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Bags of style: how the backpack became a fashion essential

They used to be carried by the slightly awkward-looking kids in the school playground or hikers and were much more likely to be sported by men than women. But now, go to any high street, office or packed rush-hour bus and the humble backpack bag is everywhere.

Fashion searches for rucksacks are up 37% month-on-month, according to global fashion search platform Lyst. In the UK the annual amount spent on backpacks has risen every year since 2014 when, according to global market research company Euromonitor International, the retail spend was £112m – it forecasts the 2019 figure will be £219.5m.

“There has been an enormous change in attitudes towards day packs,” says Ralph White, UK managing director of the Swedish rucksack brand Fjällräven.

According to Domitille Parent, product director at Eastpak, a brand that has been making rucksacks for over 40 years, an increasing number of commute backpack buyers are women: nearly 60% of online sales in the UK are made by women, and that number has been rising year-on-year. In the US, according to the market research firm NPD, sales of what they label women’s backpacks are up by 28% in the past year – with New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco the top three growth regions – while sales of men’s backpacks are down.

Of course, it should be no surprise that women are using a style of bag that is practical and – increasingly – stylish, too. But it has taken something of a shift in attitudes for the backpack to find mainstream traction in workplaces – and gender parity. As with many things, Miuccia Prada was a pioneer: when she released a nylon rucksack, made from military parachute fabric, in 1984, it was considered radical. All the other bags around were, she said in a recent interview with Vogue magazine, “so formal, so lady, so traditional”.

In the past, style blogger and backpack-wearer Susie Lau, aka Susie Bubble, has cited the Phoebe Philo effect. As former designer at Celine, Philo led the charge for what many brand “ugly” fashion, from Birkenstocks and clogs to backpacks.

Skipping forward to 2016, Burberry’s monogrammed backpacks were the elevated version that convinced the likes of Cara Delevingne to embrace the look. At the Tribeca film festival last year Sarah Jessica Parker, the woman to thank for sparking many an impractical tiny handbag trend, was spotted wearing a rucksack on the red carpet. On the Prada men’s AW19 catwalk they were worn by Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber, and Chanel’s 2020 Cruise show featured a outdoor backpack.

With many high-fashion brands, from Gucci to Coach, making rucksacks; the mid range of the market seeing a proliferation of more sophisticated designs – from the likes of Herschel to Dr Martens – and more than 400 styles offered on Asos, backpacks have come a long way from the days of Power Rangers or My Little Pony bags.

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