Travel is not what it used to be. If boarding an airliner used to be a glamorous experience, these days it’s all hassle followed by hustle for a seat. Back in air travel’s golden age of the 1950s and 60s, which was admittedly before its democratisation, nothing symbolised one’s high-flying status more ably than the trunks and valises with which starlets would be seen dis-embarking from their Stratoliner or, come the jet age, Comet.
It is an image that has resonance today, as witnessed by paparazzi shots of the celebrity set travelling with what appears to be their entire wardrobe.
No wonder luggage is big business, and not just for the budget airlines, some of which have introduced a premium for checking bags in. Indeed, between 2001 and 2006, the UK retail market for luggage grew by 36%, according to Mintel, making for a market worth £368m. In part, this is because we travel more frequently - with the traditional two-week annual holiday losing out to multiple short breaks of two to five days throughout the year, according to research by STA - with business travel also on the up (until, at least, the recession took hold).
It is also because the changing nature of travel has meant changing needs for the luggage we use: a sizeable but portable holdall for the long weekend, through to the sturdier, practical mid-size case that is big enough to warrant pull-handle and wheels, but small enough to count as carry-on luggage, a crucial consideration for travellers seeking to save time and money.
This compact style has, along with laptop cases, been the best-seller over recent years. Meanwhile, models that are eminently practical but are, for business meetings at least, unsuitable in style terms, such as the rucksack, have fallen from favour.
What has become central to the new luggage market has been a meeting of style and function. Premium fashion brands used to corner the market for the former with logo-heavy collections that lured a certain customer but were often ill-considered for anyone without a butler.
Meanwhile, functional products from specialists like Antler and Tumi considered key features like durability, multiple compartments, security and mobility, but neglected to make them sassy.
Recent years have, however, seen the two worlds blur, with functionality a given and dedicated store in London’s Burlington Arcade, Globetrotter has introduced new styles; unchanged in principle, but now in a variety of sizes and limited-edition colours. Following well-known customers such as Winston Churchill, the Queen, who used them on her honeymoon, and Edmund Hilary, who used them to transport kit to Everest base camp, Globetrotter has won a new generation of fans drawn to its retro appeal. Picture an old case smothered in destination tags and stickers and it is almost certainly a Globetrotter.
Their only real competitor in the style stakes - Zero Halliburton’s classic aluminium travel case, originally designed by fashionability distinguishing launches from fashion brands like Mulberry, Burberry and the luggage specialists.
For the likes of Louis Vuitton, this is something of a return to form.
In the late 1800s, the label anticipated a new era in travel and designed accordingly with - contrary to tradition - flat-topped trunks that could be easily stowed, made of poplar for rigidity and lightness.
Zinc trunks followed for tropical climates, plus models that turned into beds for tired explorers and others designed specifically for cars and planes.
In the 1890s, Vuitton patented an impregnable five-tumbler lock, and a number for each rigid case is registered with Louis Vuitton even today.
Similarly, Dunhill, the British men’s luxury goods brand which also has a heritage in travel, has launched lines like the Connaught; light and durable in black tumbled leather with ruby red linings, it aims to target both the business and leisure markets.
The demand for good-looking, functional lines has even fuelled a revival in names like Globetrotter, the British company that built its reputation on cases made from ‘Vulcan fibre’; multiple layers of glued card which - as its famed logo demonstrated - were able to withstand the weight of an elephant. Now with its first dedicated store in London’s Burlington Arcade, Globetrotter has introduced new styles; unchanged in principle, but now in a variety of sizes and limited-edition colours. Following well-known customers such as Winston Churchill, the Queen, who used them on her honeymoon, and Edmund Hilary, who used them to transport kit to Everest base camp, Globetrotter has won a new generation of fans drawn to its retro appeal. Picture an old case smothered in destination tags and stickers and it is almost certainly a Globetrotter.
Their only real competitor in the style stakes - Zero Halliburton’s classic aluminium travel case, originally designed by aircraft engineers in 1938 - has also won a new following.
Indeed, luggage’s two worlds of flash and form are increasingly working in collaboration. Samsonite, for example, has won a reputation for its use of advanced materials, with this season’s new collection featuring scratch and UV-resistant mirrored surfaces, their structures made from moulded EVA panelling and armoured nylon; ideal for facing up to the roughest of luggage handlers. It has also re-launched heritage designs and co-designed a luggage line with the French designer Philippe Starck and another with fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Now the company, which is celebrating its centenary, has created what it calls its Happy Travel suitcase line, with Dutch fashion design duo Viktor and Rolf.
With padded compartments for your laptop and other gadgetry, the appeal of travel’s old-world glamour has not been lost on the Dutch design duo.
The Hero case, for example, has a vintage aeroplane print, while Viktor and Rolf have declared that their aim is, ‘to celebrate the world as the world of your dreams’.
Clearly, they have not been through Terminal 5 lately ..! And such is the demand for good-looking, utilitarian luggage, there are new players with the additional appeal of prestige names.
Victorinox, maker of the Swiss Army knife and lately re-launched as a lifestyle brand, has turned its skills for multi-use pocket tools to its Swisswerks luggage line, complete with a nano-tech coating that repels water and dirt and in a material that makes its among the lightest cases available.
Meanwhile, the Porsche Travel System, the new luggage line from Porsche Design, has the same engineering qualities as the car marque, with models made from anodised aluminium, with detachable lid, removable partition and automatically retractable towing belt.
Some styles have wheels also, though they may not promise the same acceleration through customs as the famous name might suggest.
Small wonder that luggage is regaining its cachet as a status item, as prized for its combination of style and content as, for example, a premium mechanical watch or a hand-made fountain pen.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this is BagChipElite, a company that launched last year to design special RFID (radio frequency identification) tags co-ordinated to your luggage and offering the ultimate in 21st Century protection for your stuff while you’re travelling.
The tags, which the company is still in negotiation with airlines to roll out, allow your luggage to be easily tracked down and identified should it be - quel horreur! - lost in transit or end up on the wrong continent. And with luggage like this, losing it could be more painful than the simple realisation that you’ll have to wear the same underwear for a week.