The Hero Piece: Backpacks

“Dude, everybody’s two-strapping it!”

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Model Steez: The Cool Kid

The first time that I tried to run away from home I laid my hanky out on the floor and then placed a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, a clean pair of undies and a few copies of Mad magazine in the centre, before wrapping it up into a bundle and tying all of this to the end of a stick. We lived in 14th Avenue and by the time I’d got to 9th, the stick was cutting into my shoulder and the bundle had unwrapped. Had I set out on my trek with the right equipment I imagine that I’d probably be writing this from Timbuktu with a Camel Man tan, passport pregnant with stamps and my parents ruing the day that they forced me to take extra maths lessons.

I've learned from my mistakes, so now a backpack is a big part of my life. In high school I had a heavily graffitied Jan Sport, at Technicon I had a canvas Grasshopper fisherman’s bag that I used to keep my bong in and when I moved to Cape Town and reinvented myself as a backpack hip hop head I carried a nondescript black nylon bag filled with nothing more than a CD Walkman and Jurassic 5, Zion I, Aesop Rock, High & Mighty and Blackalicious. Now I’m a grown-ass man and find that I haven’t really matured to whatever it is that grown-ass men are supposed to upgrade to.

Fortunately I’m always learning and Ryan Wuest, Superbalist’s menswear buyer, was only too happy to help. Without me actually asking him his opinion, Ryan turned to me and snapped, “Dude! I don’t get it. You have the shoes, the jeans, everything is cool, and then you go and ruin your look with that.”

He was using his eyebrows to point at my beat-up backpack, which, okay, might be a bunch of different colours other than the one it was originally, a big stain spreading along the leather detail at the bottom of the bag where one of my Tupperware nightmares opened and spilled vegetable soup all over the place. Add to this a broken zip (the other one works fine, thankyouverymuch) and a weird crusty salt deposit from carrying wet wetsuits on weekends and…

Ok, so Ryan is right.

Like Jiminy Cricket will pop up whenever Pinocchio is about to tell a fib and then steer him in the right direction, the tall blonde guy sitting behind me is really good at keeping me honest. He’s a big brother of sorts, a hand that guides, a tall, blonde guardian angel stopping to help each starfish he finds along his way, despite knowing that he’ll never be able to help all of us. And so, having listened to Ryan at length about my baggage crimes, I’ve shared these gems with you, dear reader – so that you might never receive one of his looks of disgust.

“Depending on what you’re looking for there are a few things you need to ask yourself,” says Ryan. “Is this for fashion or something specifically functional? Ideally, you want a backpack that does both. First find something that fits into your aesthetic and then the functionality you require. Carry a laptop; does it fit your laptop? Travelling? Are the straps and is the back padded? And it gets trickier from there.”

But let’s rewind. Simply put, a backpack is a bag with two straps that allows you to carry things while freeing up your hands. That's why previously, they were strictly the domain of hikers and students, allowing them to carry heavy loads, distributing weight equally across the body, and increasing agility and balance.

What many won’t know is that the backpack is one of the few menswear stalwarts that actually predates WWII, and your knuckle-dragging great-great-great-grandfather had a backpack, which was more than likely some sort of animal skin sewn together by a thread which was woven using the same animal’s intestines.

Continuous tweaking has resulted in what we see today, and Ryan goes on to explain that the rise of street fashion has made the backpack more than just something functional – guys and girls are using the backpack to upgrade their aesthetic, in some cases fetishising them like sneakers.

“There’s just so much more choice now,” says Ryan. “Drawstring closure, pressed stud closure, clasp closure, zip… and that’s just locking mechanisms. With the rise of fast fashion there’s been a backlash – now you're looking for something with longevity.”

Ultimately it’s about personal preference and where before dressier menswear would’ve called for a messenger bag, there are no rules these days – so why not work with what works best for you?

Says Ryan: “Why not, if you’re a lawyer, stand out from your peers with a quality leather backpack instead of a satchel? If you dress well, then why wouldn’t you want a well-made, well-executed bag to go with your ensemble? Leather really lends itself to timelessness and extended period of use, and will elevate you and yours from the rest.”

And Ryan’s right, in the same way that you put thought into your sneakers your backpack can make or break a look. That freebie you got when you joined the gym just isn’t going to cut it, pal.

Right now the silhouette ranges from a boxy rectangular portrait shape to soft, casual and unstructured. Premium fabric elevates the common casual silhouette to a luxury level and then on a practicality tip the functional multi-pocket styles in traditional colours like green, browns and greys that hark back to the military are always a winner.

So while my tired version is most definitely out, the ubiquitous backpack is here to stay and all that’s left is for me to choose what I’ll upgrade to. Whether that means an on-point utility look, premium fabric in a classic style, some neat colourblocking, a traditional outdoorsy look or a drawstring duffel style, as long as the backpack is as considered as the rest of my look then I can do no wrong.