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BY DESIGN : Leaders of the Pack : Shoulder the load with whimsy. Imaginative carry-alls tote a lot of individualism into a monkey suit or a pair of wings.


Backpacks have become the fashionable alternative to purses this season, inspiring designers from the house of Prada to fledgling street-wear labels to come up with interpretations that reflect the individuality of its wearer.

While tiny black satin packs and ones made of exotic skins have been welcomed by the well-heeled, the funkier, usually more affordable versions have endeared themselves among the young and eclectic.

The rule: the more unconventional the better. Apparently, no fabrication is passed over as designers cut packs from long-haired faux fur, patterned velour, metallic vinyl and even colored Astroturf. Teens and twentysomethings are raiding the Sesame Street and Disney stores in South Coast Plaza, or their younger sibling's closets. A young executive might tote her Day Runner, pager and Evian in the secret compartment of a fuzzy monkey on her back.

These aren't those utilitarian canvas carriers for hauling schoolbooks or hiking equipment. But they still serve a practical purpose.

"It's become an important fashion item because it's much more convenient and lets your hands stay free," says Herbie Velez, owner of Pop Icon in New York. "No one can snatch it off you without a struggle, and that's something to consider in a nightclub or a big city."

And they don't compare to fanny packs (remember them?), which--outside an athletic setting--never seemed to look right on anyone. "Backpacks are a lot different because you can make more of a statement with them. There are so many styles to fit (from) casual to elegant," Velez says.

Pop Icon was among the first to market the kiddie-style Mr. Friendly backpack to adult ravers at the turn of the decade. Accessories and images relating to children have long appealed to the rave culture. That childlike items such as Mary Janes and flowery barrettes have found a wider market among fad slaves this year has helped make backpacks, especially whimsical ones, into wardrobe staples.

Velez followed with "Mr. Tuff," a vinyl knapsack that resembles a washing detergent box. Sporting a Pop Icon pack once meant you had bagged it at the Big Apple, but this summer the goofy backpacks went nationwide. They will not appear at your local mall, warns Velez, but only cool, exclusive shops, such as Polyester in Laguna Beach.

Club deejay Sean Perry began wearing a Mr. Friendly four years ago to carry his water bottle, keys, pictures, headphones and 45 singles. To his spin gigs at the Empire Ballroom in Costa Mesa and Dragonfly in Santa Monica, he now carries a vinyl pumpkin-orange pack his "ultra-stylish" roommate gave him ("It's way too trendy for me," he quips).

Perry, 26, sees backpacks as almost a requisite accessory in the club scene.

"It's always been more out of practicality than fashion," he says. The advent of the trend, however, draws on "both those reasons."

Indeed, it's this balance between function and fashion that makes backpacks an inherently '90s item in a decade that continues to be dominated by retro rehash. (Reports from Milan to New York hail the return of World War II-era glamour for spring '95.) Boots might recall the '70s, a dress the '30s and a hairdo the '60s, but the wild pouch in zebra velveteen is undeniably of this era.

What's more, they're favored by men and women. Black Flys of Costa Mesa manufactured backpacks from new, vintage-inspired upholstery fabric for its mostly male, snowboard clientele.

"We thought we'd do it for (guys)," says owner Jack Martinez, "but the girl's market just picked up on them. Now we can't keep them in stock."

"It's a '90s thing now," confirms Dana Harvey.

To satisfy a custom order for a pair of angel wings a friend needed for an event, the Costa Mesa designer cut a pair from quilted vinyl. The response encouraged him to produce more for his Angel Boy label.

"Conceptually, it's kind of a liberating thing--growing out of your purse, getting your wings and then flying free of any restrictions," Harvey says. "With a backpack, you just throw it on and go."

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