants to leave a store with a huge suitcase ... it takes a lot of space.")
Arnault sees the luggage market evolving in three different ways: "One is fashion, two is tech and three is ease of use," he explains. "You see people who are much more interested in buying suitcases that look good with what they're wearing and are interested in their look when they travel. We're lucky enough to have a very identifiable product that has a very sleek, slick design." And technology? "There's good and bad technology, there's luggage that comes with tech just to say that it's 'tech-enabled' and sometimes it doesn't make a lot of sense — sometimes there is great tech that's happening in luggage," he says. "This is something that we're investing a lot in to ease the experience of our customers when they travel with our products; I think this is kind of key for us to go down this route." Recently the brand launched a built-in electronic tag feature where you can send a digital luggage tag via bluetooth to your suitcase, which has a special display for it so you don't have to print it out and loop it onto your bag handle. Rimowa is also working to make design more efficient. "People are looking for lighter suitcases that can fit more and are easier to use and this is an area in which we're definitely investing a lot of our R and D dollars and effort," he adds.
Of course, much of this repositioning is directed at millennials, a demographic of which he is a member, and which is traveling more than ever these days. "The travel space in general has evolved a lot, traveling is becoming a lot less expensive, air fare's becoming a lot more affordable," he explains. "There's also an element of the young people not wanting to purchase products but want to experience more, they want to travel and obviously need a suitcase."
Arnault feels he relates to Rimowa as a brand more than an executive at another LVMH brand might to theirs. "We're all travelers, so we can all relate to the experience, whereas if you're a man working at Céline for example, you can't relate because you're not going to buy a Céline bag for yourself," he says. "You have all these little elements of frustration in the experience that you can fix yourself, so I really insist a lot on giving feedback."
Still, there's plenty of work to do and a unique challenge in the fact that Rimowa does have an 80-year legacy. "We're going to try to juggle between keeping this heritage and keeping this craftsmanship level we have in our vertically-integrated operations and also adding a bit more fun and excitement and cool stuff to our suitcases to excite younger people," says Arnault. One strategy for excitement will be collaborations. So far there's been a limited-edition collab with M/M sold exclusively at Colette and another with Fendi. The next one may or may not be with Off-White's Virgil Abloh, 2017's most prolific fashion collaborator. Arnault teased a design on Instagram in September; he would not comment on its significance, but confirmed more collaborations are on the horizon, describing Rimowa suitcases as "canvases."
But ultimately, Arnault wants to sell more than just suitcases. "The way I describe our vision in the next five-to-10 years is as a travel company in general," he explains. "Today, if you want to travel, you have to go to Rimowa to buy your suitcase; you have to go to Muji to buy your little containers to put your liquids inside; you have to go to so many different places. I definitely see [Rimowa] as being one place where you can find everything related to travel — not only products, also services."
With the backing of LVMH and many qualities that seem far beyond his 25 years, Arnault could certainly make this vision a reality — and we'll be closely following his progress.