NEW YORK, United States — Two decades ago, it was a simple backpack that first placed Prada squarely on the map, helping to launch the brand as both a fashion empire and a household name. These days, backpacks are mostly associated with the campus culture of schools and Silicon Valley technology companies. But lately, the eminently practical carryalls have re-emerged in the high fashion context, as a street style staple and a retail sellout once again.
Miuccia Prada’s famously understated backpack — made from the same functional, waterproof nylon used by the Italian army for its parachutes — took years to catch on. “No one wanted the backpack because it didn’t scream luxury,” Mrs Prada recalled to Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, in 2006. Indeed, though it was originally introduced in 1984, it wasn’t until almost a decade later that the simple black nylon bag achieved ‘it’ status, retailing for $450 and inciting a worldwide craze for all things Prada.
“I think it’s honing in on a moment. People are becoming more mobile, riding bikes and on the move.”
By contrast, today’s fashion backpacks are often openly luxurious. The Row made headlines for its patchwork fur ($16,900) and alligator ($34,000) rucksacks. Lanvin is currently proposing an iridescent calfskin backpack, while luxury men’s e-tailer Mr Porter stocks a $5,550 crocodile backpack by Santiago Gonzalez, son of handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez.
“The backpack in the past read more casual,” says Tomoko Ogura, senior fashion director of Barneys New York. “But as fashion designers introduced the style in luxurious materials, they attracted a new customer.”
Gucci, Saint Laurent and Christopher Kane have all launched their own fashionable backpacks, rendered in calf hair or leather, and retailing for north of $2,000. This fall, Raf Simons debuted his fourth backpack collaboration with Eastpak (more reasonably priced at around $300 apiece). And Junya Watanabe went so far as to create an entire Spring 2014 men’s collection inspired by backpacks.
Meanwhile, Alexander Wang’s $975 Marti backpack “is a classic style in their collection now,” Ogura says. And Phillip Lim recently introduced an $895 backpack version of his flagship Pashli handbag.
“It’s the one shape of bag that crosses all of the brands and price points, from contemporary to designer,” points out Sam Kershaw, Mr Porter’s accessories director.
Backpacks are also selling fast.
“They are having a real moment,” says Phillip Lim. “Both men’s and women’s styles are selling well. We can’t keep them in the stores.” Adds Humberto Leon, co-founder of Opening Ceremony: “Backpacks have always sold for us, but there does seem to be more traction nowadays.”
Daniel Silberman, co-founder of New York accessories label Illesteva, which recently introduced a line of backpacks, relates a similar experience. “The response has been incredible,” he says. “They sold out on our online store. We decided to launch them exclusively with Barneys — we shipped two weeks ago and they have already reordered the backpacks.”
“It’s become a staple, just as important as a messenger, a holdall, etcetera.”
Comfort and ease of wear are key to the backpack’s success. “I think the effortlessness of the backpack makes it attractive,” says Leon. “It is so easy — carry and go.” As LN-CC creative director John Skelton points out: “Backpacks distribute the weight best and are therefore the most comfortable bags to carry.”
Photographer Tommy Ton, who collaborated with Club Monaco on a backpack last year, agrees: “It’s just more comfortable to carry a backpack as opposed to carrying a handbag. Life is just easier commuting and running around with your arms free. It’s the most essential item I use to travel and go about in my daily life. Everything fits perfectly inside a backpack.” Echoes Kershaw: “With many [backpack] models, you can fit a laptop, tablet, wallet, keys, you name it.”
“I think it’s for sure honing in on a moment. People are becoming more mobile, riding bikes and are on the move,” adds Lim.
In fact, Ogura asserts that backpacks have transitioned from mere trend to long-lasting wardrobe essential. “We believe the backpack has transcended the original hype because of its functionality,” she says. Kershaw agrees: “It’s become a staple, just as important as a messenger, a holdall, etcetera — and it’s really found its place by being functional and utilitarian.”
Opening Ceremony has been stocking backpacks since the store started, Leon notes. “For Carol [Lim] and I, backpacks are more of a necessity than a trend.” Skelton agrees: “If I’m honest, I can’t say this is a trend. We will always buy backpacks.” Needless to say, backpacks “are not going away anytime soon,” Kershaw says. Or, as Leon puts it: “Forever backpacks.”