What happens when hot handbag designer Lambertson Truex is called on to reinvent a classic luggage company, Hartmann?

By Raul Barreneche
January 26, 2011
Andrea Fazzari

Owning Hartmann luggage used to be a family affair for the stylish upper crust of American society. If you were a member of that elite group, your grandparents brought glamorous steamer trunks onto the QE2. You received a tweed suitcase for high-school graduation, then upgraded to a cowhide briefcase after college. You were in good company: FDR, Jimmy Stewart, and Winston Churchill all once traveled the globe with Hartmann trunks in tow.

Despite the pedigree, Hartmann's fashionable image was looking dowdy in recent years. The company veered into the mass-market realm of business travel and struggled to keep up with competitors—even low-glam Samsonite (which recently launched a line of cool, minimalist bags, clothes, and shoes, all designed by Prada alum Neil Barrett). "We'd lost our edge," admits Hartmann vice president Kathie DeVoe.

How to breathe new life into the 123-year-old house of tradition?The solution began to dawn on DeVoe after reading a flurry of fashion magazine articles about handbag designer Lambertson Truex. While at Bergdorf Goodman last summer, she checked out their work—boxy alligator-skin handbags; cheetah-print totes; citrus-colored dog carriers—and the lightbulb came on. DeVoe simply had to get designers Richard Lambertson and John Truex to whip her ailing institution into shape. Thrilled by the challenge, the team came up with limited-edition sets for Hartmann: matching wheeled suitcases, carry-ons, and satin evening bags in outrageous shades and cowhide prints. Despite the $1,500 price tag, they quickly sold out. DeVoe had found her gold mine.

Lambertson and Truex aren't the first name-brand designers Hartmann has hired to spruce up its image. In 1973 the company brought in Halston, who delivered a few numbers in Ultrasuede, which soon fell out of favor. In 1981 denim diva Gloria Vanderbilt made fabric suitcases in screaming colors that faded after a few seasons—just like her swan-studded jeans. Lambertson Truex, however, knows how to build a durable vessel with good bones and a timeless look.

As Hartmann's new creative directors (officially, Truex holds the title, though both have a strong hand), the pair will be introducing countless new lines of luggage, refining classic pieces, and overhauling the company's image. They have creative input on ads and on retail strategies. Truex is full of ideas about every aspect of the business, even where to place suitcases in a department store: "I hate how big stores shove luggage in the back, next to the pots and pans."

This month, stores across the country will witness the whiz kids in action with two new collections: the Moderns and 24seven. Moderns, a line of business cases, includes briefcases, messenger bags, detachable laptop carriers, and cases for personal organizers and cell phones. Lambertson and Truex employed high-tech materials that are cropping up in fashion design—ballistic nylon, mesh, rubber, scuba-style neoprene—but were careful not to make the bags too high-style. "These looks are nonthreatening, but with sex appeal," says Truex. Their other line, 24seven, lets color out of the bag with shades of bright blue and cherry red. The pieces have a hip, utilitarian look—again, thanks to rubber, mesh, and neoprene. Besides the basic duffel-and-weekender repertoire, there are slings, messenger bags, CD cases, camera bags, backpacks, and totes.

Lambertson and Truex are also tweaking the details of Hartmann's classic suitcases: everything is emblazoned with a block-letter lowercase h instead of Hartmann's familiar-but-dated script logo. The best-selling business-case line, including the belting-leather bags, are now called the American Hero collection and come with sleeves for laptop computers. "We did a makeover without being too drastic," explains Truex. The Primary Collection, designed before their arrival but completely on-target in sensibility, with simple black-nylon profiles and red, blue, and yellow pocket linings, helped inspire 24seven.

Can Hartmann really make the leap into fashion?"We want to be known as a premium leather-goods company, not just a luggage company," says DeVoe. She's gone so far as to modernize the company's name to match the new image: "We dropped the word luggage; now we're just Hartmann."

Raul Barreneche is a senior editor at Architecture and a contributor to Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, and Interiors.

where luggage is going next

Hartmann isn't the only luggage company taking its cues from the runway. Look for surprising fabrics, luscious colors, and new silhouettes to dominate baggage carousels this year. Manufacturers are also working to make travel easier through useful innovations in design and post-purchase service.

New Looks Get in touch with some irresistible materials—pony skin, patent leather, shimmery nylon. Season standouts: lightweight ABS-plastic suitcases in pearlized silver from Roncato; T. Anthony's fire-engine-red, soft-sided leather rollaboard; an orange crush rollie from Gucci; a waxed-linen Giorgio Armani tote.

All Is Vanity Beauty cases recall the golden age of train travel and make a stylish alternative to a space-consuming cosmetics case. The classics are from Louis Vuitton and Fendi, square and spare. Tanner Krolle modernizes with a diagonal grip, while the sleekest of all comes from Samsonite's Epsilon collection. With a simple tug, the handle of this metallic-gray case converts into a shoulder strap.

Customer Care Two new tracer programs attempt to increase the odds that you'll get your lost bag back. Tumi products carry a plate with a bar code for tracking; the service is free with all new purchases. Each bag from CEO Luggage has an ID number and a toll-free contact—your part is to hope that a good Samaritan will call.

Real Rugged To counteract wear and tear, new lines from L.L. Bean and Swiss Army incorporate microfibers, ballistic nylons, in-line skate wheels, and special frames. The supersized upright in the Samsonite Carbon 2010 collection can even be carried without a weight lifter's belt: you can take it all with you.
—Sunshine Flint