Chris Hughes is in the process of building a magnificent backpack.
His is a classy backpack, made from English bridle leather, sewn right here in Omaha. It’s a classic shape, modeled loosely on a backpack once issued by the German military. This is not a backpack for schlepping books across campus or over-stuffing for a weekend road trip (though it’s capable of those tasks, too). It’s a backpack for grown-ups, the sort of backpack he can imagine a young professional wearing as he or she walks or bikes to work.
“Nothing would please me more than to see someone riding down the street on a European-style bicycle in a pin-striped suit with one of my backpacks on,” he said.
Hughes, the founder of Omaha’s Artifact Bag Company, expects the backpack — which will come in two sizes — to be available yet this fall. He’ll sell them on his website, alongside the American-made canvas-and-leather tote bags and lunch sacks that have put his young business on the map.
Hughes, who opts for classic, timeless styles in both his personal fashion choices and in his designs, didn’t intend to launch a new backpack in the midst of a backpack renaissance.
“My brand isn’t necessarily about fashion,” he said. “It’s about making a quality product.”
But now, as much as any time during the past 20 years, backpacks seem to be having a moment.
Backpacks are always ubiquitous this time of year. Entire sections of Target and Sears are dedicated to backpacks. They’re on commercials and back-to-school advertisements and slung across the shoulders of both kindergartners and college students.
This year, though, they’re also for sale at Urban Outfitter, Forever 21 and other trendy stores, in floral canvas prints and, often, in smaller sizes reminiscent of the purse/backpack hybrids that were wildly popular back in the 1990s, such as the one that Elaine carried everywhere during the last few seasons of “Seinfeld.” On the higher end of the price spectrum, Coach offers several styles similar in size and shape to Elaine’s trusty bag. Elizabeth and James makes a sleeker, more elegant version that’s made of leather and retails for nearly $500.
At the Old Market men’s clothing and accessories store McLovin, a $250 canvas-and-leather backpack was a strong seller during the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting, said owner Seth McMillan. A less expensive backpack that retails for $100 has also seen strong sales, he said.
Both are designed to carry devices like laptops and iPads, which McMillan believes is part of the modern backpack’s draw. And for someone who lugs a laptop around all the time, a backpack distributes the weight more evenly than a messenger bag.
“No one wants to carry two messenger bags,” McMillan said.
McMillan wonders if at least some of the customers who seek out backpacks are also wanting to look a bit younger.
College students buy many of the messenger bags he keeps in stock. But the men who buy his backpacks are often older. He estimates that many of his backpack buyers are between 35 and 50 years old.
Of course, kids still wear backpacks, too.
At Kohl’s department stores, tween and teen girls went for canvas styles with trendy prints, say florals or polka dots. Boy’s styles tended toward the skater look — checks were especially popular this back-to-school shopping season, said Sofia Wacksman, vice president of trend for Kohl’s.
And they’ve remained popular with 20-somethings, too.
“I live in Dundee, where the ’90s is well and alive, and the hip girls roll through Dundee with high-waisted shorts, canvas shoes and tiny backpacks,” said Caitlin Little, who manages Flying Worm Vintage’s Westroads location.
The Flying Worm has stocked a few vintage backpacks over the past few months, she said. At the mall, she’s noticed a lot of teens sporting both vintage and reproduction ’90s backpacks, which to her makes sense.
“I think it’s kind of the perfect teen-to-adult purse,” she said.
Little, who at 27 is old enough to have owned a ’90s-era small backpack in the actual ’90s, has thus far resisted rejoining the backpack bandwagon.
“I kind of hate everything about the ’90s,” she said. “When the kind of hipster culture started reclaiming the ’90s with, like, ditzy-printed sun dresses and high-waisted mom shorts, I was just, ‘Oh no, this is terrible,’ ” she said.
But she’s been tempted by backpacks all the same. The hands-free aspect is nice, she said. She recently found herself admiring a simple black-and-white number at Forever 21.
Time will tell if the backpack resurgence will stick around or is just a passing phase.
Hughes is hopeful for the former. His backpack will be an investment piece, the kind of bag that looks better with wear and age.
“Making an all-leather backpack using American materials, that’s not a cheap date,” he said.
McMillan, too, believes in bags made of quality materials. He’s carried the same thing to work each day for a decade.
It’s not, however, a backpack.
“I prefer to carry a briefcase.”