How a luggage startup still thrived during the pandemic when no one was traveling

September 12, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

Monos, which touts itself to be the only climate neutral-certified luggage brand, is expanding into apparel after growing the brand successfully since its launch in 2019 and through the global pandemic—not just including but especially during the timeframe when hardly anyone was traveling.

Fortune recently spoke with CEO Victor Tam, chief creative officer Hubert Chan, and chief operating officer Daniel Shin—all cofounders of Monos—about pandemic travel and the near future for the travel industry.

Monos cofounders Hubert Chan, Victor Tam, and Daniel Shin.
Courtesy of Monos

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: What inspired you to launch Monos? What makes it stand apart from other luggage makers on the market?

Chan: We started Monos to create the luggage that we were searching for, but couldn’t find. As consumers ourselves, there are three criteria we look for when buying a product: design, quality, and accessibility. Looking at what was out there, there was plenty of cheap luggage with dated design and poor quality, as well as some that had decent design, but the quality was still not there. And of course, we found luggage that had good design and high quality, but the price was way out of reach for most people.

So there were plenty of brands that could hit one or even two of our criteria, but there wasn’t one that could actually hit all three. We knew that we could fill that gap, putting equal emphasis on timeless, thoughtfully considered design and high quality craftsmanship. And by selling directly to consumers, we’re able to bypass all the extra markups of traditional retail, allowing us to price our products very accessibly

The Monos Carry-On and Check-In Medium suitcases.
Courtesy of Monos

Monos describes its luggage to be climate neutral-certified. Can you explain more about what that means and how you were able to achieve that status? What went into the research and development process for designing your luggage?

Tam: As one of the first luggage brands to be climate neutral-certified, we are committed to using our business as a force for good. From the timeless design of our products to the non-profit organizations we partner with, our aim is to tread lightly and have a positive impact on the world around us. In efforts to reduce our waste, we design our products to stand the test of time in both design and quality, ensuring that these travel pieces will accompany you on a lifetime of journeys. We are committed to being cruelty-free by sourcing the highest quality vegan alternatives to animal-derived materials for our bags and luggage tags.

We also choose packaging that is either recyclable or reusable, and ship your goods in the most efficient way possible, reducing the amount of packaging needed and carbon emissions generated. We pledge to continuously explore sustainable ways to protect our planet for many years to come.

Monos Compressible Packing Cubes
Courtesy of Monos

One would imagine that the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns would be detrimental for any travel-related business. But that was not the case for Monos. What were sales like during the pandemic, and why do you think it went that way?

Tam: During the first two weeks of the pandemic, we saw our revenues drop 90%. Most days, we were actually in the negatives due to returns and cancellations. 

However, that didn’t last long, as we rallied our team to pivot and design a new product called the Cleanpod UVC Sanitizer. This timely, highly relevant product did incredibly well for us, and we leveraged the success of this to keep marketing our luggage during a time when all our competitors had stopped. By the end of 2020, we were not only surviving, but thriving, closing out the year with 500% growth over 2019.

Models wearing pieces from the Monos Everywear Campaign.
Courtesy of Monos

When travel seemingly resumed this spring after more Americans received their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine—and the expected summer of “revenge travel” (meaning people traveling as much as possible after more than a year of lockdown and staying home)—did affect business at all? Do you think the Delta variant might affect any plans of yours?

Tam: We did see business pick up, but navigating the travel space right now is like walking on a tightrope. Any sort of optimism and we see a rise in sales, but it’s a double-edged sword. As soon as there’s bad news about variants or outbreaks, we also feel it right away. But what we do know is that throughout the pandemic (even during the height of it), we still had people that fell in love with our brand and were still buying our luggage with the hopes of travel in the future. So we’re optimistic that we’ll be very well positioned when travel does come back in full force.

Monos is now expanding into apparel. What motivated the expansion and what kind of products can customers expect?

Chan: Our Everywear collection started out with us thinking about how travel is a whole-body experience that engages all our senses, and touch and comfort is a big part of that. Beyond just travel wear for long flights and exploring new places, we wanted to create classic, comfy, functional garments that would be equally suited for everyday life at home too, especially now with working from home becoming much more commonplace. We see Monos as a travel lifestyle brand, not just a luggage brand.

And our vision is to expand the definition of travel beyond just the narrow, very literal sense of hopping on a plane or train to go to a new destination. For example, a smell or a taste or a feeling has the ability to transport you to a different time and place too—to us, this is also a form of travel, but in a different way. Beyond just physically moving from point A to point B, travel is as much a personal journey as it is a physical one. And we want to continue exploring these intersections of travel and lifestyle through strategic expansions into new product categories

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.