Given that the oldest backpack ever discovered dates back to roughly the same period as the earliest known uses of the wheel, putting a name to the bright spark who invented it is a tricky business. What we do know is that, in the time between “Ötzi the Iceman” setting off on his doomed trek through the southern Austrian Alps with a primitive, wooden-framed carrying device, and Giorgio Armani presenting a crocodile-skin rendering of the same basic principle in its autumn/winter 2015 collection some 5,300 years later, the backpack has come a long, long way.
Much of the ingenuity behind its evolution can be attributed to the military – the first external-frame “knapsack” with hip belt was patented in the US by Major Henry C Merriam in 1878 – but now, it’s the world’s more ingenious menswear designers who are turning what were once purely practical items into genuinely stylish accessories. More than that, we’ve now reached an era in which an array of backpacks can even be deemed boardroom-friendly.
Take the Dunhill Chassis (£825), for example. Made of carbon fibre-printed cowhide with gunmetal-finished hardware, elegant top flap and buckle strap and two phone pockets, it would be as much at home in the modern oak-panelled conference room as Major Merriam’s creation would have been in the officers’ quarters in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The same goes for the Arlington (£398), a tanned leather, equestrian-style rucksack – the larger version of which fits a 15in MacBook – from upcycling company Lost Property of London, as well as Giorgio Armani’s deerskin and cuoio leather backpack (£1,850) with rolled closure, and Ermenegildo Zegna’s grained calfskin backpack (£1,000) in black with chevron lining, internal padded compartment for laptop and pockets for smartphone and charger. London craft leather-goods company Troubadour’s stunning offering (£1,325) is also large enough to fit a 15in laptop, while remaining as boardroom friendly as PowerPoint and muffins.
Yet opinion remains divided as to whether a backpack – of any style – should be worn in the formal corporate environment. “Any piece of luggage you have to carry on your back can cause your suit to sit badly and ruin the drape,” says Jeremy Kirkland of Hong Kong’s menswear clothier The Armoury. “So we would always recommend a gentleman’s briefcase.”
Italian tailor Luca Rubinacci would seem to agree. “A gentleman should hold a bag for day-to-day use and wear a backpack at weekends,” he decrees. Others suggest a convertible backpack is the way forward. “Porter from Japan has some nice three-way briefcases [about £440] that can be carried either as a briefcase, shoulder bag or backpack,” says Mats Klingberg, managing director of London independent men’s outfitters Trunk Clothiers. “As you approach work you can take the backpack off and convert it to a smarter-looking briefcase.”
Harry Beattie, owner and co-founder of online menswear outfitters Opumo, advocates a similar solution. “Traditionally, backpacks and formal suiting shouldn’t be paired, but the exception to this is when a bag blends backpack functionality with the elegance of a briefcase,” he says. “The Courier Ruc Case from J Panther Luggage Co (£610) allows you to turn up to a meeting with a briefcase and go home with the comfort and convenience of a backpack without compromising on style.”
However, Olie Arnold, style director at Mr Porter, embraces an all-out, straps-on-cashmere approach. “In recent years, the backpack has evolved from schoolbook bag to a luxury accessory fit for the boardroom,” he says. “It works best on those who prefer a contemporary look – so opt for a slim, minimalist, leather backpack. The trick is to use it only for essentials – laptop, smart device, notebook and so forth – and avoid overpacking. Gym kit belongs elsewhere.” Specifically, Arnold recommends Maison Margiela’s full-grain leather backpack (£800) and Shinola’s grained leather Runwell (£815), which shares its name with the Detroit brand’s popular wristwatch.
While there’s no clear consensus on the subject, concerns about the drape of one’s suit being compromised by a backpack – more than it is, say, by a bag with a shoulder strap – are valid, but can be allayed by a few simple rules: pack light, set the straps even in length, check them regularly, and there’s no reason not to take the plunge.
Meanwhile, if your company boardroom happens to be of the beanbags-and-foosball variety, with a casual-smart dress code to match, Alexander McQueen’s studded backpack (£1,195) fits into an edgier work look (check out the skull zip-pulls), as do the Gucci Signature (£1,250), with its intricate heat-debossed pattern and padded interior iPad sleeve, and the Brooks England Pickwick (£205) in water-resistant cotton with leather trim. Equally at home in the trendy start-up milieu is Ampl’s SmartBackpack (about $299), which – once it’s ready to ship to customers (slated for next year) – will power and protect gadgets on the go, with an app showing the charging progress inside without the need to even open a zipper.
Dolce & Gabbana’s Sicily backpack (£1,300) made of jute canvas reinforced with calfskin and Matt & Nat’s Dean (£140) in olive are ideal for dress-down office cultures during summer months, while the new autumn/winter 2016 version of Berluti’s Horizon (£2,150) in calfskin is perfect for work environments in which any hint of formality is anathema.
Backpacks have clearly reached a new apex stylistically, and now seem as suited to the boardroom as they once did to the barracks.