Stamp of Luxury
'I LIKE GOLF, I JUST DIDN'T LIKE IT enough,' says David Chu, the creative director of Tumi, the US-based luggage company. He is sitting in his suite at the Four Seasons looking out at Victoria Harbour 42 stories below. All around are examples of Tumi's new Voyager line, designed by Chu.
Four years ago Chu sold Nautica, the clothing company he created, pocketing almost US$100 million. The Taiwan-born designer intended to retire and work on his handicap. His new life lasted less than two weeks. 'I got bored,' he says, sunlight glinting off his trademark glasses. 'I needed another challenge.'
Those who have worked with Chu during his 35-year career as a designer and entrepreneur are unlikely to be shocked by his decision. Within a few minutes of meeting him it's apparent he would go crazy if condemned to spend the next 30 years on a golf course. He moves like a pinball, his kinetic energy pushing him from one idea to the next in a breathless stream of enthusiasm. In the middle of describing three new product lines he orders more coffee. He switches subjects so quickly it seems like he must already have been through a brace of triple espressos.
'The new Alpha line of bags will change Tumi's image,' he says, jumping from the deep sofa and racing to his bedroom. He returns with four bags, an assistant gamely trails behind him with three more pieces of luggage. Each one has hand polished nickel hardware that adds a note of sophistication. The ballistic nylon that has been Tumi's trademark for two decades has been given an upgrade with machete leather trim.
'With this new collection, we are creating a new design language for Tumi,' says Chu. 'It's inspired by the glamour of travel as seen in vintage movies, photography and fashion.
Have you been to Ankgor Wat?'
This sudden shift of topic is classic Chu. One minute he's promoting his elegant new luggage line the next he's talking about a tour of Cambodia's ruins that he plans to lead in a few weeks time. His enthusiasm is infectious and seems to be hard-wired into genes that were nutured by his hard-working parents.
Chu's father moved the family to the US when David was 11. He and his wife opened a restaurant but his son's ambitions were on a larger scale. Chu did well in high school and won a place at Manhattan's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. His drawing skills caught the eye of a professor who suggested he try designing clothes. He chased his dreams to Taipei where he set up an export business with some friends. Eighteen months later they were bankrupt and a chastened Chu returned to the US.
The young designer was hired by a large conglomerate but he still nursed dreams of having his own company.
'I started out playing with some designs for sailing jackets,' says Chu, seated again amidst a castellated wall of trunks and wheelie bags. 'Just like we are now doing with Tumi I wanted to reinterpret an American classic and give it a more distinctive flair.'
The result was six jackets that won fans among the merchandisers at Barney's, Bloomigndale's and Saks Fifth Avenue, New York's three most important department stores. Within a few months Nautica had been born.
'When I was in college I used to go down to the islands a lot,' says 52-year-old Chu. 'I loved the blue sea and the sound of the ocean. For me that was all about freedom and that was the idea I tried to build into the Nautica brand.'
The company's first-year sales in 1983 was just US$700,000 but grew to US$2.5 million a year later. Nautica found itself in the vanguard of a worldwide push by US sportswear brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. By the end of the 1990s Nautica was a truly global brand with annual sales nudging US$1 billion. But Chu missed the thrill of the early days. In 2003, when the Vanity Fair corporation came calling, he was ready to cash in his chips. Nautica joined Lee, Wrangler and North Face as VF brands and after a year as chief executive and creative director Chu retired with a 5-iron in his hand. 'I had too much energy to consign myself to the history books. I was still hungry.'
His appetite led him from the sand traps of Connecticut to a tailor's shop in Italy. There he began creating his first post-Nautica venture, an upmarket clothing line for men marketed as DC, Lincs and the David Chu Collection. The clothes caught the attention of Laurence Franklin, the chief executive of Tumi. He asked Chu to join the 30-year-old luggage company and give it a facelift.
'Tumi is known for very utilitarian, functional, well made luggage - but I thought Tumi could be made into more of a lifestyle brand for men and women,' Chu says. 'When I think of luxury and beautiful, elegant luggage, it's always from the '20s, '30s, '40s when people really travelled in style.'
The new Tumi designs for this season include a Khaki range for the Townhouse collection, trunks for the high-end bespoke line aimed at people who travel by yacht or private jet and don't have to worry about carrying their own bags plus the launch of the Alpha collection, designed for the road warrior who has sophisticated tastes. Chu's emphasis throughout, as a designer, has been to create a sleek silhouette with the best available materials.
Chu has also been a tireless advocate for Asian cultures, hence the trip to Angkor Wat where he was scheduled to guide a party of about 20 through the Khmer temples. Combine that with his duties at Tumi and his leadership of DC and Company and it seems likely that his golf clubs will gather dust for a while.