Case Study

Incredibly durable and stubbornly old-fashioned, cult favorite Globe-Trotter luggage is finally gaining the attention it deserves.

They say you can tell more about people from what they wear on their extremities—hats, shoes, watches, rings—than from the rest of their apparel. I'd add luggage to that list of foolproof taste indicators. The ordeal at airport baggage claims provides some fascinating sociological support for my theory. As the tide of near-identical luggage circles the carousel, swamped by shoals of gray Samsonite clamshells, the exceptions stand out all the more—from those plaid Third World plastic shopping bags to the logo-bedizened status symbols that scream "Steal me!" I often play a guessing game, matching luggage to owner, and usually win.

What do people make of my oddball suitcases? To the untutored eye they must look ancient—clunky aubergine boxes seemingly constructed from cardboard, riveted with black leather corner guards, and cinched shut with two black leather straps. Given the short life span of most luggage, they are definitely old. But after two decades, my Globe-Trotter cases are bound to deliver many more years of faithful service. The anachronistic straps are a godsend now that bags can't be locked for security reasons.

Back in the eighties I complained to a peripatetic photographer friend about the amount of money I spent each year to replace damaged luggage. He told me the only solution was Globe-Trotter, an obscure brand of English suitcases. "They are almost indestructible," he assured me.

Though skeptical, I tracked down Globe-Trotter on one of my frequent trips to London, where it proved difficult to locate. (Being a true New Yorker and thus averse to paying retail, I bought mine at a now-defunct discount dump at London's downscale Shepherds Bush Market.)

I wasn't unduly influenced by Globe-Trotter's coveted appointment from the queen. That merely signified that it wasn't trendy. Yet, considering the thrifty habits of the British royals, I trusted Globe-Trotter was worth the investment. (The 33-inch suitcase runs from $900 to $1,750.) I was right. Barring one bag that suffered a reparable puncture wound and locks needing replacement over the years, my redoubtable companions have survived a million-plus miles of travel.

Founded in 1897 in Germany's Saxony region, Globe-Trotter moved to England within four years and is now based in the Hertfordshire town of Broxbourne, where its products are still painstakingly made by hand. From the outset, the company used one of those ingenious 19th-century synthetics that plastics later rendered obsolete: 16-ply heat-treated fiberboard, a material lighter and stronger than the leather over wood or buckram typical of upscale baggage. Globe-Trotter's closely guarded formula has more than passed the test of time. Unlike today's high-performance suitcase materials—Kevlar, titanium, and other body-armor equivalents—the secret behind Globe-Trotter's astounding durability is both low-tech and premodern.

As the firm's centenary and the end of the millennium neared, Globe-Trotter seemed to fade into obscurity. The valises became even harder to find and several London luggage dealers gave up on them. First Charles and Di, I thought, and now this!

Thankfully, a new management team took over in 2000 and revitalized the faltering brand. The target of its clever marketing plan was the luxury-mad Japanese. "Everyone in Japan already had Louis Vuitton," says Jane Ronge, Globe-Trotter's business development manager. "We gave them something different. We're huge there." Besides reintroducing its classics, the company launched several striking new lines, including the best-selling Safari collection in ivory, the royal-blue Cruise series, and the Orient range, lacquered to mimic brown patent leather.

With the Japanese tail now wagging the English dog, Globe-Trotter's first London retail outlet opened in Mayfair's venerable Burlington Arcade last fall, two years after the debut of the original boutique in Tokyo. My advice for Globe-Trotter executives is to keep one Wellington-shod foot planted firmly in the company's proud past. Those Ginza girls can be fickle, but England's Sloane Rangers and their preppy American cousins are forever.

Luggage, $300-$1,750. Globe-Trotter, 54-55 Burlington Arcade, London; 44-207/529-5954;