Jen Rubio came up with the idea for her luggage brand Away — which she developed alongside Steph Korey — when her suitcase broke and the options for a replacement were all “either old, or too expensive.”
Away set out to fill the gap in the market by offering sleek, modern luggage designs at affordable prices, achieved by maintaining a direct-to-consumer model and keeping margins higher, just like Korey and Rubio’s former employer, Warby Parker.
“Warby Parker paved the way for the direct-to-consumer model and realized the power of selling your product with an experience,” she said in a conversation with WWD’s London bureau chief Samantha Conti.
The company stuck to its commitment to sell direct-to-consumer only — even when major retailers came knocking. “We got calls from everyone from Amazon to Saks. It’s tempting when you want to make your first million dollars, but that’s not the way to build your business. You have to make it about the consumer.”
The strategy has paid off, according to Rubio, especially when the brand decided to go into physical retail, having grown a substantial online audience, made up mainly of Millennials living in big cities.
“When we opened brick-and-mortar stores we weren’t measuring sales per store, we weren’t trying to get like-for-like sales. The only number we are trying to grow is that of the business, and that’s a luxury we can have because we don’t wholesale,” she said.
The company has opened five locations across the U.S. — in New York; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Austin, Texas, and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Some five to 10 additional doors are in the works for later this year, starting with London.
“Brick-and-mortar wasn’t a new path for the brand; it was just another model to sell our product. When we opened our first store, we realized how profitable it was and how important it was for our customer to have the offline experience, so we went ahead with it,” added Rubio.
The success Away has achieved in its physical spaces reflects the brand’s overall ethos of creating a community around its product and “turning luggage into a fashion accessory,” through collaborations with the likes of Suki Waterhouse, Julia Restoin Roitfeld and Margherita Maccapani Missoni.
The brand relies on a constant injection of freshness in the form of bold, new colorways and the publication of its own podcast and travel magazine, called Here.
Similarly, the company sees its stores as “profitable billboards,” and in addition to stocking its luggage collections, it uses the spaces to create experiences that are tailor-made to the locals’ taste.
In San Francisco, there’s an array of workshops and talks, while other locations host a range of events, from tequila tastings to live concerts.
“It would be too boring to just have our luggage sitting in store. For our first opening we created a space inspired by Stockholm and Tokyo, and it gave people the urge to travel. We sold 50 times more suitcases than expected,” added Rubio.
Other advantages of the direct-to-consumer model include building stronger customer relations. That has come particularly in handy in the age of social media, where young people are eager to travel more and share their experiences on Instagram. It also means that the company can rely on customer feedback, with testing groups to help it determine new designs, colors and store locations.
That’s not to say Away has completely ruled out the possibility of wholesale. “Something to think about is how to partner with retailers in a nontraditional way. Growing a direct-to-consumer business allowed us to open up the conversations to that,” said Rubio.