Durability and functionality used to be the traditional key selling points of backpack manufacturers. But faced with new trends in the usage of backpacks in recent years, some of them have shifted to a different sales pitch. As laptops lost weight, they migrated from laptop bags to backpacks, which then became multi-purpose and captured a new clientele. Backpacks are no longer confined to schoolboys and girls and globetrotters, they are now also carried by the corporate crowd and creative professionals. As these “new” backpackers regard durability and functionality as mandatory characteristics, they look at receiving non-material benefits such as style and design.
These days Johannesburg sees a dynamic, recognizable wave of young professionals, students, commuters carrying stylish and sophisticated backpacks. Some are in full genuine black leather with small details standing out, such as beige strappings or flashy plaques; others are colourful with corduroy or canvas fabric and minimalist, sleek design.
There is a sense, as this trend takes off, that adopters are using all spaces available to place a statement about who they are, what they stand for, where they go. Some are using the backpack as a space for experimenting or edging their style, others just want to reflect their mood or fortune of the moment.
Undoubtedly, this is a trend poised to grow and change the SA urban landscape.
Firstly, it is gaining traction and winning adopters among a diverse range of audiences, from the busy streets of Braamfontein, where university students, flamboyant hipsters and artist sensations congregate, to the tree-lined alleys of Illovo, the hub of tech entrepreneurs and corporate executives.
Secondly, many backpacks are handmade by independent artisans, self-taught designers. With an overwhelming ambition sparkling in their eyes, they say their deep knowledge of what’s shaking and moving Johannesburg streets, helped them fill a void in the market.
Combining style, flexibility and sturdiness is precisely Mike Newman’s mission.
He is a young entrepreneur who sees himself as a pioneer. He launched a handful of backpack lines and a handbag line late 2014. He prides himself for labelling his products “Made in South Africa” and making them entirely by hand, in his apartment, located in the heart of the CBD (Central Business District). He relies on word-of-mouth for promotion and sales. Each product is carefully handcrafted, each order is delivered in person, and each sale is the beginning of a relationship with a customer.
As I am following him across Maboneng, one of Johannesburg’s most vibrant and trendiest neighbourhoods, he takes a call from a client who happens to be shopping for groceries nearby.
A few minutes and a short encounter later, we are at the corner of Commissioner St and End St, Mike lets the customer go with the last available item from one of his backpack lines. “It’s about mutual trust” he says, “she owns a beauty salon and apparently the handbag she bought the other day is a sensation among her clients. She will come back with orders from her customers. I will have to react fast”.