By  on May 21, 2007

Tumi, the 32-year-old accessories brand known for its first-class travel gear, is going girly.

The brand is approaching the women's market with four new handbag collections that hit stores next month. Under the direction of executive creative director David Chu, who founded Nautica in 1983, Tumi is looking to gain a strong foothold in the fashion accessories marketplace.

"Tumi has been the expert in its product category for some time," Chu said. "But there is room for Tumi in the prestige category and as a real player in the world of accessories. Fifty percent of our stores' traffic comes from women who are shopping for their husbands or boyfriends or families, so we wanted to update and freshen up on women's offerings."

Chu, who became creative director in January, knows a thing or two about luxury. After he sold Nautica to VF Corp. in 2003, he started designing his own men's suit label, Bespoke David Chu, where custom-made suits start at $3,000 retail.

The new women's handbag collections combine Tumi's appreciation for function — complete with outside zippers and inner compartments — with a style for everyday use.

"What a woman needs and likes is the feel, silhouette, texture, colors, details," Chu said. "Men like function. We wanted to bridge the two and combine them into a woman's bag without going crazy on the design."

The new bags feature a pebble leather collection of hobos, totes and shoppers that range from $595 to $695 at retail, as well as the Nantucket weekenders in khaki toil, coated cotton and metallic linen that sell from $295 to $450. The Chatham collection is the core handbag group available in an array of materials from nylon to cashmere, retailing from $375 to $450. True to Tumi form, there is also a ladies travel collection called Voyager, featured in black and brown nylon soft suitcases, backpacks, messenger bags and dob kits that sell from $75 to $525.

All the new pieces will be available exclusively at Tumi stores until spring 2008, when they will wholesale at select retailers such as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

But Chu has more on the horizon for Tumi than leather hobos. The new ladies' collection is one step in the new direction for the accessories brand, which is undergoing renovations on its 70 stores in the U.S. and some 35 international doors."It's more than designing handbags," Chu said. "It's about repositioning a brand and figuring out what Tumi could be. Our goal is to give a new platform and new language that women will understand and mix it with travel."

The new stores — starting with the reopening of its Manhattan location on Madison Avenue at 53rd Street on July 1 — will feature limestone walls and brown enamel shelving and accents. Red chandeliers will hang from the ceilings to match the signature red Tumi logo.

"It's a more luxurious and international environment," said Chu, which is appropriate since Tumi's scheduled openings this summer include Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Hamburg. The firm plans to launch 10 to 15 more stores in the next three to five years.

In the next two months, Tumi also will roll out new pieces, including a ladies' wheelie bag, unisex trunk collection and, for the first time, women's scarves.

"I'd like to design more accessories related to travel, like maybe jewelry, and we will definitely be expanding our wallet and small leather goods collections, too," Chu said.

But for now, Chu wants to make sure he's got the right formula for Tumi's fashion debut. He credits having a fashionable wife and two teenage daughters as his window on the accessories psyche of women.

"Women like to have nice, beautiful bags," Chu said. "Men just need to know where their BlackBerry is. Women don't just want function, they want style — that's even more important to a woman. They'll figure out where to put everything."

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