Backpacks have come a long way. They have left the great outdoors, graduated beyond the gap year, and flocked into the city.
Just about every third bag in a London tube carriage is a backpack. They have replaced briefcases, overtaken the messenger bag in the affection of cyclists (better for a laptop), subsumed the satchel fad. Backpacks are convenient: the word itself folds at the midpoint, its two halves meeting in rhyme.
Like skinny jeans or certain brands of trainer, the backpack has achieved a kind of cultural convergence. It is worn by all social groups, standard issue for bus drivers, backpack rappers and the mayor of London. Owing to its fitness for impromptu travel and feats of heroism, it is the bag of choice for Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and also for whistleblowers: as seen on Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Julian Assange. (There are 14 directions relating to backpacks in the script for The Fifth Estate.) You are never too young for a rucksack. Prince George is nine months old and he owns a kangaroo-with-joey one. I’m not sure this is what Jack Kerouac meant when he called for “a rucksack revolution”.
According to the market intelligence firm Euromonitor, the value of backpack sales in the UK has grown every year since 2008: last year they were worth $107.8m (£62m). In the US, in the same period, the market grew by 44%. The fashion e-tailer Asos stocks 412 styles – because these days, there is a backpack for everyone.
At the forefront of this development is a Canadian brand called Herschel Supply Company. If you don’t know the name, you will know the rucksack.
It has clean lines, a neatly domed peak. Its zips don’t gnash: they have smart, tan leather pulls. Herschel bags, like Fjallraven, Sandqvist, Eastpak and others, come in colours and patterns that talk nicely to your outfit, instead of shouting it down with technical fluorescence. Inside, they are lined with stripes – favourite motif of the preppy outsider – or paisley patterns.
To unpack the story of this one brand of backpack is to travel to the heart of early 21st-century consumerism. Herschel has grown rapidly. Its sales rose by 900% between 2010 and 2011, and by 350% the following year. It is sold in 50 countries and worn by people as diverse as Zac Efron, Seth Rogen, Raekwon, Cressida Bonas and Tego Sigel, editor of youth magazine RWD, who happens to be walking down London’s Bishopsgate. Perhaps he can explain why these bags are so ubiquitous.
“Herschel is pretty cool. It’s probably the top backpack brand.” He lists its advantages. “Very subtle minor detailing. Decent price points. Obviously branded, but not in an obvious way. It’s a post-Kanye West thing,” he shrugs. “I can make music on the go, create on the go.”
At 28, Sigel is the perfect age to be retrieving memories of carrying Jansport or Eastpak in the 1990s, when those brands dominated British school playgrounds. “No,” he says. “It’s always been Nike, Herschel.”
But Herschel has not “always been” at all. It appears that way, thanks to a piece of brilliance by its founders. Sensing fashion’s hankering for heritage, they invested the brand with a sense of history at its inception. The company is only five years old, but its bags look familiar, as if they have been around for ever. In a way, they have.
Herschel Supply Company was founded by Lyndon Cormack, along with his brother Jamie. Their earliest designs modernised nostalgic shapes and details (those tan leather trims) with fashionable colourways. “That’s exactly what we do,” he says. “To look back, see how things were created, dissect the process of the originals, but do it in a modern way.
“We buy a lot of product. We have our own sewing studio. We dissect a lot. When we see vintage product at market, whether it was used to climb Everest or an old fashion piece, we look with great interest.”
Herschel takes its name from a small town in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada, where the Cormacks’ grandparents lived. With its backdrop of steep ravines, big game and buffalo berry bushes, this isolated village has supplied the Cormacks with a history to turn into a commercial story.
Ando Fallshaw, co-founder of the website Carryology, which takes bags as seriously as its name suggests, has watched the growth of Herschel. In the early days, he says, the brothers “would talk about what their grandpa did. They’ve made people read into the brand what they want to read into it, and they’ve done that brilliantly.”
Fallshaw is right that the story of the Cormack ancestry recurs in interviews and write-ups. This narrative tic has a visual equivalent. The sense of tradition is stitched on to each bag in the form of a diamond-shaped badge that is as recognisable as a logo, as shared and uncopyrighted as history. This diamond, which is usually cut in leather and bisected with two vertical slits, is not the mark of a single brand – although to look at Herschel bags, you could be forgiven for mistaking it as one – but of heritage.
“Early mountaineering bags had them all over,” says Fallshaw. “You could pass webbing through them, and lash things on to your backpack.” The lashtab, to give the diamond its technical name, has become as familiar an urban motif as a subway sign. Fallshaw, who lives in Melbourne, has even spotted them on T-shirts and caps. The lashtab is a symbol of survival and adventure, broken frontiers and improvised heroics. But more than all of those things, it is the seal of history.
It is strange, this conjunction of nostalgia and adventure. After all, a backpack suggests its wearer is breaking new ground. The OED dates the first reference to “knapsacks” to 1603, when the English poet Michael Drayton imagined soldiers filling them with things found in the field. Maybe that is why rucksacks are immortalised in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (goody-goody Julian carries a style similar to Kerouac’s army model). And in the statue of Edmund Hillary in Mount Cook village, New Zealand. Perhaps it also explains why Katie Holmes wore rucksacks after she left Tom Cruise.
