BACKPACKS THE NEW BASIC

Byline: WENDY HESSEN

NEW YORK--While backpacks have long been a staple for the mass market--particularly for the back-to-school cycle--their presence now extends through all levels of retailing. A variety of price points--from alligator versions sold at luxury retailers to promotionally priced nylon styles at more moderate stores--have become a mainstay of store assortments.
The challenge from now on will be to sustain consumer interest. Many vendors think a constant onslaught of novelty fabrics and varied sizes will do the trick. Others believe in new functions, such as backpacks that convert from one shape to another. Regardless, most makers agree that the pressure's on them to be creative while keeping an eye on price.
"Everyday backpacks are here to stay," said Carol Hochman, president of Liz Claiborne fashion accessories. "It's the function, not just fashion. Women really enjoy having their hands free. It's very liberating."
For spring, Hochman said the focus is on new fabrics and treatments to entice consumers into building their backpack wardrobes. The assortment includes brightly colored nylons, leather metallics and canvas bags with sneaker bottoms.
"The new fabrications keep the line looking fresh and will draw customers to the floor," Hochman added.
She noted that the mix in the category has broadened dramatically, even replacing such strong silhouettes as buckets and drawstring styles, to some extent.
In the future, Hochman said the company would concentrate on creating new versions of backpacks that retain the original function, yet offer additional versatility--styles that can convert to a shoulder bag, for instance.
As for the competition from retailers at both ends of the price spectrum, Hochman said the presence of backpacks at all levels of retailing "just puts pressure on manufacturers to be more creative and offer the same functions at their own price points."
Carlos Falchi, owner of the firm bearing his name, agreed with Hochman, saying, "Backpacks now are so utilitarian and part of fashion that they've ceased to be fashion; they are just as essential as a wallet or shoes."
Falchi said the category is evolving, with different materials, like colored patent leather and macramé straw, which he will use for spring, and with slimmed-down and lightweight styles that can be carried as slings or backpacks.
He said the sling, the backpack's closest competitor, has been particularly popular with women who are still hesitant about carrying a backpack, noting, "It's halfway between a handbag and a backpack."
Joel Pinsky, president of Shleppers, a division of Omega Fashions Ltd., called the rise of backpacks "explosive," noting that they account for 10 percent of sales in the Shleppers line, which focuses on function-packed bags for working women and includes features like drop-front organizers and concealed, portable umbrellas.
"In order for backpacks to retain their popularity and position as a mainstay, they have to stay functional," Pinsky said.
For spring, he said, Shleppers will offer more variety in silhouettes and materials. Teardrops and triangular shapes will be made in everything from leather to nylon and even rubberized fabrics, all in keeping with the firm's moderate prices.
Higher-end firms are also registering gains by adding backpacks to their assortments.
Paula Cozzi, accessories designer for Bally, noted that backpacks, once "kitschy items," have become staples in women's wardrobes, having replaced briefcases, in many instances.
"More and more executive-level women feel just as comfortable carrying a backpack with a Chanel suit now as they once did carrying a briefcase. It's not just a weekend item anymore," Cozzi said.
Bally usually includes backpacks in each of its seasonal fashion groups, and will have three daytime styles for this spring.
"Previously, backpacks were mostly back-to-school items, and they have clearly grown into a year-round category because of the fashion injection," acknowledged Abe Chehebar, chief executive officer at Accessory Network. "The ever-expanding range of fabrications, sizes and different functions have only served to further catapult the business.
"Backpacks do well because, for many, they aren't a fashion purchase, but a use purchase, with consumers looking for the best styles in their price point that meets their needs," he said.
In addition to materials like printed canvas, nylon and leather, Chehebar said Cordura--an industry term for a type of very heavy nylon, which the mass market dabbled in this year--has "tremendous potential for 1995 back-to-school."
Also key for Chehebar next year will be the fact that the L.A. Gear brand is going mass market, which he said presents a great opportunity for his firm because it's sporty, colorful and print-driven, in addition to being a recognizable brand name.

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