The 21st century is the century of movement, and this manifests no more vividly than in the field of travel merchandise. While household names like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Rimowa continue to expand and proliferate, new brands are shaking up the industry with innovative designs at accessible prices. Most prominently, it is Away that has turned the industry on its head since launching just two years back. Founded by friends and colleagues Jen Rubio and Steph Korey, Away offers innovative and stylish travelgear for a modern age, inspired by conversations with globetrotters and businesspeople for whom a suitcase is more than a container of your items. It’s a philosophy, a shelter, a home-away-from-home, and thus deserves the utmost attention and care. We sat down with Rubio and Korey to learn more about their joint venture, and how they see the future of travel.
Jen and Steph, what are your backgrounds—and how did you get to develop travel gear?
JEN RUBIO: My co-founder, Steph Korey, and I met as former colleagues. While our professional areas of expertise are totally different (mine on brand strategy and Steph’s on supply chain and operations), we formed a great working relationship and remained close as we each took on new opportunities. Today, we bring those different perspectives and skill sets to how we run the business at Away.
The genesis for Away came out of a personal pain point. My suitcase broke, and none of my most well-traveled friends could recommend any brands they loved for a replacement. I called Steph soon after, and we realized there was definitely an opportunity from a brand perspective to tell a totally different story, and build a company that people might actually connect with.
Tell me about your collaboration.
JEN RUBIO: We now ship to all of Europe and to celebrate the launch, we chose to highlight five cities we love—London, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, and Milan. As a customer-focused brand, we use feedback from customers to guide every decision we make, so we selected these cities, in part, because our community was asking for it.
With each collection, we wanted to highlight what’s special and unique about each of these cities, so we worked with five women to design a Travel Uniform that was inspired by the way they see their hometowns. We also worked with local stores (like Storm in Copenhagen) to host a pop-up in each location, which gave us the opportunity to introduce the brand in real life and meet some of our new customers.
Pernille Teisbaek represented Copenhagen, and her collection captured her effortless street style in a way that’s both polished and accessible. The collection features dual-toned brick and navy suitcases and beautiful texture like the black leather handles, all inspired by Pernille’s Scandinavian style.
How do you see the market of travel gear—between mass-market brands, luxury merchandise, and specialist brands?
JEN RUBIO: When we started researching the market, we found that luggage was either inexpensive but terrible in terms of quality, or it was more expensive than the trip you were planning to take it on. There were no great affordable options, and none that people were genuinely excited to associate with.
Given our backgrounds working at direct-to-consumer brands in the US prior to Away, Jen and I both knew we could use the model to create a premium product at an unprecedented price point, and that we could create a larger story around travel that resonated with people.
STEPH KOREY: We talked to hundreds of travelers to hear what their pain points were while traveling so that we could understand what they actually needed. We realized that, before Away, luggage brands weren’t responding to the way people actually traveled today.
How was the initial design process—which moods and styles informed your realization of Away?
STEPH KOREY: We saw dozens of prototypes before Away’s first carry-on launched in 2016. Jen and I spent a lot of time visiting our factories and working with our manufacturers to review designs and iterations to make sure we got it exactly right, and in a way that reflected all of the insights and feedback we’d heard from people.
JEN RUBIO: It was important to us to have a clean and simple aesthetic: something that was beautiful but versatile enough to work with a variety of styles. Partnerships and collaborations, like the limited editions we recently did to celebrate our launch in Europe, allow us to be a bit more playful. We view our products as a great canvas, so we’re able to create something that’s fun and unique to our partners and reach new audiences simultaneously.
Which design features are important in today’s suitcase—technology and beyond?
STEPH KOREY: A suitcase should include thoughtful features that make travel more seamless, complete with everything you need but nothing you don’t. Away’s luggage is designed to solve real problems travelers face: features like a built-in laundry bag to keep your clean clothes separate from those you’ve already worn, a compression pad to maximize how much you can fit inside, and a built-in but removable battery to charge any USB device.
Though it wasn’t something people expected us to solve, we frequently heard that it was really frustrating that people’s phones always died at the airport, so we included the removable battery so that our customers wouldn’t be stuck with a dead phone.
We also learned that people needed to replace their luggage every few years when the zippers and wheels would break, so we designed our luggage to solve that, too—our luggage is built with premium, 360° Hinomoto wheels and high-quality YKK zippers. On top of that, Away’s luggage comes with a lifetime warranty, so we’ve built products that are built to last.
“We realized that, before Away, luggage brands weren’t responding to the way people actually traveled today.”
Tell me about your direct-to-consumer model, and how it affects your reach to consumers.
STEPH KOREY: One of Away’s biggest advantages is that we’re a direct-to-consumer business—instead of wholesaling our products, we make and sell everything ourselves online and in Away’s stores. By cutting out the middleman and selling directly to our customers, we’re able to offer premium products at an unprecedented price. Another benefit of being direct-to-consumer is that we own the relationship with every single customer, so we’re able to have a consistent line of communication, meaning that we can listen and react to feedback in real-time.
How do you stimulate brand loyalty in a sector with very little, traditionally?
JEN RUBIO: When we looked at the luggage industry as a whole, brands were talking about the features of their products, but none were talking about the things that get people excited about the travel experience overall. We know that the difference between a good product and a good brand is emotion, and that context is everything, so while our products are great, people get excited when they think about what they can do with them and where they can go.
We focus on telling a broader story about travel in interesting and compelling ways that translate to a deep sense of loyalty and excitement. Whether it’s through Here (our print and digital magazine), our podcast Airplane Mode, or through the content on Away’s social media accounts, all of our brand channels are designed to inspire people to plan their next trip.
Away has experienced overwhelming success. How have you found your path from start-up to globally recognized brand?
JEN RUBIO: There’s no playbook for what we’re building, but we’ve continued to create products and experiences that make travel more seamless, and to build a community of people that trusts us to do that. We started with luggage, but we aren’t setting the limits for what’s next.
We’ve expanded our product line, grown our team to more than 150 employees, opened four retail locations in the United States (with more locations to come), and sold more than 300,000 suitcases. What we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short time has surpassed our wildest expectations, and we’re excited to continue to introduce Away to more travelers around the world.
What is the future of Away—any new projects in the pipeline?
STEPH KOREY: Our customers are helping us to define the future of Away, identifying problems they experience in travel with the belief that we’ll be able to solve them. It’s about so much more than just analyzing the data to predict trends, but truly paying attention to the insights and then empowering our customers to be an active part of the conversation.
Our goal is to become the #1 travel brand in the world by fixing everything that’s wrong with the travel experience, and our customers are helping us make it happen.
For more information, see Away