Tumi is setting sail with David Chu as its first mate.

The travel accessories company, which saw retail sales for 2006 hit $350 million, has tapped the Nautica founder to be its creative director.

The South Plainfield, N.J.-based firm is banking that Chu, 52, will help rev up its women’s handbag and accessories business, which, according to chief executive officer Laurence Franklin, is “so underdeveloped.”

In recent years, Tumi, which is known for its ballistic nylon luggage and men’s briefcases, has tried to increase its women’s business by incorporating a stylized leather handbag collection and creating inventive logo-print patterns in bright colors for its bags. Female consumers make up 30 percent of the company’s travel business.

“The brand is at a stage where we’ve had continued growth,” said Franklin. “We’re at a size that we can work on a global level, and we hired David to take us there.”

Franklin added that Chu will bring on more “creative horsepower,” pointing to his work at Nautica — which he founded in 1983 and sold to VF Corp. in 2004 for $104 million — and his nearly two-year-old company, DC Design International, which produces men’s suitings and some other men’s categories.

Chu, a Taiwan native who was trained in architecture and found his way to apparel by the recommendation of a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, will continue to run DC. The men’s wear line is sold at stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Chu is slated to open a bespoke men’s wear boutique on the ground floor of his Manhattan brownstone this week and has aspirations to launch a women’s collection under the label sometime in the future. But for now, Chu is looking forward to designing accessories for the first time.

“[Since] the Eighties on the women’s side [of the fashion business], the accessories business has been pushed to the forefront,” said Chu. “There’s tremendous consolidation from the fashion side, but the accessories category has been on a tremendous uprise in the past 10 years.”

Chu will also focus on men’s design, especially with the technology of materials, for which Tumi is well known.

This story first appeared in the January 16, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“My job is working with the existing Tumi team and [getting] everybody moving into a different level of thinking,” said Chu.

The first fruits of Chu’s labor at Tumi will be women’s handbags and accessories, which will hit Tumi stores in June or July. The company has approximately 70 international stores, including the U.S., and is also sold at department and specialty stores worldwide.

It is undecided whether there will be a cobranding effort to put Chu’s name on the product.

Franklin, who has known Chu for years, said that eventually, Tumi’s women’s business could match the men’s business.

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