Nick Foulkes’ edit of the best retro-chic flight bags

Nick Foulkes chooses elegant hand luggage worthy of the golden age of air travel

The Beatles in 1964
The Beatles in 1964 | Image: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

If life is a journey, you might as well have nice luggage. There are far less sensible maxims by which to live… particularly when travelling by air. Juan Trippe, the legendary founder of Pan Am, once said, “In air transport, the true objective is to bring to the life of an average man those things which once were the privilege of only a fortunate few.” Which may explain why Pan Am, at one time the cynosure of airborne elegance, is no longer in business. 

Naomi Campbell in 1998
Naomi Campbell in 1998 | Image: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
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Trippe was a visionary: he helped make air travel synonymous with glamour and this extended to the bags carried on board by his passengers. So successful was this new type of luggage that it rapidly entered popular consciousness, and by 1960, when Ian Fleming published For Your Eyes Only, the author described two villains carrying bundles of $100 bills crammed into “that new holdall of the tropics – a Pan American overnight bag”. And yet the future envisaged by Trippe never happened. Instead, flight has, in just a generation, become the sort of nightmare Hieronymus Bosch would have liked. Ours is a world of cabin size-specific wheeled bags with all the glamour of a supermarket trolley.

Louis Vuitton Keepall, POA
Louis Vuitton Keepall, POA
Berluti Cube, £3,650
Berluti Cube, £3,650

I was speaking about this with Ramesh Nair, creative director of Moynat, who made me realise how bleakly standardised everything has become when he said that he had not merely been told to place his soft-sided (un-wheeled) bag into the small measuring cage at the departure gate, but to do so in a prescribed orientation. Being asked to cram one’s bag into a little metal bin is humiliating; being directed as to which end to cram in first is tantamount to a violation of personal space. As airports become larger and less congenial, and flying more stressful and less comfortable, the piece of home we carry around has assumed great importance. In the air-travel environment, a bag and its contents are all we have control over; and as Nair’s development of the Limousine bag shows, every aspect, no matter how trivial, assumes immense significance. 

Hermès Plume, £7,200
Hermès Plume, £7,200
Ermenegildo Zegna Pelletessuta, £2,950
Ermenegildo Zegna Pelletessuta, £2,950

His advice is to carry a bag in a grained leather (less likely to show scuffs) with metal feet (airline lockers and carpets are not always paragons of cleanliness). But what sets the Limousine apart is the concave top inspired by the curved base of an early piece of Moynat motoring luggage; it makes it particularly comfortable worn on the shoulder under the arm. Fabric has replaced the original leather linings to save weight, and refinement is ongoing: Ramesh is bringing out a new Limousine with an outside pocket to hold magazines.

William & Son travel bag, £2,400
William & Son travel bag, £2,400
Bennett Winch Commuter, £950
Bennett Winch Commuter, £950

Indeed, the issue of pockets is one that continues to exercise the world of haute maroquinnerie. I was once privileged to meet paterfamilias Patrick Louis Vuitton at the old family home and workshops in Asnières, and discuss designing a bag. When I asked about pockets, he said the problem is that you look for ways to fill them. A slightly gnomic response, but one informed by the collected wisdom of more than a century of luggage-making. After all, the most emblematic of Vuitton bags, that airport stalwart the Keepall, made its debut just 15 years after Blériot flew the Channel, yet it still works as a deluxe duffel. When late for a plane and packing in a frenzy, my hand is drawn ineluctably to my Keepall. I scoop handfuls of stuff (cigars, cables, volumes of Tolstoy I am unlikely to read) into the cavernous bag and sling it over my shoulder. Yes, I get darts of anxiety that I’ve forgotten something and have to rummage through the entropic contents looking for it, but at least the bag is quick to load.

Métier Wanderer Messenger, £1,850
Métier Wanderer Messenger, £1,850
Tanner Krolle Sportsman, £2,500
Tanner Krolle Sportsman, £2,500

Nevertheless, interior slots, pouches and loops to accommodate documents, electronic devices and so on appeal to the tidy mind I would so love to have. This “place for everything and everything in its place” creed has no louder proselytiser than Melissa Morris of Métier. I have seen humidors larger than her shop opposite Harry’s Bar, but with its clever cupboards it is a metaphor for her luggage in which zips are tugged to reveal inner pockets, which are themselves equipped with pouches and slots. If you have time to pack carefully and stow things correctly, you can fit a surprising amount into her little Wanderer Messenger. It is a design that manages to capture much of the carefree portability of the early airline bags beloved of everyone from James Bond to The Beatles. 

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And therein lies the true role of the airline bag – not merely as a receptacle for possessions but as a Proustian stimulator of memories of better times. Certainly, when I see an Hermès Birkin, I am reminded of its genesis on an aircraft in 1984, when Jane Birkin found herself next to Jean-Louis Dumas. She complained she could not fit enough into her Kelly bag and he designed a more capacious bag for her there and then. 

These days his son, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the firm’s artistic director, travels with a bag called Plume (it has flight implications and suggests weightlessness). I am tempted to give one a go, but mine would have to be a special order because I would like to incorporate a detail from a 1970s Hermès airline case Pierre-Alexis mentioned. Called the Ulysse and made from canvas and Barenia leather, it has a single outside passport-sized pocket with a slanting “H” cut into it to reveal the passport and, when not in use, the canvas beneath. I am not a great logo-wearer, but this is not a logo so much as a poignant evocation of a lost age, the angled H suggestive of the optimism so lacking in modern air travel. I know that bespeaking an Hermès bag is neither rapid nor inexpensive, but in this case (ahem!) I see it as a duty, a lone gesture – but I hope an elegant one – in the greater cause of MATGA (making air travel great again). 

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