On my first day as an editor in the London office of the FT after 15 years in New York, I arrived in what had been my standard Manhattan workday uniform: dark suit, no tie, rucksack hanging off one shoulder. As I found my desk and sat down, a new colleague spun around in his swivel chair, pointed at my bag (now dumped on the floor) and said, “Does that thing have Disney characters on the inside?”
He was – mostly – kidding but the subtext was clear: that rucksacks are for schoolchildren, not grown men in suits. He may have been on to something. But I just could not see myself as a briefcase man.
It turns out I am not the only one. Indeed, an entire market has grown up to cater to those adults among us who like to carry their work on their back, leaving the hands free to hold, say, a broadsheet newspaper, not to mention preserving their musculature by not being weighed down on one side.
Still, I accepted the point that perhaps my particular rucksack, purchased from a hip East Village emporium a few years ago, was not the best for someone who wants to be taken seriously in the City or during an important interview. So I decided to test what’s available, at settings from the school gates to the office.
Beginning with the most attention-getting rucksack, Gucci’s black convertible number (£2,430). At 42cm high and 50cm wide, it is so large that a few people compared it to a giant leather bin liner. In fact, it is less a rucksack than a very large bag with detachable straps. As I dropped off the children for school, a pair of mothers stopped me and gave it an inspection worthy of the guards on the US-Mexico border, examining its inside zip, skinny straps and spring hooks.
“You’re going to get mugged wearing that thing,” one said.
The mothers had clearly spent more time thinking about such issues than I had, and they helped me identify the bag’s shortcomings: first, it has no zip at the top – there is a single spring hook instead – so you would not want to carry anything too valuable in it on a crowded street; second, it is so deep that all your belongings sink to the bottom. On more than one occasion I found myself dropping to one knee and rummaging through it to find my keys. Moreover, according to the mothers, it looked like a woman’s bag – and had many of the problems that they experience with their own bags.
Still, the leather was nice.
More practical was Cote & Ciel’s Isar Rucksack Twin Touch Grid (£255). The model I tried had padded leather shoulder straps, and the side that touches your back was soft and very comfortable. Ergonomically, it was the best bag in my test samples, with well-cushioned compartments for a laptop or iPad. But it had two drawbacks: even on a cool night, the bag seemed to generate heat, and my back began to pour with sweat – the result, I assumed, of all the padding that made it so comfortable; and because of the shapeless exterior bag, I found myself again down on one knee, searching for my work ID.
Like the Gucci bag, Louis Vuitton’s Michael NM rucksack (£2,030/$3,600) drew a crowd. Part of this was because of its bright blue leather (the brand calls this colour Neptune; it also comes in black). But its logos and custom detailing also screamed “designer bag”, and everyone wanted to express an opinion about it – with many saying that the very notion of such an expensive, high-end rucksack was absurd.
It was hard to argue, but nonetheless the Vuitton was surprisingly practical. It had a small zipped compartment on the outside, making the knee-drop search unnecessary: keys, ID and coins slip in and out of it easily. It had a padded compartment for a laptop. And because it is so compact, and the leather so stiff, papers and magazines stayed upright and did not get as crinkled as they did in the more formless bags. The main problem, aside from the snide commentary, is its weight; the leather is relatively heavy.
So it was a relief to come to a bag that drew no comment at all – even at home, where my backpack trials were being monitored closely. This was Ally Capellino’s iGor (£350/$590), which has a low-key black waxed cotton exterior and a pair of small exterior compartments (though I would have preferred to close these with zips instead of leather straps and buckles). It also has padded compartments for laptops, iPads and cameras. It was very soft all over, and hip in a way that did not announce itself.
Even more low-key and practical was Mulberry’s Henry backpack (£450), the only sample to win approving comments from my male colleagues. Made of textured nylon, it is very lightweight and up to the challenges presented by a rainy day with multiple meetings and a Tube strike. Your laptop or iPad will be safe and dry here.
Still, the Mulberry highlighted the fundamental dilemma of the office-friendly rucksack: while I had told myself that my choice of bag was all about practicality, it made me realise that I actually did want my rucksack to register somewhere on the cool spectrum, and the Mulberry did not. It would not be out of place in a meeting with a government official – yet the goldish-tan colour of my sample reminded me of the interior of my grandfather’s old Buick.
I came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation of the rucksack. Most of the new bags are far more comfortable than anything I’d used before – even my old East Village bag – and well suited for carrying devices. More importantly, I felt I could successfully argue the proposition: you don’t have to be a student to carry your work on your back.
Christopher Grimes is the FT’s analysis editor
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