The search for the perfect backpack
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Glance on any commuter train these days and something is confirmed anew: backpacks are the new briefcases. Over the years, the rucksack, or knapsack, has slowly taken over from the more venerable case, especially in more casual work environments. In one sense this is logical, yet another sign of sportswear’s encroachment of the working wardrobe. But finding a workable solution is far less easy than expected, with designs festooned with excess pockets, zips, strange colours, all kinds of varying sizes and styles that veer from mountaineer to lady-who-lunches.
Even as a longstanding backpack fan, I find it exhausting. Too stiff! Too squat! Too fussy! There seems to be no “just right”. Go overly tight, all hunched up on the shoulders, and you look like Dora the Explorer; go too slack and sloppy, it all gets a bit Dominic Cummings. The question becomes pressing: are you Dom or Dora?
This is not a private dilemma. “Backpacks make up a large proportion of Mr Porter’s accessories category both in terms of sales and visits to site,” confirms its buying manager, David Morris, who says, in terms of bag sales, rucksacks are still the bestsellers. Bottega Veneta, Montblanc and Saint Laurent are all popular, “partly because they offer ample options”. At MatchesFashion, head of menswear Damien Paul explains that there have been “incredibly strong” sales of “fashion backpacks” from Gucci, Prada and Tom Ford, but “casual/business offerings from the likes of Paul Smith, Acne and Troubadour are doing equally well”.
Personally, I favour a standard navy-blue model by Eastpak, which I love, but I do feel I could elevate it. Last week I went to a dinner at a smart London restaurant, its interiors redone by one of Britain’s leading artists, and, as I hoiked the old bag over to the terrifyingly-chic cloakroom attendant, I realised I could do better.
Where to start, then? For the Financial Times’s men’s fashion critic Alexander Fury, the essential backpack is “always Prada, honestly – it’s a design classic”. This black number (£1,600, prada.com) in sleek nylon is classic and forward-looking (and, yes, unbelievably expensive). Fury also approves of a “sling” backpack by Loewe in grained calfskin (£1,600, loewe.com). The emphasis is “very practical – I need an external pocket”.
How To Spend It’s fashion editor Benjamin Canares is also partial to the Prada: “For me, the nylon style is the ultimate, but I’m also fond of the Louis Vuitton monogram, as seen on their Christopher model (£2,290, louisvuitton.com).”
We are both aware, though, that when it comes to buying rucksacks, we don’t all have thousands of pounds to part with. “Either go high or go low,” advises Canares when it comes to navigating price points. “The best backpacks are simple and non-hybrid. Say a classic EastPak (£40, eastpak.com), or something super-luxe and minimal by The Row.” Typical of a fashion editor, the worst thing, he says, is “to go mid-range.”
Photographer Andreas Larsson is a big fan of Japanese brand Master-Piece, a simple, utilitarian backpack that’s also available in black nylon (£280, mrporter.com). Another easy, no-frills design comes from Bennett Winch in a supple-looking leather (£875, bennettwinch.com).
Yet I’m aware my own desire for simplicity is couched in contradictions – I seem to want something both stylish and completely unnoticeable. And my attitude is also dotted with frank prejudices. For instance, the fold-over knapsack, to me, often evokes a kind of Swiss cosplay, where you’re hiking with Heidi in the mountains: but that’s arguably no worse than decking yourself out in North Face to make an arduous 35-minute commute into London.
And yet, I am nearly persuaded. Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato-effect bag in rubberised canvas does the label’s classic trick of selling seductively discreet luxury: its latticed rubber rewards extra attention (£1,810, matchesfashion.com). Likewise Eastpak’s collaboration with Korean street label Adererror (£200, matchesfashion.com) with its stray bits of random embroidery add interest to a classic bag, with lovely little accents. I’m also taken by a Ripstop Sling bag (£165, mrporter.com) made from upcycled canvas by Sealand Gear. Discreet, functional and eco-friendly, it’s described as the “ultimate city commuter bag” – although its proportions probably wouldn’t cope with the number of spare gym socks I weekly accumulate.
Inevitably, I just gravitate towards more souped-up versions of my favourite Eastpak: Porter-Yoshida & Co produce a similar version (£565, mrporter.com) which poses no unnecessary questions, while Acne (£250, mrporter.com) serves something classic with a twist: its black version is unobtrusive apart from an extra-large clip and a big silver-tone D-ring.
Some final thoughts. One pocket: essential. Two pockets; fine. Three: danger. A luxe leather model is lovely, but you should probably make sure you have the rest of the outfit to match. Size is vital: you don’t want anything overlong and coffin-like on your back, but then there’s surely nothing sadder than a squat little pumpkin straddling you either. The posture of the bag itself is key: not too rigid, but then not liable to flump like a bag of potatoes. As with so many elements of working life, remaining relaxed and flexible is the thing. Although considering how fussy I’ve turned out to be about backpacks, it’s probably something I most need to apply to myself.