Every frequent flier knows the importance of finding the right luggage. For women travelers, and especially those of us who are constantly packing and unpacking for business trips, getting everything we need into one bag that we’d actually want to carry can be a challenge.
Sonja Salmon lived those frustrations firsthand as she criss-crossed the globe for work, from her home base in Toronto to Bermuda, London, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. In 2014, she traded in her day job as a high-flying finance exec to start Ebby Rane, a line of luxury luggage named after her two grandfathers—who were both entrepreneurs in Jamaica.
Black Enterprise caught up with Salmon to talk about what it’s like as a woman designing luggage for the way women travel, and what happens to your business when travelers around the world are grounded.
The idea for your luggage was born of your own frustration as a frequent business traveler.
I had been traveling a lot. And I literally was somebody living out of my suitcase. I felt like the luggage was really unattractive and I wasn’t that proud of it and I didn’t think there was enough variety. How can it be that I just can’t seem to find anything that is refined and polished; everything has a whimsical or kitschy look to it, if it was considered female. And my friends were like, “No, we don’t know of anything either. That’s why we all carry black luggage.”
Was there one moment when you started to think that you could be the solution?
There actually was an aha moment. A girlfriend of mine was having her birthday in Nassau, Bahamas, and she had mentioned to bring your best. I had all my stuff laid out on the bed. I took out my Prada high heeled shoes, I can’t remember what I would have paid for them, and I started zipping them into a Ziploc bag that somebody would have used basically for marinating meat. And I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this, surely there has to be a better way. That was the first weekend that I sketched out the concept and the business plan.
As someone with no experience creating products, how did you go about it?
I thought, what would be the wish list? Like if I took off all constraints off, and many times in my career, that’s how I tried to think. The constraints automatically narrow what you think your options and choices are. But in an absolute complete blank canvas, what would be my wish list of what I would want in luggage? I wanted a California Closet on wheels and I wanted a place for everything that I take: gym clothes, wet swimwear, makeup.
Then I took my very rudimentary idea to New York City, and had a focus group. There were about 10 or 12 professional women, all in a boardroom. I had a prototype built out of plywood, which I’m almost embarrassed to admit. I said “Imagine if the same way that you have thoughtfully considered your trench coat, your shoes, your handbag as an accessory to your overall look, that your luggage would be like that. Imagine if we could have a place for everything, for the way women think about packing the things that are important to us.” And we refined it that day. I remember walking out that day and all those women were like “We’re your first customers.” That’s when I knew I had something, because all of them said, “Sign me up. The day this is on the market, I would like mine.”
Then I had to go back and work with a design engineer. And we basically mapped out down to 21 by 14 by 9, how could I keep everything and still have optimal space for packing. So that was the challenge. But we did it.
So you launched a successful luxury luggage line. And then 2020 comes with the coronavirus pandemic.
The business ground to a complete halt. The business was just zero, because it was travel related; there was not a soul that was even going to consider buying luggage. So maybe about two and a half months into the pandemic, we started to have very open discussions about what are we going to do short term, mid term, long term? How are we going to address this? Life has changed. People aren’t traveling the same way. And that’s how the Live Simple collection came about.
The new collection includes items people would use in their everyday trips, such as canvas tote bags, a wine bag, and produce bags. Tell us about the choices behind it.
We knew we wanted to stay in touch with our existing customers who’ve been so loyal. We knew they might not be traveling but we might be able to connect with them on something that would have helped going to the marketplace, taking a walk to the park as things opened up.
And we said let’s do this at an affordable price point. We, like many businesses, may have to consider what does the future look like. Are we going to stay firmly and squarely in the premium space? It actually felt authentic to say, we’re recognizing that the world has changed and we would love to be able to serve a community of women who still appreciate style and beauty and simplicity with the same ethos we’ve always brought to things, but for a different time in life, where we all may be facing a different set of financial circumstances.
You found a way to pivot but still give your customers something simple, sustainable, and a little luxurious.
We always love to bring our little touch of what makes an everyday product special. And it’s usually the attention to detail. That’s always been what we have put time and thought into. We’re just coming out with it, so I can only hope that it’s well received. Only time will tell.
What’s next for the brand?
We would like to extend that collection, in a thought where we bring organization to everyday life with a little bit of beauty. I think there’s a lot of other things to do in that lane that will be helpful for people when they’re out and about town, or even at home. And it seems like a natural evolution for us coming from travel because we were always oriented and grounded and anchored on the philosophy around simple, beautiful, organized. If we expand that beyond travel, we think there’s some exciting things to do.