When Miuccia Prada designed her first understated, utilitarian backpack in the 1990s, it quickly became one of fashion’s most coveted It bags, and helped propel her family firm into a global super-brand. Back then the sleek lines and industrial feel of that sheeny bag bristling with pre-1980s minimalism seemed revolutionary – even if it was based on the sort of practical pieces students, office workers, hikers and travellers had carried for decades. Designed for urban living – specifically the busy lives of women perpetually on the move – those military-grade nylon, leather-trimmed bags with their subtle (but potent) branding were a powerful symbol of an era in which women needed a new, no-nonsense wardrobe.
Thirty years on and the rucksack has been undergoing a stealthy renaissance. At Prada it lives on – in black nylon with grommets (£1,075) or flaps in snake (£1,655) or leopard print (£1,160), and in leather with athletic stripes (£1,240) – reflecting a trend that’s been bubbling up for seasons, as women seek pragmatic bags that fit their frenetic lives. Cross-bodies and pouches, bumbags and backpacks sing to those who don’t want to be weighed down with hefty leather totes or fiddly hobos.
It’s a sentiment Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey pounced on with his stellar spring collection, which includes a highly desirable update on that original Prada bag. Burberry’s The Rucksack (£895) comes in a similar lustrous black technical nylon, but with tan leather buckles and handle, cushioned chain shoulder straps and golden-zipped pouches. Inspired by early-20th-century military kit, it fuses practicality (it’s super-lightweight and shower-proof) with a slam-dunk covetability, especially when embellished – as they were for the Burberry show – with beautiful gilt monograms (£50) by London regalia embroiderers Hand & Lock. Burberry’s spring show (called FunctionRegalia for its mix of extremely pragmatic and British military swagger) summed up a new ease in fashion; Bailey’s trans-seasonal looks – silk slips and gabardine trenches, lace dresses topped with cosy sweatshirts, diaphanous tulle mini dresses and biker jackets – were paired with embellished sandals and those capacious backpacks.
Burberry is not alone in putting the utilitarian bag front and centre. Anya Hindmarch’s spring collection, all clean 1980s shapes emblazoned with the abstracted logos of high-street brands, includes a woven-leather backpack in chalk with blood-red stripes (£1,395) and backpacks with geometric patterns in metallic silver, blue and red (Carrefour, £1,295). There are also smaller bone-leather rucksacks (£895), edged in athletic stripes or perforated with Hindmarch’s smiley faces, which can be further adorned with leather tassels (from £95).
Alberta Ferretti has taken the breezy bohemian spirit of her ready-to-wear and infused it into tan leather and cream crochet backpacks (£755) that can be worn atop her pleated muslin tops or earthy-hued lace slip dresses, while Giorgio Armani takes a more minimalist approach, with perforated monochrome versions (£340) that chime with his youthful, street-inspired collection of slouchy tailoring and sporty separates.
To see how grown up the new rucksacks can be, consider Donatella Versace’s plush offerings this spring: her limited-edition Palazzo backpacks in leopard and jungle camouflage prints (£1,853) are enlivened by shimmering beadwork, fringed chiffon appliqués and sequin embroidery and hang from black leather and chunky chain straps. The bags appeared in the brand’s show alongside camouflage trouser suits in jungle colours and animal-print knits. Even cocktail dresses in cobweb mesh or swirls on crepe were accompanied by dainty backpacks (£2,166) in a shredded silk-chiffon animal print. In one brisk march, Versace’s urban warriors, who stomped out against an industrial cityscape, made the brand feel modern, relevant, youthful. The pieces spoke of exquisitely crafted high-voltage glamour, but there was a new ease and wearability symbolised by those practical bags. “I left my comfort zone,” Donatella admitted after the show. “I wanted to challenge myself, to do something strong. My woman is a traveller and she wants to look perfect wherever she is. The backpack is designed for the way women live their lives today.”
If the rucksack’s renaissance can be attributed to any modern designer though, it must be Alexander Wang, whose agenda-setting label has always pushed forward a street-style inflected look (sweatshirts, jersey tracksuit bottoms and a stream of sleek leather backpacks in a mostly monochrome palette) and made it into an enduring trend that no longer caters only to the hip New York Club Kids who inspired it. Now their mothers are just as likely to snap up his sporty tees and knits and resolutely modern no-nonsense rucksacks, such as the ergonomic textured-leather Prisma Skeletal (£860). In his dreamily pretty swansong for Balenciaga, Wang continued that street spirit, so that satin dresses with feather-light ruffles were topped with cream ruched silk-blend backpacks (£965).
“Wang was key to the revival of the rucksack and that off-duty model look,” agrees Eleanor Robinson, head of accessories buying at Selfridges, where sales of designer backpacks in the second half of 2015 were up 73 per cent on the previous year. “Back then it was quite a young look, but it’s so practical that it’s been embraced by all kinds of women.” For Robinson, the rise of these sporty bags has gone hand in hand with the popularity of fashion sneakers. “The two work well together; you don’t necessarily want to pair a backpack with heels. But if you are wearing Céline slip-ons, it’s nice to streamline the aesthetic.”
There are few brands untouched by the trend: at Michael Kors the simple Rhea backpack (£310) comes in all shades of the rainbow; at Stella McCartney, the Shaggy Deer backpack (£755) is edged in her distinctive Falabella chain trim; and at Fendi, the Monster (£3,130) puts a whimsical spin on otherwise sporty-looking backpacks.
Yet intriguingly the revival of the backpack has long been quietly pushed forward by designers far removed from any catwalks. When Ally Capellino started making her canvas bags in 2003, her typical customer was a graphic designer who needed a padded bag to carry around his tech – which in those days was pretty hefty. “We were designing bags that didn’t look like computer bags, but were used as such,” says Capellino. Now those carrying Capellino’s bestselling waxed-cotton Frances bag (£225) are as likely to be chic young professionals who whizz into their City jobs on bikes or girls who prefer the sporty anonymity of an understated canvas bag over flashier, glossier designer bags. Capellino, whose simply chic backpacks account for 32 per cent of sales, says her designs became even more streamlined thanks to a collaboration with Apple that made her focus on the ergonomics of her accessories. “We had to be very explicit in the use of pockets, what each one was used for and where they were positioned, so we were quite ahead of the curve and still use that knowledge.”
Perhaps most crucial about the rise of the backpack, and the more utilitarian brands that have revitalised it, is its implicit androgyny. Capellino’s customers have shopped across men’s and women’s accessories from the get-go. And at brands like the Montreal-based Want Les Essentiels de la Vie, there are few defining factors between the men’s and women’s bags. At Selfridges – where the ripple effect of Agender, its 2015 gender-bending celebration of fashion, music and design, is still being felt – that sense of androgyny is key to the bags women are choosing. “With younger customers and millennials, we’re finding they don’t really distinguish between mens and womenswear. They’re more interested in the item itself, the shape, cut, the overall design,” says Robinson. “They aren’t hung up on which gender it’s intended for – particularly international customers who shop as a couple. The guy could have a clutch, the woman a backpack and fashion trainers.”
Some of the most covetable new backpacks also possess simple timeless appeal. Take Want Les Essentiels’ beautifully minimalist leather Piper backpack (£695): you could carry it for decades – so long as the man in your life doesn’t get there first.