As the co-founder of disruptive travel brand Away, Jen Rubio has brought the brand on an incredible journey since founding it in 2015. We talk to her about style, success and Away's first UK store, in Seven Dials.
What’s your background prior to launching Away in 2015?
My whole career has been built around connecting brands with consumers—I’ve always been interested how brands are able to build communities and create an emotional connection with people through storytelling. Before launching Away, I worked in a range of roles helping brands identify their unique point of view, and how they could share that with the world.
When, how, and why did you decide to launch a luggage brand with co-founder, Steph Korey?
Steph and I met while working at Warby Parker. We worked on very different sides of the business (I on the brand side and Steph on the supply chain side) but quickly formed a great working relationship and continued to stay close after we both moved on for new opportunities.
The idea for Away came from a personal pain point. My suitcase broke while I was at the airport, and none of my most well-travelled friends had a recommendation for a replacement. Luggage is something you take on every trip, so it struck me that it had been a complete afterthought for people. I called Steph, and we started researching the market; we found that luggage was either inexpensive but terrible in terms of quality, or it was more expensive than the trip you were planning to take it on. There were no affordable options that people were genuinely excited to associate with.
We quickly realized that there was a great opportunity from both a brand and supply chain perspective to build the company we wished existed. About a year after I called Steph, Away’s first product, The Carry-On, shipped in February 2016.
How is your luggage different to everything else on the market? What’s special about it in terms of design? Why is Away now the go-to brand for anyone looking to invest in new luggage?
The luggage industry was pretty sleepy before Away; luggage brands at the time were talking about things like the zippers and the wheels, but none were talking about travel. While the wheels and zippers of our cases are great, we recognised an opportunity to tell a more interesting story, and built our brand around a broader narrative about travel, one that got people excited about what they could do with their luggage and where they could go with it.
From a design perspective, our cases also combine form and functionality because we know you don’t have to sacrifice one or the other to have a great product. We designed Away to be minimal and versatile enough to complement your personal style and introduced the concept of the Travel Uniform, so you always look polished wherever you’re headed.
Our direct-to-consumer model also allows us to cut out the middleman and provide a premium product at an unprecedented price point.
Being a frequent flyer yourself, what gap in the market did you spot that’s really hit the mark with your customers?
Before Away, luggage on the market wasn’t responding to the way people actually travelled. I had experienced this as someone who deeply cares about the brands I associate with across a number of other categories, but there wasn’t a luggage brand I was especially loyal to. I pretty quickly realized that this was the same for a lot of my most well-travelled (and opinionated!) friends.
Steph and I talked to hundreds of travellers before we launched Away to determine their pain points and understand what people actually needed from a suitcase. People told us they wanted something that was lightweight but durable, high-quality features, and to fit as much as they could in a carry-on. Away luggage has thoughtful features like a built-in laundry bag to keep your clean clothes separate from those you’ve already worn, a compression pad to maximise how much you can fit inside, and high-quality features like 360° Hinomoto wheels and high-quality YKK zippers. Though this wasn’t something people expected us to solve, one thing we heard again and again was that it’s really frustrating that people’s phones always die at the airport, so we designed our Carry-Ons with a built-in but removable battery to be able to charge any USB device.
On top of that, our luggage comes with a lifetime warranty, so we’ve built products that are built to last.
Where are you from originally and are you a regular visitor to London and the Seven Dials area?
I was born in the Philippines and I moved to the U.S. when I was 7. I grew up traveling a lot and have lived in seven different cities throughout my life, so it’s something that’s core to who I am and how I’ve experienced the world. After working at Warby Parker, I joined AllSaints as Head of Innovation and lived in East London for a few years. I still visit London often for work and to visit friends. My favourite way to spend a Sunday is shopping in the Seven Dials area and having a Sunday roast at a pub with friends.
Why is Seven Dials the right London location for your brand to be in? What do you love most about the Seven Dials area?
We chose Covent Garden because the location is so central, and it’s an iconic and beautiful neighbourhood that’s home to so many beloved retailers. We’re excited to be alongside the Seven Dials shops, and to be able to call London home to Away’s first store in Europe. We look forward to bringing together a community of people in London who love to travel.
What products will be exclusive to the new Seven Dials store?
Guests of our London store will be able to shop Away’s full travel uniform in all of our evergreen colours—from our Carry-Ons to The Everywhere Bag, The Dopp Kit, The Garment Bag, and more. Each new collaboration or limited edition collection will also be available at our Seven Dials location, and like our other stores, we’ll also offer travel-size products of some of the things we love and can’t travel without.
What’s next for Away?
There are so many parts of the travel experience that can be improved, whether it’s what you travel with, how you actually get there, or what you do once you’ve landed. Our vision is for Away to be a big part of creating those solutions, and in defining what’s possible for the future of travel.
We’ve already seen a major trend toward consumers valuing experiences over things, and I think we’ll continue to see people venture outside of their comfort zone to explore new corners of the world. I think Away has an incredible opportunity to help frame how people think about travel, and I deeply believe in its ability to enhance people’s lives for the better.
Our customers are also helping to define the future of Away. They’ve come to trust our ability to create products that they love, so they’re asking us to consider new items (and experiences) all the time, identifying problems they see in the travel space with the belief and trust that we’ll be able to solve them. Luggage is just the beginning!
Top 3 things to pack in your Away suitcase?
I always travel with a pair of Nike trainers, so I have comfortable shoes to be able to explore wherever I’m visiting or in case I want to squeeze a workout in; Kiehl’s Cactus Flower & Tibetan Ginseng Hydrating Mist, since flying can leave your skin really dehydrated; and vintage Levi’s (my favourite pair is from Pop Boutique).