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The Backpacks Are Coming: Why Execs Are Ditching Their Briefcases

Backpacks are storming corporate America, with luxurious business-like versions elbowing out briefcases and messenger bags. Plus: One adamant backpack-hater on why he’ll never convert

By

Jacob Gallagher

Though he hasn’t been in the workplace for long, 26-year-old Miguel Osio has already seen it undergo a strange transformation. Men—businessmen—are carrying backpacks, not briefcases. The New York-based marketing consultant has been startled both by the sheer number of toters as well as their demographic range. “I even see a few older guys, men in their 50s and 60s, commuting, getting off the subway in their suits and ties with their black Tumi backpacks,” said Mr. Osio, who carries a brown Tumi backpack himself. A briefcase, he mused, used to confer legitimacy on its owner, but that staid symbol of corporate success seems to have lost its mojo. “I’ve worked in very traditional, conservative companies, and the formality [of a briefcase] seems impractical,” said Mr. Osio. Once, a snooty receptionist would have presumptuously redirected a backpack wearer to the mailroom, declining to buzz him in. But there’s been a shift in what constitutes a boardroom-worthy bag, and backpacks are assuredly in the game.

Enter an office elevator in any city, and you’ll spot nearly as many backpacks as tightly gripped Starbucks cups. While besuited businessmen haven’t entirely abandoned briefcases and messenger bags, the backpack is gaining ground. According to NPD, Inc., which tracks retail trends, sales of adult men’s backpacks have grown steadily in the past two years. Sales of that segment increased 5% to $864 million between August 2016 and this past August, representing 48% of the entire U.S. backpack market.

Backpack, $2,250, Bottega Veneta, 800-845-6790; Backpack, $3,695, brunellocucinelli.com; Backpack, $1,150, us.burberry.comPhoto: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Jill Telesnicki

Driving that uptick, in part, is the backpack’s evolution into a higher species of bag. “Men’s backpacks have gotten more executive,” explained NPD analyst Marshal Cohen. That means fewer sad-sack shapes in cheap polyester and more finely crafted designs in sumptuous leather. “Backpacks have evolved from utilitarian and technical versions, from brands like Oakley or Victorinox, to ones that are [more upscale] in leather, or a mix of fabrication,” said Mr. Cohen.

Many are as dignified as the Swaine Adeney Brigg attaché that Sean Connery carried in 1963’s “From Russia With Love,” but unlike 007’s boxy briefcase, they won’t spritz tear gas into your adversaries’ eyes. Across the board, labels are crafting backpacks built for the C-suite: supple suede rucksacks from Brunello Cucinelli; fashionable yet functional flip-tops from Milan’s Bottega Veneta; and safari-styled leather-trimmed bags from Ghurka.

At Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, white-collar shoppers are scrutinizing backpacks in much the same way men must have studied briefcases in the 1950s and ’60s, and messenger bags in the 2000s. “The backpack has exploded as the go-to accessory in the man’s wardrobe,” said Roopal Patel, the senior vice president at Saks.

Sure, she said, some of this growth can be traced to the rise of dress-code-allergic startups and a more casual attitude about business attire overall. But whether you’re an executive or an intern, a backpack suits the densely stacked schedule many men now face. “We think about how a man is living his everyday life,” Ms. Patel said, describing the thought process behind the store’s selection of bags. “We look at functionality: Does it fit his laptop and workout gear—how about a water bottle?” A briefcase can get you to the office and back, but what if you have tennis at 8 a.m., meetings all afternoon and ceramics class at 7 p.m.? A backpack, she added, better targets a modern man’s needs.

Backpack, $645, haerfest.com; Backpack, $540, mismo.dk; Backpack, $995, shinola.comPhoto: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Jill Telesnicki

And while carrying a briefcase leaves you with a single free hand—a hand unable to simultaneously text and funnel caffeine down your throat—a backpack schleps all your stuff and equips you to furiously multitask. “I need my hands free to be able to communicate,” said Adam Patrizia, 38, a New York-based chief innovation officer at a hospitality startup who converted to the backpack faith five years ago. His current olive-and-black number from Colorado’s Topo Designs allows him to fire back an email—unlike the Want Les Essentiels tote he used to carry. And what of shoulder bags, such as Filson’s tobacco-tan messenger, which once sat alongside raw-denim jeans and flannel shirts at the apex of Americana cool? Mr. Patrizia’s pat response: Sling-bags “no longer look the part.”

Evidently, the backpack does. What’s more, innovations in construction have made it a lighter, more comfortable option to carry. New companies, such as Denmark’s Mismo, New York’s Stuart & Lau, and Portland’s Tanner Goods, use waterproof materials, lightweight strap designs and soft anatomical panels to ensure carrying ease.

During their former lives as investment bankers at Lazard in London, Sam Bail and his friend Abel Samet had the idea for Troubadour, a six-year-old British backpack label. “Guys would come into work in a nice bespoke suit with a backpack that was in stark contrast to their suit in its look and quality,” said Mr. Bail.

They developed a waterproof Italian-leather model—strategic since backpacks often jut out from men’s backs beyond umbrella range. Contact points, the spots where the backpack hits the body, are cushioned by a molded back panel and memory foam straps that rest cozily on the shoulders.

RATED G FOR GROWN UP “It’s no longer about black or brown leather backpacks,” said Saks’s Roopal Patel. “Men have so many options to choose from.” Here, eight handsome choices. Backpack, $1,095, ghurka.com; Backpack, $595, troubadourgoods.com Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Jill Telesnicki

When you’re picking out a boardroom-appropriate backpack, common sense should prevail: Avoid loud color schemes or cartoonish emblems that will lead your co-workers to think you grabbed your toddler’s bag for the day. Sophisticated minimalism should rule.

Consider, too, the way you wield your new corporate accessory when entering the office or a meeting. Rather than lugging his backpack in as if he’d just exited the Appalachian trail, Mr. Osio takes it off and holds it by the straps. That way he avoids the ungainly flailing of his arms on the dismount.

The same advice applies when you’re in an elevator, or any other close quarters where, whipping around, you might take out a bystander’s eye with an errant toggle. Trust us, your fellow journeymen will thank you. Just before they compliment you on that great new backpack.

5 REASONS I’LL NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER WEAR A BACKPACK

A holdout—and devotee of cross-body bags—vents

1. A backpack is incredibly awkward to access when you’re on the move. Need a cough drop halfway through your subway commute? No problem: It only takes five short minutes to wriggle out of your practical fashion accessory and unzip it. The two or three professional contortionists I know swear by their backpacks, but then they’ve always been showoffs. It’s as if someone decided men should store their wallets on the bottom of their shoes.

2. Wearing one is like being nine-months pregnant, only backward. The massive growth extending from your shoulder blades will not, however, grow up to be your pride and joy and graduate from an obscure liberal arts college with a daring student film called “Resonances” under its belt and a mere $139,000 in student debt. It’s just, you know, a backpack. Unwieldy. Protuberant. Given to knocking children’s milkshakes off Dairy Queen counters when you spin around abruptly.

3. It costs more than you’d think to buy a decent replacement milkshake—or rather dozens of them. Money better spent on a nice, discreet, graceful cross-body bag.

4. I prefer to come by my muscle strain and poor posture honestly Half the guys I see with backpacks just sling them over one shoulder like a supposedly unhealthy bag. So much for the design’s ergonomically superior weight distribution.

5. I’m Canadian. Which means Americans look at me weirdly when I reflexively call a backpack a “knapsack” as I did back in Canada in eighth grade when I studied “Industrial Arts” or, as you call it, “Shop.”

—Dale Hrabi

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