Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen Made Backpacks Cool, But Can The Rest Of Us Wear Them To Work And Still Be Taken Seriously?

I've replaced my handbag with a backpack because it holds everything I need, but is it okay to wear in most professional environments?
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Publish date:
December 29, 2014
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handbags, accessories, fashion, trends, backpacks, Marc by Marc Jacobs

Ah, the backpack. Before I let my thoughts flow on the newest It Bag, I need to point out that I know people have been carrying knapsacks way before fashion aficionados deemed them stylish. When I refer to backpacks, I don’t mean the utilitarian North Face ones with water bottle pouches on each side, but the fashion backpack -- made of leather or nylon and not meant to be waterproof. They might have gold embellishments or studs, maybe a drawstring. They’re large enough to carry a few books but nowhere near what you lugged around in high school.

When I think of the backpack’s place in fashion, my mind jumps to Prada. Miuccia Prada introduced the utilitarian nylon backpack in 1979, and by the 1990s, the accessory had an established “It” status. I had a feeling the ’90s style would make a comeback back in 2011, when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen debuted their alligator-skin backpack for The Row. With a $39,000 price tag, it was the quintessential fashion pack fit for ladies of real luxury and horrifyingly expensive for the rest of us.

In 2012, Mansur Gavriel entered the scene with a collection of minimalist totes, bucket bags and backpacks that reached It Bag status on the shoulders of Lucky magazine editor-in-chief Eva Chen, Kirsten Dunst, and Emma Watson. Chanel’s Spring 2014 graffiti-style canvas bag confirmed the look’s high-fashion status, especially when it got off the runway and into the hands of all the trendsetting Instagrammers.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t an original fan of the backpack as a trend. It seemed too collegiate and reminded me of being back in school. I associated it with my rural college campus in upstate New York, not a high-rise office building in Manhattan. Out of college for less than two years, I’m still one of the youngest people at work, where most people are in their 30s or older. The last thing I needed was an accessory that made me feel younger than I already felt. Practically speaking though, I kind of needed one.

I come with a lot of baggage. Aside from my wallet and phone, my essentials include a planner, a journal, a stuffed toiletry bag, snacks, a cell phone charger, an umbrella, and a book -- on a light day. The thought of literally lightening my load gives me apocalyptic “what if?” anxiety. What if my contact falls out and I need to replace it? My phone dies and everyone around me has an iPhone 6, not 5? I’m stuck on public transportation with nothing to eat or read? I’m going to worry about not having something on me anyway, so I might as well bring it with me.

My go-to black leather tote was roomy enough to carry all of my usual things but its downside was in the handles -- they were long enough to fit over my shoulders in the spring, summer, and fall, but once my outerwear got really thick for winter, they no longer went past my elbow. After a few uncomfortable weeks of hauling my scoliosis-inducing bag around on my lower arm, I began to shop for a fashion pack. Many clicks deep into the warrens of online shopping, I settled on a quilted, nylon Marc by Marc Jacobs design that I bookmarked until I took the plunge for $200 on Cyber Monday.

I like wearing a backpack more than I thought I would. I can carry around all of my precious belongings without being weighed down. It’s comfortable and secure, so I don’t really care if it makes me feel young. I’m a woman-on-the-go, ready for whatever comes my way. And though I carry it to work, it might not slide in every industry.

My workplace is equal parts technology and creative, so as far as work attire is concerned, anything goes. Plus, I found in my backpack research that Jane Pratt wears one regularly. She told me she mixes high and low -- she’s gotten her last few on the knock-off purse haven of Canal Street (she’s a fan of the bright tokidoki styles), but she’s also coveting the black leather Mansur Gavriel one.

Jane said her pros and cons towards the bag are similar to my own: “The best thing about backpacks: You have both hands free and they don’t hike up one shoulder while walking around.” The downside of the backpack, especially for urbanites? “Having to take the backpack off every time you need to get your wallet and being afraid someone is unzipping it while walking crowded NYC streets.” It’s true, it’s very annoying to take off your backpack when getting on the subway.

I asked a few friends outside of the creative-tech sphere about their stance on the backpack, and they all agreed that it seemed student-like and unprofessional for their jobs. One friend who works at a hospital said that though she doesn’t carry a backpack now, she’ll buy one as soon as she goes to graduate school.

Another who works in the buttoned-up world of management consulting said she’d never carry a backpack to work unless it was the monogrammed corporate one given to her by her company. She works in client services, and her boss thinks it’s especially important for young people to look mature and professional. (In fact, on two occasions he’s taken consultants who came to the office in backpacks to a nearby mall to buy a briefcase.)

Trendy or not, the backpack is a practical alternative to a shoulder bag. But, it still can’t shake its association with school. Does it work for you?