In Conversation With Ralph Thoma & Tim Sedo The Team Behind Émigré Premium Travelwear

Émigré is the new premium travel and lifestyle brand, launching with a collection of bags, apparel and accessories designed to make travel better for global professionals. The collection is created from smart, recycled, natural materials, delivering form and function without compromise, enabling users to move seamlessly between meetings, climates, destinations and locations.

The team behind Émigré are both personally and professionally experienced, being seasoned business travellers themselves and having accrued technical and tailoring expertise at brands including The North Face, Ralph Lauren, Lands’ End, and Crafted Goods.

In this Q&A we meet Tim Sedo (CMO), and Ralph Thoma (CEO) who tell us more about the Émigré vision and the journey for this innovative brand so far.

Ralph, please tell us about the lightbulb moment and how you set about making your vision a reality.

(Ralph) Back in 2018, I owned a bag brand called “Crafted Goods” that specialised in mid-priced military-inspired bags with a Japanese streetwear aesthetic. Recognising a gap in the market for premium bags targeting business travellers, I collaborated with my design partner, Thanh Trinh, to create an elevated collection. The success of this “ultimate” line confirmed the potential for a new brand in that space, leading to the birth of Émigré.

However, just as we were preparing to launch the brand, the pandemic struck, halting travel worldwide. Despite the immense challenges we faced, I remained steadfast in my belief in our brand, knowing that business and personal travel would eventually resume again.

Beyond the obvious business opportunities, there is a deeply personal and meaningful motivation behind the creation of Émigré. My late father, a high-ranking executive at a large US multinational, dedicated his life to constant travel, spending half of the year on planes. Reflecting on his life and legacy after his passing in 2019, I realised how profoundly his journey influenced my own. While I may not spend half the year travelling like him (thankfully!), my experiences studying and working across all five continents over the past three decades have shaped me, and Émigré will certainly continue to keep me on the move for many more years to come.

Tim, from building a network of skateboard shops across China and Shanghai while doing a PhD in Late Imperial Chinese History to your current role as CMO is quite a big change. Please share with us how you made this transition.

(Tim) It’s a long and winding journey, but at its core, it highlights the significance of embracing new opportunities, fostering friendships, and pursuing multiple passions simultaneously. With China at the heart of my dual career, I went to Mainland China and embarked on my PhD studies in Chinese history in 2001, whilst also immersing myself in the vibrant skate scene. This led to establishing ‘Original Heads,’ a youth culture marketing and consulting agency based in Shanghai, bridging the gap between local shops and global brands.

In 2015, I left the comfort of my academic position and ventured into the marketing world, thanks to my network’s introduction to The North Face APAC team in Hong Kong. It was a risk my hiring managers took on me as a “rogue marketer”, and I will forever be grateful for that. While navigating a steep learning curve, I eventually found my footing within the VF Group ranks, holding roles in both APAC and Global offices. During those years I had the opportunity to develop a separate lifestyle-focused vertical within the brand, delving into design and product, merchandising strategy, and retail development.

Joining forces with Ralph and being part of the Émigré brand allowed me to merge my diverse worlds. Ralph’s unwavering vision and refined, intellectual approach impressed me, and collaborating with a talented team of industry veterans to create something new and high-quality has been fulfilling. Two years later, I take enormous pride in our accomplishments.

To this day, many former academic colleagues seek my advice on transitioning out of academia, but I acknowledge that it’s not a conventional path and may not be suitable for everyone. For me, it involved a mix of luck, timing, and the right people vouching for me at the right time. I’ve also learned the value of nurturing diverse interests, as well as the value of friendships and mentors, gained along the way.

And what does a typical day for you involve – if such a thing exists?

(Tim) We are a small team operating across multiple geographies, functioning within a relatively flat organisational structure. With everyone actively involved, we thrive in a dynamic work environment that is “all-hands-on-deck” all the time. I love it though as this setup gives us the chance to contribute significantly to the product and brand across all functions, from initial concept to the end consumer.

However, the nature of a dispersed organisation presents its challenges, particularly when managing different time zones. However, we have devised a seamless hand-off system, ensuring a continuous workflow as one person’s workday transitions to  another’s, enabling our streamlined team to remain highly productive around the clock. Nevertheless, in-person meetings remain unparalleled for maximum productivity.

​​The Émigré product is a fusion of innovative outdoor wear with sharp, contemporary business style. Please tell us more about the design process and how the integration of these two different approaches merge.

(Tim) Our design approach originated from a simple question: Why do traditional men’s work and travel bags typically consist of heavy leather with limited performance? Could we create something equally elegant by incorporating 50 years of material and design innovation from the outdoor industry to make lighter, more performance-driven products? After developing a new proprietary outer shell fabric and rethinking work and travel bags in a more contemporary way, we found the answer was yes.

