Backpacks: A new 'badge' of cool

Jill Lin, a senior at the University of California, Irvine, recently went into the campus bookstore and spent $84 for a Mobile Edge Milano bag that has special pockets for her iPod, laptop and cellphone. It also has a faux crocodile skin — and a small, pink ribbon that shows her support for breast cancer victims.

"It's a fashion statement," she says. "I want it to be practical, but I want it to express myself."

Nike's new $200 Considered canvas and rubber pack is marketed as being made in an eco-sensitive manner. Nike's onto something — its pack sales are up 22% this year, spokesman Dean Stoyer says.

Super school sales

No pack maker owns back-to-school as JanSport does. The company won't specify how much business it does this time of year, but it's "a burdensome spike," says Ann Daw, the marketing chief. She'd prefer balanced sales year-round.

"We sell more packs in a week than most companies sell in a year," boasts co-founder Skip Yowell. JanSport has sold 25 million of its best-selling SuperBreak pack since 1979.

At the front of JanSport's design department sits the "Inspiration Board." On it, designers have pinned products, samples and what-nots picked up in world travels. A polka-dot swim suit from Japan. A funky T-shirt with a tree shaped like a guitar from Europe. A pair of flashy flip-flops from Asia.

Pack designs can come from anywhere. A cloth furniture sample brought back from Europe last year by R&D director Paula Kosmatka was turned by graphic designer Mariah Peters into 2007's hit: the brown bag with turquoise bubbles.

"It will follow me to my grave," jokes Peters.

Image is everything. Perhaps no one knows that better than North Face designers. North Face designs student backpacks as hiking packs, not just book bags.

"Our stuff says, 'Hey, I'm in touch with the great outdoors,' " says Robert Fry, product manager.

But students tend to twist those outdoorsy designs to their own uses. The compression straps dangling from the bottom — once meant for sleeping bags or pads — are used by a few students to cart yoga pads around campus, says Wade Woodfill, product director.

Lots of gimmickry is used to sell backpacks. But above all, students now want techy tweaks to their packs. A private place to put the iPod. A pocket for the cellphone. A padded spot for the laptop.

"Students try on backpacks like they're trying on clothes," says Bill Gargano, program coordinator at the Florida State University Computer Store.

Hot and happening

Here's what's hot in backpacks:

•iPod holders. Most packs now have them. Many also have portals that ear buds can fit through so students can use their iPods while wearing their packs.

•Cellphone pockets. Manufacturers have had to shrink the size of these pockets as cellphones have shrunk. Some companies, including North Face and Tumi, are placing cellphone holders on a strap for easy access.

•Padded sleeves for laptops. Students want better protection for their laptops. "If you dropped a backpack on the ground in the past, there was just a book inside," says Alex Parra, buyer for the University of Utah student bookstore. "Now it needs to protect your laptop."

•Techno tricks. Want to answer your cellphone while listening to your iPod, without opening your backpack? Skullcandy's Link packs let folks do that by touching a button on the strap. Other buttons on the strap can control iPods.

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