NEW YORK — Ease, comfort and convenience, all the factors that have influenced popular apparel trends of late, are also making headway into the luggage world.
Luggage retailers and makers are pointing to casual styles, as well as pieces with wheels, as two of the fastest-growing trends in the industry.
“Items that are portable, lightweight and easy to deal with are what’s happening now,” said Stan Schwarz, president of Innovation Luggage, a 33-store chain based in Secaucus, N.J.
Schwarz said sales of luggage on wheels, as a category, have been growing 30 to 40 percent a year in his stores, to the point where they now represent about 18 percent of his total business.
“It’s a trend that has reached into all areas,” he pointed out. “We’re even seeing garment bags and duffel bags on wheels now.”
Casual and sporty bags are another boom area, he said.
“The nylon crinkle cloth category is really flying,” Schwarz said. “The pieces are easy, casual, colorful and soft, right for the way many people are living.” In this category, he cited sales growth of 15 to 20 percent a year; casual pieces now make up 15 percent of Innovation’s total business.
Wheels are turning into major volume for manufacturers such as Samsonite Corp.
“Our best-selling piece for women right now is the rolling flight bag,” said John Nordmark, director of business management for the Denver-based firm.
The luggage itself has not changed much, Nordmark added. Because Samsonite is largely targeted to business travelers, bag styling is still relatively conservative, featuring subdued colors and prints. But even that totem of traditional luggage, the Pullman suitcase, is being put on wheels.
“The most important factors that we see consumers wanting now are organization and transportability,” Nordmark noted. The rolling Pullman, for instance, has a number of deep-gussetted pockets that allow a traveler to organize easily.”
Art Ondich, sales manager of the French Company, a luggage maker based in Covina, Calif., said roll-along luggage is important to his firm as well.
“It’s the most recent advent in the business, as we see it,” Ondich said. “It seems as though almost every traveler is rolling along a structured or semistructured piece of luggage.”
This firm, though it specializes in upscale, structured leather and tapestry pieces, has been experimenting with some more easygoing fabrications.
“We developed a nylon fabrication called impervia that is lighter than traditional nylons but is extremely durable and doesn’t fade in color,” Ondich noted.
Others are still experimenting with casual fabrications. Tony Shaw, senior vice president of sales and marketing for D. Klein and Son, which produces the London Fog line under license, said he thinks leather is one of the materials better suited for soft pieces.
“Leather is something you can play around with without having to worry about it not being sturdy or holding some kind of shape,” Shaw pointed out. “Something like a poplin fabric doesn’t work very well.”
Tumi Luggage has done soft-sided pieces not only in luggage but also in business cases, according to Larry Lein, senior vice president of the Middlesex, N.J., company.
“There’s definitely been a move toward the casual in business cases,” Lein said. “We make a soft-sided black leather briefcase that six years ago only sold to certain types of business people — journalists, retailers, advertising types. Now they’ve become acceptable with just about everyone, even lawyers, bankers and generally more conservative types.”
Lein pointed to the influence of lifestyle-oriented companies such as Nike in footwear and Eddie Bauer in apparel as setting a trend for casual luggage. Some of these companies, he added, make their own soft luggage.
“Casual luggage is targeted at a specified niche customer,” he pointed out. “The person who wears casual apparel on vacation isn’t going to carry a structured suitcase.”
Andrew Nitkin, vice president of York Luggage, a Lambertville, N.J., manufacturer, said casual bags have become a big business for him.
“Lifestyles have changed so much in that many people don’t even take formal vacations anymore,” Nitkin said. “Travel bags often need to be multifunctional and versatile.”
Brands that York does under license, such as L.A. Gear and Jordache, have done particularly well in the casual category, he noted, adding that bags with bright color motifs seem to have the most appeal.
Even companies that specialize in traditional luggage are moving into some less formal pieces. One of these is Hartmann Luggage and Leather Goods Group, Lebanon, Tenn., which is known for its structured, all-leather goods.
“We added a group done in ballistic nylon last year,” said Cathy Rogers, sales and service manager. “Overall, though, we will stay with the traditional looks we’ve always done.”