In keeping with this sense of exploration, Herschel has bags called “Settlement”, “Claim”, “Little America”. Rucksacks fit with the popularity of beards, hacking jackets, hiking boots, selvedge denim and Nordicalia, all of which are beloved of men in east London. (Many of the popular brands, such as Fjallraven, which has sold three million Kanken bags worldwide, and Sandqvist, are Swedish.)
“The advertising of menswear is full of metaphors for exploration,” says Caroline Cox, a fashion historian. She has noticed boutiques decorated with maps; exploration motifs and accessories – hiking sticks, etc – in menswear shoots. “This whole survivalist thing is going on,” she says. “All these references to rugged outdoor masculinity. The suit and tie – the guy who caused our global collapse – are our nemesis.”
A backpack used to indicate a person who had time to take things in. But if you stand on Bishopsgate, at the edge of London’s financial district, and ask all the men striding past when a rucksack became acceptable money-making attire, they answer over their shoulders. “In a rush.” “Can’t talk.” “Got to get to work.”
For women, there is also a high fashion motivation for adopting the rucksack, derived from the trend for luxury sportswear. Style blogger Susie Lau, AKA Susie Bubble, cites Phoebe Philo’s work at Céline, which has turned even the uglier end of sportswear into luxury. “The rise of trainers and slip-ons, the Birkenstock … Certain designers are shifting our perception of chic,” she says. This season, for instance, you can buy a Chanel backpack for the perception-shifting price of £2,245.
Perhaps, too, people are nostalgic for the late 1990s and 2000s, when backpacks were last in fashion. Back then, new technology began to take hold, and we were all venturing into uncharted domains on something called Internet Explorer. And why shouldn’t a backpack take you there? After all, a rucksack is always looking behind you. It is built for retrospection.
Backpacks are fashion’s expression of the 21st-century obsession with “the journey”: with a rucksack you’ve never arrived, and at any moment might decide to leave. That may be why the backpack appeals to many A-listers, who once liked to arrive at airports with a heap of high-tariff luggage, and now prefer to turn up, like David Beckham or Rihanna, hauling a solitary backpack.
There is a photograph on the Herschel Supply Company website that pulls the viewer into the world of the brand. It is a landscape of Machu Picchu in Peru. Clouds cling to the mountains. Sun hits the foremost peak. It beckons the observer to step into an image that recalls the work of the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who based his work on long hiking trips. This is not a fanciful connection. Like rucksack wearers, Friedrich’s figures are often seen from behind, which is why they are known as ruckenfigur. (“Rucken” means “back” in German, hence “rucksack”). “They’re a device, like a bridge or a roadway,” says Joseph Leo Koerner, who teaches art history at Harvard. He wrote a book on Friedrich and, as a child, used to walk beside his artist father, huge canvases strapped to his backpack.
“I am leafing through a CDF drawing book and there are knapsacks on some people. The idea of wandering, especially wandering through a beautiful natural setting, had a metaphoric meaning. We are travellers, wanderers of the world – to take on board and experience and live through that fact of being creatures in time, marching before death.” With a backpack, you are always just passing through.
A rucksack turns its wearer into a ruckenfigur, the unknown person in a landscape, in communication with the forces of nature and time – even if the landscape is central London, New York or Melbourne, and the journey is the daily commute. That is because a backpack is part practical solution to an everyday problem, part escapism. It is at once egotistical and guarded, advertising an interesting life while disguising its details.
Of course, there are many kinds of storytelling. Lyndon Cormack says he and his brother came up with the idea for Herschel Supply Company because they “did not feel there was a very compelling story being told about bags”. He gives examples of other brands with compelling narratives. “I love Apple computers. I love Nike. I love Converse.” He mentions Charles and Ray Eames’ lounge chair, which seems a long way from a Herschel backpack. “I love the storytelling nature of utilitarian product.”
I’m curious to know what bag Cormack was carrying when he came up with the Herschel idea, but he doesn’t know. How about when he was a child? Perhaps, like Koerner, he has a formative memory. “To tell you the truth, I can’t remember.”
So what is the Herschel story then?
He takes a breath, begins his retelling. “Back in 1906 my great-grandparents moved from Scotland to Canada through the homestead programme. Where my grandparents ended up settling was in a little town called Herschel, of 30 people. My grandfather grew up there. My father lived there. We as kids got to go back there all the time. Just used to wander the hills, shoot bottles, maybe the occasional gopher.”
Since the last census, and the story’s first telling, the population of Herschel has dwindled to “about 23”, says David Neufeld, a Mennonite minister who moved there 28 years ago. Neufeld, who helped found In Ancient Echoes, an interpretive centre in the village, runs through Herschel’s charms. “A very quiet place. A lot of songbirds. We have quite a collection of ancient salt sea fossils. Very good productive soil.” There may also be the odd Herschel rucksack: the company donated some to a silent auction held to commemorate the village’s centenary.
“Actually, they contacted us for some background material on Herschel,” Neufeld says. Perhaps they needed to, to tell their story better.
There is nothing new in brands creating heritage, claiming a name, a title for their story. After all, the villagers of Herschel did exactly that, in 1911. “Perhaps because of the magnificent, clear skies,” Neufeld says, “the early Anglo-Saxon settlers named it after the Herschel family of astronomers.”
It’s a big story to telescope into one bag. But that’s the thing about rucksacks. You can pack a lot into a small space.