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Sleek, designer carry-on bags

As travel changes, carry-on gear is becoming a business opportunity for handbag and luggage makers. Here are six sleek options you can take on the plane.
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As summer travel season approaches, the hottest accessory for airplane passengers isn’t a new pair of noise-reducing headphones or a chic eye mask for the red-eye. With airlines like United and American charging for a second checked bag, and travelers bracing themselves for flight delays, the must-have is a carry-on bag that’s functional, stylish, and can fit more than a couple of magazines and a quart-size.

“Folks don’t want to check bags anymore,” explains Steven Jacaruso, C.E.O. of LeSportsac. “We’re all trying to maximize our time, and rather than waiting a half hour to receive your bag, [if you avoid checking] you can just leave. Also, you can spend significant dollars on something only to find it damaged. And there are the horror stories you hear about losing your bags.”

To meet customer demand, carry-ons have become roomier, lighter, and more fashionable. Handbag makers are offering luggage-like pieces and finding that they sell well; meanwhile, luggage companies are bringing a stronger sense of style to their lines.

In March, Victorinox Swiss Army launched a new version of its popular Werks line that is substantially more spacious and less heavy. Tumi has reengineered one of its iconic lines, the Alpha Collection, to reduce its weight by almost 20 percent. Both companies’ current pieces include an abundance of pockets to accommodate necessities such as a laptop, cell phone, and MP3 player, as well as clothing.

Handbag makers are providing options for travelers—particularly women—who prioritize style as much as function. “Just as a woman’s handbag is a very important part of her identity, so too is her carry-on bag a reflection of her personal style,” says Tim Schifter, whose company, Schifter & Partners, includes carry-ons from its L.A.M.B. line of handbags and leather accessories. L.A.M.B.’s ample totes and duffels, released seasonally, are essentially giant versions of its handbags, featuring identical leather, details, and hardware.

Brooklyn design team Hayden-Harnett introduced a generous travel tote, the Ibiza, in 2005. Priced around $200, it quickly sold out and has become one the company’s top-selling styles. With interior and exterior pockets, a weekend’s worth of packing space, and padding for electronics, the Ibiza’s hip but low-key design works on city streets and in the airport. “The idea was, People don’t want to take that many bags with them when they travel,” explains Ben Harnett. “This is a great way to take a bag that serves multiple purposes.”

Many luggage makers are finding that the designer touch is good for business. Key pieces from LeSportsac’s collaboration with Stella McCartney began to sell out even before they hit stores this February in spite of a price tag of over $400 for a wheeled carry-on—quadruple that of the company’s typical bags. Since Nautica founder David Chu joined Tumi last year, women’s sales have tripled, thanks to the introduction of new, more stylish pieces like a lime-green leather tote and a range of lightweight bags in bright yellow nylon.

“There seems to be a lot more design within the luggage industry than there ever has been in the past,” says Victorinox Swiss Army’s Maure Scholl. “People are not seeing it as a black box anymore.” To reach those customers, her company has begun to offer its Werks bag in fashion colors, like lavender and pink, each season. Web retailer eBags, for which 30 percent of sales is carry-ons, is doing well with bright, patterned wheeled suitcases from JanSport and ultra lightweight hard-sided bags that come in colors like kelly green and hot pink.

“People want to travel in style,” Schifter says. “It’s not enough for the bags to be stylish and chic—they also have to be functional. If you give the customer the mix, that’s the ultimate product.”