Why Backpacks Are The Ultimate Symbol Of Grown-Up Style

I used to lug a purse around like a sucker. Never again.

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I don’t remember my first backpack, but I remember my favourite one. It was pink with Popples on it, and it was almost as big as I was. There’s a photo of me nervously squinting into the sun on my front porch on the first day of kindergarten, hands gripping my backpack like it’s a security blanket.
Because it kind of was. Backpacks were like armour to me growing up, cloaks I used to hide my awkwardness. On the bus in grade school, I’d clutch my pack so I wouldn’t cry when the other kids teased me for being a teacher’s pet (so often). In middle school, I’d grasp the handles of my canvas knapsack to hide my sweaty palms while fumbling through conversations with my crush. In Grade 9, my navy blue Jansport and a roster of baggy sweaters concealed my body’s sudden, surprising curves. That same pack almost covered my stained jeans the day I sat on a banana at lunch. Plus, it contained my arsenal of nervous-girl swag: a novel, a stockpile of pads and tampons, Lip Smackers vanilla lip gloss, and more Trident gum than necessary for someone who was definitely not getting kissed.
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Then, as now, backpacks were the cultural currency of teens. What brand you wore and how you wore it (one-strap, FTW!) said as much about you as who you sat with in the cafeteria. But, in recent years, the high-school staple has grown up. This fall, for every itty-bitty, impractical microbag and hard-to-carry clutch (you’re still cute, Bottega Veneta pouch) is a seriously stylish backpack. Sales are skyrocketing and there are more options than ever — from Gucci’s ornate jacquard hiker’s pack to Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton how-oversized-is-too-oversized grey fleece number (answer: never) to Givenchy’s pretty-bow version. And unlike the bags I wore in my youth to help me blend in, these styles are meant to make people look. Preferably enviously.
Photographed by Nadia Ebrahim.
Refinery29 Canada Deputy Editor Carli Whitwell carrying her Leatherology backpack.
We can thank Micuccia Prada’s covetable nylon packs for taking this trend out of the classroom and into our adult wardrobes. When I was a kid, there were only a handful of different backpack brands available in local department stores — hence the Jansport surplus at my school. I didn’t know fashion designers existed until I saw Clueless as a pre-teen. With my glasses and frizzy hair and $10 weekly allowance (half of which I had to save), I knew I was nothing like rich-girl Cher. But her clothes, and more importantly, her backpacks — the black structural one, the silver mini she wears to take her driver’s test, the fuzzy faux fur white one that Dionne drags — were, to me, the most accessible ticket into her glamorous, adult world. I wanted a designer knockoff I saw in a Delia’s catalogue; I settled for a fuzzy teddy-bear version from Zellers. For about six months, I felt like the coolest girl in the skating arena. For the first time, I saw how an item of clothing could shape how I carried myself in the world (at least to school, soccer practice, and sleepovers). It was my introduction to the power of fashion.
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By my teens, backpacks — fuzzy or otherwise — started to feel babyish. And when I started university, I left them behind, hoping to leave my childhood behind with them. I started carrying a roomy leather tote in a rich brown that felt very East Coast collegiate… even though my school was in southern Ontario. I filled it with earnestly highlighted copies of Stendhal and Marguerite Duras during my undergrad studying French literature; then copies of the Globe and Mail and Marshall McLuhan during journalism school; then, as I moved to Toronto to start my first gig as a magazine staff writer, my recorder and notebook. Over the years, I’d trade up that tote for one bag after another, saving up for the latest Marc Jacobs or Mansur Gavriel because that’s what young editors were supposed to do. I was leaving my condo for work one morning, while juggling my purse, gym bag, and lunch, shoulders aching and jacket bunching, when I thought, “There has to be a better way.”
Fortunately, it was 2017, and the backpack renaissance was well underway. My former security blanket had fresh appeal in the laid-back athleisure era, endearing itself to a utilitarian generation who’d rather carry iPhones than the latest It bag. I could have my pick of high-fashion options like Wang’s Marti or Chanel’s graffiti-print, as well as more chequing-account friendly lines like Vancouver-based Herschel and Montreal’s vegan-leather brand Matt & Nat.

Today, my bag goes everywhere I do. Now, instead of using it as a fashion crutch, it’s the ultimate extension of my personal style.

When a trendy friend recommended I check out Leatherology, a luxury Dallas-based customizable leather accessories brand, I immediately ordered a black version monogrammed with my initials. It was my Goldilocks of backpacks: neither too big nor too small, the perfect soft leather, no showy logos. The fact that I could customize it made it all the more special. But it was more than that too. Slinging on a pack after 20 years of carting around a purse was liberating. The new generation of backpacks are high-fashion, yes, but wearing them is also highly empowering. My inner minimalist feels lighter, unencumbered by the volume of stuff women are expected to cart around in our handbags and, more importantly, unencumbered by the expectation that I indeed have to carry a purse.
Today, my bag goes everywhere I do. Now, instead of using it as a fashion crutch, it’s the ultimate extension of my personal style. My arms are free to gesture wildly during conversations, to hold sweaty hands with whomever I choose. And, yes, there’s still always a novel in there. I know I’ll never be the woman who puts on her heels, grabs her purse, and heads out the door. And I know I’ll never be a Cher Horowitz (as if!). But I don’t care anymore. When I swing my bag over my shoulder on my way to my work, to my friends, to my beautiful, busy life, I never feel more like myself.

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