Backpacks: A new 'badge' of cool

Back-to-school dreams are designed here, just south of Oakland.

The world's biggest backpack maker, JanSport, designs its megaline here. So does its oh-so-hip sister company, The North Face. The two make almost half of all small backpacks sold in the USA.

Backpacks are no longer just for lugging books and peanut butter sandwiches. Students also pack them with laptops, cellphones and iPods. They've evolved into techno-fashion statements that have to look hip, feel comfortable and hold an ever-evolving array of stuff.

Bagging the right backpack may have passed buying cool clothes as the most culturally crucial back-to-school ritual.

"A bag is a badge. It's a statement of how cool you are," says Alan Krantzler, marketing chief at luxury luggage maker Tumi, which is nurturing a new market with student-targeted backpacks.

Backpacks, which began emerging as an accessory for high school students in the 1980s, have become a $2 billion business with double-digit growth. And they're everywhere: 58% of consumers own backpacks, with 61% of the packs bought on impulse, according to a JanSport survey. About half of sales come in the back-to-school third quarter.

The simple, $15 packs with two zippered pockets are so 1990s. Backpacks now are high tech and high fashion. And high price: Some North Face packs now cost north of $100. Tumi last year offered an uber-cool $695 limited edition with a solar panel to charge iPods and cellphones.

"Backpacks have become command central," says Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When you think about what's in them, they almost serve as mini-mobile homes."

Many students are as emotionally attached to their backpacks as to their favorite jeans or sneakers.

"It's as important to me as my skateboard," says Laura Jabczenski, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Tucson, who has turned her pack into a piece of art with detailed drawings on it.

She skateboards to school with her $150, ultra-personalized Skullcandy Link Street Pack — controlling her iPod appl and cellphone via buttons on the straps. She can operate and listen to both without taking them out of her pack because the straps also have tiny speakers sewn in. "My pack," she says, "is something that defines me."

Many students carry a day pack for school and also have a weekend or evening pack. "We change backpacks the way we change cosmetics," says trends spotter Marian Salzman, co-author of Next Now.

JanSport says about half the backpacks sold are black. But this season, flashy prints and off-the-wall designs have found their way into the mainstream, including JanSport's $35 SuperBreak Chocolate Chip Bubbles pack. It's brown with turquoise bubbles and has been ordered heavily by retailers who already see it as a top seller. Another pack getting buzz this season is the $109 Surge from North Face, which is neon yellow-green.

It's technology, however, that's pushing the design envelope to almost reinvent packs.

"We've moved from the Flintstone era of backpacks to the Jetson era in just a few years," says Mark Treger, marketing chief at Goodhope, maker of G-Tech bags, which sells a $90 pack dubbed The Techno that lets owners control iPods from a five-button panel on a strap.

For many students, a backpack is about more than what they have — it's about who they are.

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