Rewind to 1987. Throw English author Rudyard Kipling, three friends from Antwerp and some crinkled nylon fabric into the mix, et voila: The idea for bags and accessories brand Kipling is born.

For Vincent Haverbeke, Xavier Kegels and Paul Van De Velde, well-travelled author Rudyard Kipling and his famous tale The Jungle Book perfectly summed up the spirit of fun and adventure that they wanted to bring to their products.

With that inspiration in mind, the trio set out on their mission to create the affordable, functional bags and accessories that are now sold in over 60 countries.

Now, as VF Corporation-owned Kipling celebrates its 30th anniversary, the brand is leaning on its past to look to the future.

Helen Pawson spoke to Kipling VP Sales & Retail Olivier Gay at TFWA World Exhibition to find out about the brand’s ‘booming’ travel retail business and how it hopes to never forget its roots.

Big ambitions: Olivier Gay said Kipling plans to double its travel retail turnover again next year

The Moodie Davitt Report: How important is travel retail to Kipling’s overall business? And where are Kipling’s strongest markets?

Olivier Gay: Travel retail is booming. Turnover has almost doubled this year compared to last. It’s where we had the strongest growth last year and was bigger than e-commerce.

Now we need to adapt and think about our travel retail operations. This year, we’ve developed different visual merchandising and merchandising assortments that can fit different airports and partners.

Our strongest markets are Asia and Europe. We have the perfect positioning for the European market and also for Asia. One of our biggest stores is at Hong Kong Airport [the store opened ten years ago -Ed] and we have 30 airport stores in [Mainland] China. China is one of our biggest travel retail markets.

What has driven this boom?

We have a very interesting brand positioning in terms of product and price and we target consumers who travel a lot, for business and holidays.

It’s a combination of timeless, quality products and our seasonal collection, which is very colourful. There is a need for our products and most of the travel retail operators are changing their strategy from luxury to premium. I think we are the right brand for that.

How about the cruise business? Is this a key sales driver?

We started our cruise business in the USA a few years back, mainly through Starboard. We extended this business during the last couple of years with the great support of Harding Retail.

We are currently present onboard 95 cruise ships and showing strong results onboard Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and P&O cruise lines to name a few.

We realised that it is extremely important to have a strong retailtainment approach onboard cruise ships. The passengers are a captive audience always looking for the extra activity that will make them enjoy their experience onboard. So, in partnership with the Harding Retail team we have permanently launched our personalisation activity onboard P&O’s Pacific Explorer.

We have seen great interest from passengers that has been converted to strong results.

In March 2016, Kipling launched a ‘You’re Sew Kipling’ embroidery personalisation activity at Gatwick Airport

Also, in the USA we are offering an exclusive Cruise collection made of 45 SKUs. We are now looking at extending this collection to our European cruise business and we will keep working on our concept to remain attractive and relevant.

We expect this channel to keep growing, especially through Asia, which is showing strong passenger growth.

How do you plan to increase Kipling’s reach further and grow its share of the market in travel retail?

We have a lot of potential to grow externally, outside of our actual network and we have to explore new territories. We also have to grow internally with our existing partners. We can develop more in Russia, Eastern Europe and travel retail.

We’ve been trusted by a lot of European travel retailers. In summer we opened ten pop-ups with Lagardère Travel Retail at Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, Valencia, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Luxembourg and Gdansk airports.

“We have the ambition to double turnover again next year in travel retail”

This was an in-store pop up concept highlighting our best selection of leisure bags (soft luggage and crossbody and backpacks), travel with carry-on size luggage and kids (with a selection of toddler bags).

During the three-month promotional period, the brand showed a very promising performance. As a result, Kipling has been continued in most of the stores and we are now discussing a long-term partnership with Lagardère Travel Retail.

Make Happy: Gay was present at TFWA World Exhibition, where Kipling showed off its monogramming service to customers

What’s your opinion on the fashion & accessories category in travel retail? Is it given sufficient share of voice among retailers?

The world of travel retail has changed. I remember a few years ago, most of the operators wanted to go for luxury to focus on Asian and Middle Eastern clients. I understand that, because there are big margins and you don’t need a lot of traffic to make the store profitable but now customers have changed because not only rich people travel.

It’s nice to have luxury stores but you need to have other stores. It’s very important to have a different offer. Even at big airports like London Heathrow and Paris CDG, yes, you have some very wealthy people but they are travelling more by private jet.

The real market is for premium. There is a big opportunity for us in travel retail. Not only for us but brands which have a positioning of premium but are not that expensive. Most of the airports look like amazing department stores. We want to be there because it’s prestige for the brand and very nice surroundings.

We have the ambition to double turnover again next year in travel retail so we are developing everything in terms of store design and planning to be fully adapted to every partner, every airport and also the cruise channel.

What’s been happening in Kipling’s anniversary year and what activities have you done to mark the anniversary?

Our strategy was to adapt the 30th celebrations to each market. We had a lot of PR events in Asia where there is more demand for such celebrations. In January and February, we had a lot of events in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea, Japan and Taiwan – which is an important country for us.

In Europe we communicated more on the new monochrome marketing campaign.

We also created exclusive products in partnership with five designers, one from every continent. We didn’t really communicate the anniversary in Europe and the Americas.

To what extent are Kipling’s founders still involved with the company ?

The founders are still more or less involved but we are building for the future. We have had a lot of achievements in 30 years but we have big ambitions in terms of growth and want to be even more of a global brand.

We recently had our Back to School collection launch for 2018 and Paul [Van De Velde] came to speak to our distributors and team. He talked about the early years of Kipling and why he decided to launch the brand.

I believe if you want to build your future and have a strong brand, it’s important to know about your roots. And who better to communicate that than one of the founders? He’s talented.

We have a nice history and when you see all the marketing campaigns from the 90s,  they were very aspirational and inspirational.

We have customers who bought our products 30 years ago and say “they still look new”.

Kipling’s famous monkey logo appears in different designs on tote bags in the 30th anniversary collection

Which have been Kipling’s best-selling products over the past 30 years?

The Art M has been one of our best-sellers for decades; it is one of our iconic styles today. It was actually our top-seller at the Lagardère Travel Retail pop-up promotions in the summer.

Best-seller: The Art M travel tote comes with a trolley sleeve

Our Class Seoul and City backpacks have been our signature backpack styles for years and are still today part of our iconic styles.

We believe that our products are the perfect mix for travel retail. Our bags are made of crinkled nylon so are extremely light and resistant. Also, the organisation features of our bags make them the perfect companions when travelling and for day to day activities.

How does Kipling keep its designs and collections fun and true to its ‘Make Happy’ philosophy?

We have a strong DNA which we don’t change and adapt to the collections. There is a lot of consistency in the brand message and marketing campaigns. We also have a very loyal design team, they know about the brand and product so there is consistency, which also makes the brand strong.

We have seasonal and permanent collections and exclusive ones so we can be a bit more creative but globally there is consistency in the message.