Why the Design of This Iconic Backpack Is Timeless

The Fjällräven Kånken backpack has remained largely the same since 1978 but only continues to grow in popularity. We asked the brand what makes a design outlast short-lived fads and trends.

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September 08, 2020

Even if you’ve never heard the name Fjällräven, you’ve almost definitely seen their iconic Kånken backpack. These simple packs with top-carry handles have been popular school bags since they were first introduced in Sweden in 1978 — so much so that a Swedish art society, Svensk Form, has designated the Kånken as a work of art.

The pack was designed by the company’s founder, Åke Nordin, who read that schoolchildren were experiencing back problems from carrying their books in shoulder bags. He collaborated with the Swedish Guide and Scout Association and built a simple, two-strap bag around two A4 binders with a long zipper, handles and a front pocket. The pack didn’t enjoy global fame until much later, but it quickly became the standard, the practical choice, for young Swedes.

“The Kånken is a very good example of how functionality and simplicity are these very key components to timelessness,” says Christiane Dolva, the company’s head of sustainability. Timelessness drives many of the conversations the brand has about new products as they tinker with designs. “From a sustainability point of view, the most important thing you can do is make sure the product you develop lasts as long as possible,” she says.

It’s hard to say exactly what made this simple pack explode in global popularity, but it’s clear that its simplicity is a huge part of the appeal. The company has added many colors, and even a few patterns, to its lineup, as well as adding laptop compatibility and a few additional sizes, but otherwise, the design for the Kånken essentially hasn’t changed since 1978. It worked when it was first designed, and it still fulfills that need now, more than 40 years later. Its basic beauty invites the wearer to make it their own, with embroidery, patches or pins, says Henrik Andersson, the company’s global creative director, and its simplicity means there’s not much about it that risks going out of style.

“I think what makes products timeless is that they are purpose-driven and that they carry a kind of simplicity,” Andersson says. “We try to solve problems and needs with our products, and I think the best products and garments you have solve a need or problem somehow.”

The Kånken is available in dozens of colors, so even if you find yourself in a group with other Kånken lovers, you can each sport your own style. Fjällräven's sustainability and creative directors say they think color tones commonly found in nature are most likely to stand the test of time.

Putting a smartphone pocket on a pair of pants, for example, is great for right now, but ultimately that design may lose relevancy quickly as our electronics continue to change.

Aiming for timelessness and choosing products you know you’ll love for a very long time is also the best way to make your closet more sustainable: Keep using what you already have, and when you need to replace it, find something that you’ll use for many years to come rather than just a season or two. Dolva talks a lot about an old Fjällräven jacket her own grandmother passed down to her. It’s still in great condition, and it has appreciated over time as Dolva has grown more emotionally attached to it.

“I don’t feel like I’m wearing a jacket from the 70s, it feels super nice,” she says. “But to me, the most important thing is that she kept it. Why did she keep it for all those years? I’ve asked her 100 times—there are so many memories woven into the fabric.”

Durability is a huge component of achieving timelessness in design, Dolva adds. As consumers grow more environmentally conscious and brands add more labels touting their products’ recyclability, eco-friendly materials, low-water usage and more, it’s important to remember that the longer you can use something—and the longer you’re going to love it—the more sustainable it will ultimately be, rather than simply buying something new once you’ve broken, torn or tired of the old one.

“The most important thing we can do is to be super careful about the products we put out into the world in terms of knowing that they fulfill a purpose, that there’s a need for them,” Dolva says.

Patterned Kånken bags are a new addition for Fjällräven, whose packs have long been treated as canvases by their wearers. People often add their own pins and embroidery. The company worked with artists to develop their Kånken Art line, which includes a few smart patterns like this one.

Color can play a role in the long-term relevancy of a design, too. Patterns and very bright colors can go out of style much more quickly than solids and more muted tones. But both Dolva and Andersson have another guess at what can make a color palette stand the test of time: Shades that mimic nature have the best chance at surviving season after season of changing trends.

“I generally think that colors that are prevalent, to a large extent, around you in nature tend to be more timeless,” Andersson says. “As long as the grass is green and the forest is shades between brown and sand and green and the sun is yellow and the ocean is blue—I think that colors you see a lot in nature are timeless in a way. … I think nature is a guiding light.”

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