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Catching Up With the Pack : Accessories: The once-rugged, utilitarian backpack finds itself more and more in polite company.


Backpacks, once sported by hikers, rock climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts, have come down from the mountain and scaled the heights of fashion.

They're a must-have for kids heading back to school. Women are carrying them instead of purses to parties, dance clubs and malls. Backpacks are even going to work--especially on casual Fridays.

Some of the latest fashion-conscious backpacks scarcely resemble the functional canvas knapsacks from which they originated. They come in all kinds of materials, including wild faux animal furs, bright patent leathers, pastel satins, colorful vinyls and clear plastic. Some are adorned with fluffy ostrich feathers. Others have emblems featuring cartoonish characters and designer logos on their flaps.

Backpacks have become such a fashion staple, they are now part of many designers' collections.

Lissa Zwahlen--designer for Roxy, the women's junior sportswear division of Quiksilver in Costa Mesa--has created funky backpacks out of leopard fur and laminated fabrics. For spring '96, she'll introduce backpacks made of plastic-coated florals and big red, white and blue gingham checks.

"They have an early '70s American-pie feeling," Zwahlen said.

Some of her backpacks are functional, such as the floppy denim bags with the big pouches that she calls "Beach Baby." Others are more for show, such as her Chanel-style backpack in quilted black nylon. Roxy is carried at Huntington Surf & Sport in Huntington Beach, Hobie's in Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar and other surf and specialty shops.

"We try to cover the fashion-conscious girl and the girl going to school," Zwahlen said.

Many carry backpacks for the same reason hikers do: They free up the hands.

"Finally, a girl can carry the things she needs without being encumbered," Zwahlen said. "She's liberated. She can go dancing without leaving her purse. They're practical."

And, backpacks are unisex; some guys are carrying them instead of briefcases.

"I use my backpack to hold everything. I don't want to carry a briefcase so I can have my hands free," said Stephen Keefe, merchandiser for Urban Outfitters at The Lab in Costa Mesa.

Guys are more likely to choose a simple backpack made of solid-colored nylon. Unlike backpacks used for hiking, these usually come without a lot of little pockets.

Urban Outfitters' backpacks come mostly in solid colors such as copper, navy, black or forest green. One flap-style for women comes in shiny satin ($36).

"They're real simple," Keefe said. "Some have flap closures with a snap and some just have a zipper. They have really clean lines."

For fall, Merrilee's in Huntington Beach has backpacks in patent leather, clear plastic and suede, including Roxy's fuzzy fake lamb's wool in cream or black ($32).

"They started making backpacks more stylish, with really cute patent leathers, and people began using them as purses," said Suzanne Selleh, a sales representative for Merrilee's.

Backpacks come in all sizes. There are big, banana-shaped backpacks large enough to carry a load of books. Tiny, impractical backpacks have also been hot. Some are little satin pouches hardly large enough to hold a lipstick.

"People aren't necessarily looking for function," said Christine Austin, manager of Accessory Lady in the Brea Mall. Accessory Lady's backpacks come in all materials and colors, with plaids, animal prints, and solid gold, ivory, silver, cranberry, brown and black strong for fall ($20 to $100).

Backpacks can also be worn for evening as well as day, said Valentin Siroon, manager of Privilege in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. Among the styles suited for a night of club-hopping are the satin drawstring pouches in white, pink and baby blue ($78). Some have fluffy ostrich trim.

"They're a fashion statement," Siroon said. "Backpacks started with the younger fashion victims, but it's moved on."

For those with sophisticated tastes, Privilege has backpacks of fine calf's skin leather ($135 to $195), as well as patent leather bags in white, turquoise, red and black ($68 to $120).

"They're easy to wear and easy to carry," Siroon said. "They're very safe because they're always on your shoulder. You don't put them down."

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