This success paved the way for our broader design principles, where function and style carry equal importance. We thoroughly assess the needs and experiences of today’s travelling professionals, considering the wearer, occasion, and journey, spanning from daily commutes to long-distance travels. Each Émigré product boasts travel-specific features that address common travel-related challenges, such as lightweight construction with versatile carrying options, multiple compartments with concealed zippers to keep items secure, and breathable, stretchable materials for comfort during extended journeys.

On the style front, we cater to the preferences of our consumers by offering a sleek and minimalist aesthetic across bags, apparel, and accessories. Our range is thoughtfully designed to be “mix-and-matchable”, allowing for effortless coordination across meetings, climates, and destinations.

Describe a typical Émigré customer and how Émigré fits into their life.

(Tim) Our target consumer is a global, travelling professional who embodies optimism, dynamism, cultural curiosity, technical proficiency, ambition, creativity, organisation, networking skills, and a caring, empathetic nature. Above all, they are travel pro’s who travel for work and love the inspiration and opportunities that this creates in their personal and professional lives. Whether self-employed, working for a large corporation, or part of a startup, they navigate various geographies and formal and casual settings, necessitating a versatile and contemporary wardrobe that blends seamlessly and suits their individual style, without being overly ‘trendy’ or overtly ‘technical’.

This is where Émigré steps in—a meticulously curated collection designed for “mix-and-match” versatility, catering to different usage, style, and temperature scenarios. Our aim is to provide a hassle-free solution that effortlessly accommodates their specific needs, enabling them to travel sharp and work smart with efficiency, free from distractions.

Recycled and natural materials are a key feature within your collection, please tell us more about Émigré’s focus on sustainability.

(Ralph) Wherever possible, we prioritise using recycled and/or natural materials that are supported by internationally recognized certifications in crafting our goods. However, we firmly believe that the most sustainable products are those that stand the test of time, which is why our focus is on producing high-quality, long-lasting items.

According to recent reports, 95% of luxury brands enjoyed a positive compound annual growth rate in 2022 and are set to see continued growth into 2023, what are the key trends you expect to see within the luxury retail sector in the next few years?

(Tim) First and foremost, at Émigré, we position our brand as a premium offering rather than a ‘luxury’ brand. For us, premium represents our customers’ willingness to invest in our goods, service, and experience due to their exceptional quality. Luxury, on the other hand, has traditionally been associated with wealth, status, and exclusivity. Émigré prides itself on being an inclusive and accessible brand, operating outside the confines of traditional luxury.

With that said, I personally find it intriguing to observe how the meaning, codes, and status associated with ‘luxury’ are evolving as the category expands rapidly (driven by younger customers, emerging markets, increased online sales channels, the growth of the secondary market, the emergence of new brands, a wider stylistic aperture etc.). The title of ‘luxury’ may be losing its significance, as evidenced by the recent shift towards the Quiet Luxury trend, with more people focusing on overall style and exploring a mix of high and low fashion rather than solely pursuing status symbols.

And how will you continue to ensure Émigré stands out in the marketplace?

Firstly, we focus on how we communicate and ensure that our brand is consistently represented across various customer touchpoints. The business travel segment has often been depicted using clichés such as suits, ties, and exclusive lounges, but the reality is that our dressing and working styles have undergone significant changes, even before the pandemic. Secondly, we aim to provide a cohesive and integrated product range that includes bags, accessories, and apparel, offering a unified and harmonious experience for our customers.

A core aspect of your international marketing strategy are global collaborations, how are these currently playing out and what is in the pipeline?

(Tim) In a market saturated with frequent product collaborations and often underwhelming  ‘hype’ product drops, I believe that customers are seeking more than just another item to collect. They desire a brand that seamlessly integrates into their daily lives and holds meaning and utility. As a result, we prioritise partnerships with trusted and premium entities that already exist within our customers’ travel ecosystem.

Our focus lies in cultivating long-term collaborations with global hotel chains, airlines, members clubs, gyms, and more. This is important to us as it encapsulates the essence of travelling well – discovering new places, people, and cultures, building networks, and nurturing new connections. While some straightforward product-to-product collaborations can add excitement, they are not the core of our approach. We have some exciting projects in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

Premium is highly subjective. What does it mean to you and why?

(Ralph) For me, the term “premium” is closely tied to the quality of our products. We consistently seek out the finest materials and adhere to the highest manufacturing standards to ensure our goods have an extended lifespan.

Finally, what is your life motto?

(Ralph) “Live life fully in the present!

(Tim) “A long way to go.”  It may sound a bit dour to some, but it reminds me that there is always more to do, see, experience and learn. Nothing is ever truly complete. In fact, I believe in this sentiment so strongly that I even have it tattooed on my body!


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