Can a Backpack Be Chic?S

When Eric Rothenhaus landed a gig as director of design at JanSport five years ago, he wanted to make an impression. He would do it by re-creating, down to the seat-belt straps, the very first JanSport backpack (and the first-ever backpack with a zipper) introduced in 1969. Problem: There were no sketches, patterns or even any actual bags available on which to model his re-creation—only a few black and white photographs. But that was all he needed to breathe new life into one of the most iconic geekcessories of all time.

Rothenhaus studied the photographed relics with a magnifying glass to determine the correct proportions. He hunted for large metal zippers identical to those used back then. He found the right type of weathered nylon. He used (now considered extremely inefficient) 30-year-old pattern construction methods. He even recreated the original red and white label.

When it came time to put it all together, Rothenhaus developed prototypes until he felt the dimensions and the design were exactly right. What he came up with was convincing, he told me. "So much so that I fooled the founder." He managed to rustle up one of the original "Ski and Hike" bags, never used but built more than 30 years prior. Looking at them side by side, Skip Yowell, one of Jansport's three founders, couldn't tell the difference between the original and re-make.

Can a Backpack Be Chic?S

It was a proud moment for Rothenhaus. This man is a bigtime geek.

We get it, though. We've been known to geek out over a bag now and again. But the interesting thing this case of geek outery is that Rothenhaus wasn't creating something with the latest fabric technology or a fancy suspension system or special compartments for all your gadgets (though he does that too). He was creating a pack from a time when electronic gadgets were too big to carry around with you.

Rothenhaus didn't stop with that one bag. Despite raised eyebrows directed his way from around the company, he pushed to create a "Heritage" collection, where a slew of the old designs would be re-created. "It was a huge fight," he said. But the line has proven to be extremely popular. So much so that it inspired a high-end "Skip Yowell" collection, dedicated to the founder when he retired last year. "I wanted to make a bag in his honor," Rothenhaus said. The canvas and leather bags cost from $250 to $1,000 and sell out regularly. Ryan Gosling has been spotted carrying them—a designer's dream come true.

Until recenlty, I didn't care how fancy a rucksack was, I thought they were hideous (sorry, Eric!). Form before function, I always say. Then a good friend's fashion-forward leather tote sent her directly to her chiropractor, and into the arms of a conventional backpack. The black rip-stop nylon number with padded suspension straps (her favorite part because the thing bounces softly without jerking her shoulders, whatever) might not be pretty, but she wasn't willing to risk scoliosis in the name of a cute bag.

It turns out backpack designers are constantly struggling with function versus aesthetics. In my rucksack naivite I assumed aesthetics came near the bottom of the list of important things knapsack designers considered. Not true.

The North Face vice president of product Phillip Hamilton told me in an email that function is their number one concern. "What good is a great looking pack if it fails when it is critically needed? Our athletes and consumers rely on our packs to perform under extreme circumstances so we build our equipment to handle these environments for a lifetime." But for things like day packs, designers will make concessions for a style they've got their hearts set on. "We really wanted to provide prints in some nylon daypacks to allow the consumer the choice of a more fun design, but we cannot currently print on nylon so we offered the pack in a durable printed polyester to allow for us to play with the style." They even reference style blogs to make sure their designs are fashion forward.

So I suppose I'm a convert. After perusing various backpack offerings I admit I can envision myself, perhaps at a summer music fest, sporting JanSport's Wayback, in verdant green, please. I also quite like Stars and Stripes. Going retro, it seems, is the best way to attract the fashion set. The North Face is doing it too. If you're going to wear something as classic as a backpack, it makes sense to choose one with an iconic, old school design. Plus, your hands are free! Which is something I wish I would have thought of when I tried to navigate fashion week without a handbag. Though it's still tough to imagine the Wayback at a Badgley Mischka runway show. Perhaps in black?

Uniform is a weekly column exploring the relationship between geeks, fashion and fashionable geeks.

Images: JanSport