‘It is a very unique market’: July co-founder Athan Didaskalou on expanding an Australian luggage brand to the U.S.
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The last few years have been a rollercoaster for travel companies. But Australian luggage brand July says business is now beginning to boom.
“Things have changed, lockdowns have come to an end now — 2021 was a progressive lift on that. And this year, in 2022, things are flying again,” said co-founder and chief strategy officer Athan Didaskalou.
Didaskalou joined this week’s Modern Retail Podcast and talked about the brand’s growth and expansion plans.
July was first devised in 2018 with the intention of being a luxury luggage company that could take on both Samsonite and Rimowa. “[Rimowa’s] acquisition from LVMH reinvigorated design and travel,” Didaskalou said. “I’d be lying to say I wasn’t a fan.”
Still, he believed that his company could take on the bigger name players in the industry. “We thought we could do it better,” Didaskalou said, by making lighter bags with unique design features like curvier edges and personalized monograms.
The first year of business, things went well. But then every luggage brand’s worst fear materialized: the world shut down. “2019 was the official retail launch, and 2020 we were almost shutting the business down. It was really that drastic because we didn’t have the runway of a few years under the belt in order to be able to survive a zero revenue year.”
One of the ways July survived the pandemic was by launching new non-travel products like drink bottles and backpacks. The other part was by going into new territories that eased travel restrictions earlier than Australia — namely, the U.S. For Didaskalou, launching in stateside was an entrepreneurial dream. “I don’t think there’s any Australian business that doesn’t fantasize from day one about launching in the U.S.,” he said. “The people are there, the scale is there, the appetite is there for newness.”
Now, according to Didaskalou, business is humming and more products and markets are in the pipeline. But even though the company has its Australian roots, the United States remains the primary focus.
“It’s all about the U.S.,” Didaskalou said. “We see the demand, we have made an impact. And we can’t wait to just start making and delivering more products that get people excited.”
Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
Drawing inspiration from other luxury players
“Everyone was drawn to Rimowa. Their acquisition from LVMH reinvigorated design and travel. They did a really good job — I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t a fan of this prior; they just made some absolutely beautiful things. We just felt we could do it better. [July co-founder] Richard is from a manufacturing background. And I’m from a sort of design/marketing background. A lot of people say that entrepreneurs are a little bit stupid, a little bit arrogant. And that I feel that very much falls into the the definition of us, in the sense that we felt we can just do it nicer and better. What if we took the same attributes that make high-end luggage — really great things like the actual design of the product; things like its curvature, things like the aluminum bumpers, and having that design feature creep in. We really liked that and were inspired by that. I’m definitely not ashamed to admit that aluminum feel without that aluminum weight was something that was definitely an aspiration point for us. So we thought we could do it better. “
The U.S. is the gold standard for Australian founders
“I don’t think there’s any Australian business that doesn’t fantasize from day one about launching in the U.S. The people are there, the scale is there, the appetite is there for newness. It is a very unique market. But it does require an all-in approach. I think you can kind of get away with the U.K. doing it remotely — having sort of warehousing they’re having a small team there, and sort of just getting by. I think it’s quite possible to do that, because we’re quite similar culturally. Whereas it does feel like, in the United States, you need to be all in. And that’s what we decided to do.”
‘We’d lose money on the shipments’
“The funniest thing was that in order to do [personalization], we were shipping from Australia in order to do it quickly. [We said] let’s go all in, let’s just get it done [and] we ended up shipping a lot of products from Australia directly. In some cases, depending on if it wasn’t in the main metro areas, we’d lose money on the shipments. It was a real crazy time just to get it done — just to be in the space and try and give the customer the experience that they expected. We’re since, obviously, not going to do that now… But [has] become one of the key things that we offer as a service on top of the luggage. And people love it. Like, we do these promotions where every now and then [where] we’ll do free personalization, and I would say 90%-95% of customers end up doing it.”