Backpacks are back—though as a practical way of carrying stuff they never really went away. As any chiropractor will tell you, the human spine can bear more weight than your arms, so it makes more sense to keep everyday loads centred on your back rather than suspended from one shoulder. (The pelvis can carry more weight still, which is why really large rucksacks fasten around the hips as well as the shoulders.)
This is lucky, since a new breed of smaller, sleeker women’s backpacks—typically worn slung low between the shoulder blades—is being touted as a replacement for the handbag, by designers as grand as Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and as sharp-nosed as Alexander Wang. It’s a trend that has steadily gained ground for about three years, and it shows little sign of retreating.
This newer style of backpack carries quite a bit of fashion history between its straps. The two biggest influences both come from the 1990s: grunge, and the knowing, cheesy-preppy style epitomised by Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”. But look closely, and you’ll recognise traits from some more recent successes: sportswear-luxe, Jil Sander minimalism, and the louche, youthful, give-a-fuck attitude that Cara Delevingne, the British model with the eyebrows, has been peddling to major labels for the past five years. All this mixed heritage means there’s pretty much a backpack to suit everyone.
The aesthetic case against them—that they’re either too bulky, too schoolgirlish or too hipster—has been gradually worn down by more design-led variants. At the less glossy end of the spectrum, there are a host of good-looking, practical, canvas-and-leather versions. The androgynous Stig, Bob and Hege styles from the Swedish bag-makers Sandqvist (sandqvist.net; from €119) have colour-contrast straps and a squarer, more structured shape than is traditional. This makes them feel particularly modern, as well as being handy for a laptop. State Bags in America have two contrasting but very successful styles: the Mercer, a pleasingly unadorned, rounded shape in waxed canvas with two bold brass zips, or the bucket-style Smith, sporting a fold-over top fastened with a fireman clip (statebags.com; from $110).
If you’re looking for something to wear with a blazer to the office, the less fussy the detailing the better. The smartest (and most comfortable) styles will sit flat against your back, but can still be held like a handbag should you so choose. Whistles, the British brand with a keen eye for high-fashion trends that will make it into the mainstream, has been doing brisk trade with its backpacks, the best of which is the Portland (whistles.com; from £295). Made in either leather or shearling, in a range of city-friendly neutral colours, it’s both breezy and cleanly designed, with just one, almost square, pocket. And because the leather shoulder-straps are the same width as the looped carry-handle, it’s particularly attractive when viewed from behind—which is exactly when a backpack should look its best.
More streamlined still is the chic, black, almost briefcase-like Caity by a young British designer, Danielle Foster (daniellefoster.co.uk; £470). Its shoulder-straps can be completely unclipped so you can swing it handbag-style, from the crook of your elbow. Just don’t tell your chiropractor.