The search for the perfect backpack

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Take a look at any commuter train these days and something is confirmed again: backpacks are the new briefcases. Over the years, the backpack, or knapsack, has slowly taken over from the more venerable case, especially in more casual work environments. In a way, it makes sense, yet another sign of sportswear’s encroachment on the work wardrobe. But finding a workable solution is a lot less easy than expected, with scalloped designs with excess pockets, zippers, odd colors, all sorts of sizes and styles ranging from mountaineer to lunch lady.

Even as a lifelong backpack fan, I find it exhausting. Too rigid! Too chunky! Too picky! There seems to be no “just enough”. Go too tight, all hunched over the shoulders, and you look like Dora the Explorer; going too loose and sloppy, it all gets a little Dominic Cummings. The question becomes urgent: are you Dom or Dora?

Prada Picnic Backpack, £2,800

Mustard Yellow Acne Backpack, £250

Mustard Yellow Acne Backpack, £250

Troubadour Backpack, £195

Troubadour Backpack, £195

This is not a private dilemma. “Backpacks are a significant part of Mr Porter’s accessories category both in terms of sales and site visits,” confirms its purchasing manager, David Morris, who clarifies that in terms of bag sales, bags backpacks remain the bestsellers. Bottega Veneta, Montblanc and Saint Laurent are all popular, “partly because they offer so many options.” At MatchesFashion, menswear manager Damien Paul says there have been “incredibly strong” sales of “fashion backpacks” from Gucci, Prada and Tom Ford, but “casual/business offerings from Paul Smith, Acne and Troubadour are also doing well.”

Personally, I prefer a standard navy blue model from Eastpak, which I love, but I think I could elevate it. Last week I went to dinner at a swanky restaurant in London, whose interiors have been redone by one of Britain’s greatest artists, and as I hoisted the old bag into the terribly swanky cloakroom, I realized that I could do better.

Bottega Veneta backpack in intrecciato-effect rubberised canvas, £1,810

Bottega Veneta backpack in intrecciato-effect rubberised canvas, £1,810

Prada re-nylon and leather backpack, £1,450

Prada re-nylon and leather backpack, £1,450

Where to start, then? For the FinancialTimesFor menswear critic Alexander Fury, the essential backpack is “still Prada, honestly – it’s a design classic”. This black number (£1,600, prada.com) in sleek nylon is classic and forward-looking (and, yes, incredibly expensive). Fury also endorses a Loewe ‘sling’ backpack in grained calfskin (£1,600, loewe.com). The emphasis is on “very practical – I need an external pocket”.

Loewe Anton sling in Anagram jacquard and calfskin, £1,000

Loewe Anton sling in Anagram jacquard and calfskin, £1,000

how to spend itThe Benjamin Canares fashion editor also has a soft spot for Prada: “For me the nylon styling is the ultimate, but I also love the Louis Vuitton monogram, as seen on their Christopher model (£2,290, louisvuitton .com).”

However, we both realize that when it comes to shopping for backpacks, not all of us have thousands of dollars to spend. “Either you go up or you go down,” advises Canares when it comes to navigating price tiers. “The best backpacks are simple and not hybrid. Say a classic EastPak (£40, eastpak.com), or something super luxurious and minimal from The Row. Typical of a fashion editor, the worst, he says, is “going into the mid-range”.

Gucci backpack with Interlocking G, £1,640

Gucci backpack with Interlocking G, £1,640

Balenciaga Explorer Backpack, £650

Balenciaga Explorer Backpack, £650

Photographer Andreas Larsson is a big fan of Japanese brand Master-Piece, a simple, utilitarian backpack also available in black nylon (£280, mrporter.com). But I’m aware that my own desire for simplicity is made up of contradictions – I seem to want something that’s both elegant and completely unnoticeable. And my attitude is also strewn with frank prejudices. For example, the foldable backpack, to me, often conjures up a kind of Swiss cosplay, where you hike with Heidi in the mountains: but that’s probably no worse than decking yourself out at North Face to do an arduous 35 minutes to get to London.

Masterpiece Cordura Backpack, £190

Masterpiece Cordura Backpack, £190

Paul Smith Mixed Stripe Backpack, £465

Paul Smith Mixed Stripe Backpack, £465

Polo Ralph Lauren leather-trimmed canvas backpack, £215

Polo Ralph Lauren leather-trimmed canvas backpack, £215

And yet, I am almost convinced of it. Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato-effect bag in rubberised canvas does the brand’s classic trick for selling alluring, understated luxury: its mesh rubber rewards extra attention (£1,810, matchesfashion.com). Likewise, Eastpak’s collaboration with Korean high street label Adererror (£200, matchesfashion.com) with its randomly misplaced bits of embroidery adds interest to a classic bag, complete with cute little accents. I’m also won over by a Ripstop Sling Bag (£165, mrporter.com) in recycled canvas by Sealand Gear. Discreet, functional and eco-friendly, it’s been described as the “ultimate urban carry bag” – although its proportions probably wouldn’t be enough to support the number of spare sports socks I accumulate every week.

Inevitably, I turn to bulkier versions of my favorite Eastpak: Porter-Yoshida & Co produce a similar version (£565, mrporter.com) that doesn’t ask unnecessary questions, while Acne (£250, mrporter.com ) serves up something classic with a twist: its black version is understated aside from an extra-wide clip and large silver D-ring.

Sealand Gear Ripstop Shoulder Bag, £165

Sealand Gear Ripstop Shoulder Bag, £165

Tom Ford Buckley Backpack, £2,690

Tom Ford Buckley Backpack, £2,690

Porter-Yoshida & Co Tanker Padded Nylon Backpack, £565

Porter-Yoshida & Co Tanker Padded Nylon Backpack, £565

A few final thoughts. A pocket: essential. Two pockets; fine. Three: danger. A luxe leather model is lovely, but you should probably make sure the rest of the outfit matches. Size is key: you don’t want anything too long and coffin-like on your back, but surely there’s nothing sadder than a chunky little pumpkin straddling you either. The posture of the bag itself is essential: not too rigid, but not likely to bulge like a bag of potatoes. As with so many elements of working life, staying relaxed and flexible is key. Although given how fussy I am about backpacks, that’s probably something I need to apply myself the most.

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