Even if the name Rimowa doesn’t immediately conjure a mental image of the iconic luggage, you definitely know it. You know the form, the proportion, the materials—a lightweight aluminum that the Cologne, Germany-based company has been perfecting since 1910—and ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, you know the grooves. The grooves are at once subtle and insistent, eye-catching and refined. The grooves announce purpose. The grooves announce craftsmanship. They evoke a glamorous golden age of air travel past and point toward a rich, sophisticated, and mobile future.
Though the trademark vertical grooves are perhaps the single most identifiable component of a Rimowa suitcase, the second is how startlingly unbothered its owner is pushing it through a teeming airport, or down a cobbled sidewalk, or hoisting it into the trunk of a taxi. A Rimowa suitcase is elegant because of how effortlessly a Rimowa suitcase moves with you. The movement, not coincidentally, is no small part of the elegance.
Since its inception in 1898 as a saddle maker, Rimowa has been dedicated to moving people through the world. Though the methods of travel changed—goodbye horses, hello cars and airplanes—the company has survived thanks to its persistent inquiry into that movement. What do travelers need? What materials best get them where they’re going? Which forms best protect their belongings?
“It's our customers that differentiate us from other travel brands,” says Emelie De Vitis, Chief Marketing Officer of Rimowa. “These are ambitious people who travel with purpose. Not only do they want to see the world, but they're trying to change it. Rimowa's thoughtfully engineered travel tools are designed to help them succeed for whatever journey they're on.”
Rimowa moved from saddles to luggage by the turn of the 20th century, and has made everything from custom travelling salesman’s cases to a cello case. But in 1937, the company introduced its first aluminum case. In the years before, a fire destroyed one of the company’s German factories and aluminum was the only material that survived, a detail not lost on the engineering team. By the 1950s, Rimowa’s engineers had lit upon the corrugated aluminum alloy used on the legendary German JU52 Junkers aircraft as just the durable lightweight material to suit post-war travelers.
Today, an aluminum-magnesium alloy fills in for the original aircraft-grade aluminum, and to see how Rimowa’s Original and Classic collections of suitcases, which range in price from $500 to $4,600, showcase the same spirit of innovation that birthed the classic aluminum luggage of the 1950s, simply follow the grooves.
First, follow them down to the base where you’ll find a multi-wheel system adapted from office chairs and hospital beds. The four double-wheels (eight in all) each spin on its own axis, allowing you to guide even the heaviest suitcase with almost no effort. The distance between the wheels is so precise and thoroughly engineered for strength, stability, and durability that Rimowa has a patent on their placement. Finally, the company uses a rolling belt to test the wheels on each case for 1,400–1,500 kilometers, the distance from Cologne to Paris and back and expects them to last another 10,000.
Now, follow the grooves up to the handle. Unlike the handles of most other suitcases—even other luxury cases—the Rimowa handle locks into place essentially anywhere you want to hold it. This “stageless” design means that anyone of any height can find the exact right point at which to hold, push, and maneuver the case. The handle itself is lifted 1,000 times in the quality check process to ensure its durability. Steady, strong, and engineered not to wobble, the combination handle and wheels are precisely why Rimowa luggage moves so effortlessly alongside you.
Now, look at the grooves themselves. They begin as huge coils of magnesium-aluminum alloy that are sent through a riling machine at one of the brand’s three factories. The machine stamps the signature grooves, and then another forms and bends the sheets to create the exterior shell. From there, machines give way to skilled craftspeople and the remaining 80 percent of production—framing, wheel mounting, interior fabrics and Flex Divider storage system, balancing, handle installation, quality testing—is completed by hand. The ideal combination of precision manufactured and handmade, each Rimowa suitcase, on average, has some 200 individual parts, over 120 technical patents, requires 33 highly skilled people, and takes about 90 minutes to produce.
Rimowa took another significant step forward in materials innovation in 2008 when it introduced the first fully polycarbonate suitcase. First patented in 1953, polycarbonate is an essential component in objects like body armor and bulletproof glass. Pressed into service for travelers, the material is both incredibly durable and shockingly light. So durable in fact, that Rimowa extended the same five-year warranty on all of its aluminum suitcases to the polycarbonate cases as well, once you officially register them.
Of the launch, De Vitis says, “We did it, like everything we do, to meet traveler's evolving needs. Our aim was to create an extremely lightweight and durable case. While aluminum is the most resilient material, polycarbonate is the best alternative that also manages to be this lightweight. Not only can it take a beating, but it'll survive in very extreme temperatures.”
The response has been overwhelming, with the Essential collection of polycarbonate cases selling at roughly the same rate as the aluminum cases in the Classic and Original collections. Because the Essential collection only uses virgin polycarbonate, the cases themselves are exceptionally strong, resistant to both damage and extreme temperatures, and hold their color.
Which brings De Vitis to perhaps the final challenge facing the modern traveler, especially one faced with endless baggage carousels of endless black ballistic nylon: self-expression.
Through Rimowa Unique, the company offers you the option to customize your own suitcase, from the Classic collection, by selecting your own colors for the leather handles, wheels, and luggage tag. Further, Rimowa teams up with a host of outside partners to offer innovative twists on its products.
“When we embark on a collaboration – such as the ones we've done with Chaos, Dior, Fendi or Supreme,” she says, “we're not trying to redesign the Rimowa suitcase. Instead, we look at them as blank iconic canvases that we can offer to our collaborators for their own creative vision.”
Whether the sunset color gradients of artist Alex Israel or an instantly covetable 2018 collab with the likes of Supreme, Rimowa’s collaborations are as much an exercise in engineering as aesthetics.
As De Vitis puts it: “Our collaborators push us to see what we're capable of when it comes to engineering, creativity and craftsmanship. A perfect example is the challenge posed by transferring Supreme's iconic shade of red onto our aluminum suitcase. We utilized our anodization technology to allow the color to be completely absorbed by aluminum, a process similar to tattooing the skin of the case. It took more than a year of careful research and testing to get this color just right.”
Put differently, Rimowa does everything, from materials research to high-design collaborations, with purpose. A fitting, polished aluminum reflection of the artists, changemakers, and travelers that it helps move through the world.
In partnerships with our friends at Rimowa