Jen Rubio and Steph Korey are the founders of Away, creating “first-class luggage at a coach price.” Both are former employees of Warby Parker – the unicorn company that revolutionised the eyewear shopping experience. So they know what is needed to create a successful start-up, and they’re already well on their way, having raised $11 million already from investors.
The company launched in February 2016, and following a three-month pop-up shop in New York’s NoHo, they’re now expanding their retail footprint across the world. More stores in New York and London are launching this month, and other cities on the horizon include Berlin and Los Angeles. We sat down with Jen in Away’s newest London store to find out how they’re transforming the world of luggage.
Hi Jen. What was it about the luggage industry that you felt you needed to change?
We started Away because there weren’t any other luggage brands we could resonate with. Travel is such an exciting thing, but a luggage shop can be a pretty depressing experience. However hard we looked we couldn’t find any cool brands out there. The ones which were credible were hugely expensive, and I hate the idea of spending that money on something you don’t love or understand. When we launched Away at the start of February 2016 we decided to do a direct-to-consumer model, which means we’re able to cut out the middlemen and therefore cut our costs. Our suitcases start at $200, rather than $500.
How does physical retail fit into your business strategy?
The offline experience is really important for us. Online, advertisements are everywhere and the more we’re pestered by them the more we block them out. It’s really hard now for a brand to catch attention online, which is why real-life experiences are so crucial. That doesn’t always mean you have to do a three-month pop-up – we’re a young company, so physical retail is still very much an experiment for us.
You’ve just finished your first pop-up in New York, what did you learn from it?
Well, what started out as just an experiment turned out to be massively profitable. We launched our first pop-up in New York in May because wanted to figure out our customers and raise our brand profile. It not only generated great brand awareness, but became a successful conversion tool. What we found was that people were coming to our store who had already done their research online and then they converted immediately.
You’re already expanding internationally. What’s driving this and how will your stores play a part?
As a travel brand being international is really important for us. That’s why we’re looking to expand overseas much faster than other brands at our stage. Retail plays a big part in this strategy. We need physical spaces for us to tell the brand story and bring it to life – a luggage company isn’t the easiest thing to make exciting but in a store you get to be more creative and explore new areas of your brand. We held over 40 events in our New York store including cocktail tasting, yoga classes and supper clubs. We also collaborated a lot with other brands to bring their followers into the store.
How did you adapt your retail experience for London?
I don’t think we’ll ever recreate the same retail offering across different cities. We’ll go with what feels right for each one. London is all about awareness because we don’t have such a strong presence here. Events in general are really good for building brand awareness. Also, collaboration is key when you’re launching a new city as it helps you build up your initial community.
In this store, we’re collaborating with everyone from Suitcase Magazine to Sofar Sounds and hosting gigs in our store. We’re lucky because travel taps into so many industries, so we’re able to be relevant to their audiences too.
Talk us through the design of the space?
Our London store is much louder and more branded than what we did in New York. We worked with Campbell Rey to design the store. It’s inspired by the golden age of travel, so there are lots of vintage airport vibes.
Each month we’ll be featuring a different destination in store. This month it’s all about Morocco, next month will be Copenhagen and after that Chamonix. At the entrance, we’ve installed a living wall. We wanted to create a way to take you away from the noise of the streets of Shoreditch and immerse you in the world we’ve created inside.
What are the challenges of setting up a store in a different city?
It’s super key to have partners you trust, especially if you can’t be out there working on the ground. Things are always going to go wrong, so it’s crucial to make sure you work with the right people. Before we launched in London, we spent a lot of time figuring out who would be the best people to work with instead of rushing into it.
Both of you were among the first employees at Warby Parker. What are the best lessons you’ve learnt from there?
We cut our teeth at Warby Parker; we were there right from the start and helped them launch their first 5 stores. The most important thing I think I learnt from that was that first impressions matter. When new people discover you through stores you only get one chance to make that first impression.
I don’t want people to walk into an Away store and say “it’s nice, for a temporary.” I want them to feel as though it’s a permanent experience. We only had a month from start to finish to get this store ready, but if we weren’t ready to open the store I wouldn’t let it go ahead. It’s so important not to rush it and get it right first time.
How have your stores helped shaped your brand so far?
One thing we keep getting asked about is if we do other travel essentials too. I think this has made us realise that as we grow we don’t want to expand our collection. Instead, we want to explore how Away can create the perfect travel kit, offering our customers all the travel essentials in one place.
Tell us about the city you most love to shop in?
For me, it’s got to be Tokyo. Everything they do is deliberate and beautifully thought out. From how they hand your card back to you when you’ve paid, to wrapping the product, everything is ritual. You can tell they’ve really put thought into the whole experience. That’s what retail is all about.