The Perfect Brand-New Bag for Papa


Tumi is in the midst of a makeover.

Tumi, of course, is the ever-reliable Nylon travel bag that looks not unlike the wheeled carry-on that flight attendant is pulling, the hanging wardrobe that first-year accountant is flying with or that simple all-black suitcase the woman in front of you has been checking in for over 30 years.

With over 50 retail stores around the world, Tumi is one of the leading brands in the luggage industry known for its muted all-black style and zipper-to-zipper lifetime warranty.

While you wouldn't see it loaded onto your last NetJets flight with the hard-sided Louis Vuitton or flashier Gucci totes, it usually lasts a whole lot longer, wearing well as it was regurgitated onto baggage carousels from Bombay to Berlin.

While not super-stylish, it was super-practical.

Enter David Chu, the executive creative director of Tumi, who has embarked on an ambitious brand expansion and revamp that looks to change everything we think and do with our Tumi.

If his name sounds familiar, it's probably because he founded Nautica in the '80s, created a brand with annual revenue in excess of $1 billion and then sold its trademark rights for an estimated $104 million to VF Corp.VFC

After leaving Nautica in 2004, where the designer says he "developed a sense of discipline and consistency," Chu transitioned to his own private-label menswear before accepting his current role at Tumi in 2006.

His position includes an undisclosed equity stake in privately held Tumi, with expansive duties that extend into design, advertising, public relations and retail concepts.

The results of Chu's design work can be seen in the current retail lineup at Tumi stores across the country.

"A new retail concept has been introduced," says Chu. "The new interior was inspired from the sensibility of the new luxury collection, which combines the old world quality with a modern sensibility."

"The new interiors for the Tumi stores are created to express the style of art deco infused with a certain modernity. The French polished ebony fixtures and nickel details mix easily with the limestone surfaces and red Murano glass chandeliers. I wanted our customers to see and feel that they are going to have a luxurious travel and lifestyle experience."

If you liked the old Tumi, though, never fear. The "quality, utilitarian bags" that Chu says he found upon arrival at Tumi still have a presence in the collection (albeit toward the back of the stores we visited).

Chu's vision for the new line is inspired by the heavy glamour periods of travel and aviation in the early 20th century.

"There are amazing posters of travel by rail and ship in the '30s. The experience is streamlined, sleek and sophisticated and filled with art deco references. I'm inspired by the early days of air travel. There was such a chic to the people who traveled."

In the window cases of the retail stores is Chu's new Townhouse Collection, where he aims "to create a more premium lifestyle collection," which is a series of contemporary suitcases, duffels and carryons crafted from Tumi's nylon, but with shiny Vachetta-leather trim and silvery chrome accents meticulously tailored atop two metallic wheels.

For those that change their luggage with the season, the collection is also available in khaki cotton twill and saddle leather for spring, or gray covert cloth for fall. Completely masculine with a knobby sophistication, the collection is currently the hottest in a high-end luggage market that has seen recent designer debuts from everyone from Alexander McQueen to Diane Von Furstenberg.

Also new for 2008 is a women's handbag collection, as well as a glossy new ad campaign featuring supermodel Shalom Harlow and an array of British sports cars.

In the near future, the brand will introduce an activewear collection for travelers and men's accessories including cuff links, belts and wallets.

After watching luggage brands such as Coach and Louis Vuitton explode in popularity under the creative direction of designers like Marc Jacobs, an obvious parallel, perhaps even a formula, emerges: "Louis Vuitton evolved from a travel company to one of lifestyle and fashion accessory. The discipline of a high quality brand that can incorporate fashion innovation is what I find inspiring."

When he's not at the helm of Tumi or his own signature menswear collection, Chu is, at heart, an avid traveler. When traveling abroad he stresses that people should "pack well, with products that work well and look elegant. How you travel is a reflection of your personality."

He also likes to mix and match.

His bias toward Tumi is one shared by thousands of new customers that are discovering his work and making the transition away from their usual French and Italian designer bags.

Chu's favorites include a Townhouse Esmond Duffel for short trips, while he'll use the 22 Townhouse Regent case for four to five days of travel. For extended trips, it's the Townhouse Langham Wheeled Duffel.

Lucky for him, he's the creative director of the company with easy access to the bags: they're currently sold out on the Tumi Web site and backordered in several retail stores across the U.S.

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