When Jansport introduced their heritage line in 2010, it was a signal to the industry that heritage had made its way to the outdoors market. The backpacks that were once synonymous with the collegiate and back-to-school market was looking back to its roots as an outdoors brand. Kelty, the 50-year-old company followed suit with the launch of its Vintage line in 2011. But as many trends go, its origins were traced back to a small group of fanatics.
Outdoor enthusiasts were rediscovering mountain climbing companies like Chouinard, Gerry, Holubar Mountaineering, and Yak Works to name a few. A network of sites devoted to the outdoors like Oregon Photos, Cold Splinters, and Basecamp Vintage chronicled these brands and celebrated the lifestyle. Smaller labels that went out of business in the 1980s were revived by enterprising individuals. Rivendell Mountain Works, a label that came back into production in 2008, prides itself on being a small scale company. Much of its early success was due to overseas interest, primarily in Japan.
Vintage backpacks were sold and traded at a premium in secondary markets, while books were published as catalogs in Tokyo. A collectors market emerged and flourished into a scene similar to that of sneakers but with less documentation. Many brands came and went with little recorded evidence of its history. Though still young, the collectors market is gradually growing.
We went in search of a collection and came upon a cache of vintage backpacks from a friend.
Jordan Viray’s obsession started when he stumbled upon a North Face brown label backpack. This eventually led him to discover more obscure manufacturers. His first acquisition was a modest 1970s Camp Trails backpack he bought for $30. That one quickly turned into two, then three and four. Two and a half years later, he amassed over 80 backpacks, originating from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
We went through Viray’s collection to feature some of his choice finds and sat down with him to talk more about his infatuation with these outdoor packs.
The Scout: Can you tell us a bit about your collection and what drew you to vintage backpacks?
Jordan Viray: I collect bags from the 1960s-1990s. What attracted me to the earlier bags from that era were how technically advanced they were for that time. Especially Gerry. They were responsible for many of the innovations which are still in use today. They created the first zippered backpack, invented the drawstring clamp, now known as the cordlock which is still used today for a multitude of other products from outerwear to sneakers.
They were created by people who were passionate about the outdoors. I also loved that there was a community involved, many of the companies that launched during that time were started by people in the same circle. Similar to art and design, a group of people that shared similar ideas came together to create a movement that resulted in better outdoor products. What they created was innovative in design and construction and were the basis for how bags are still made today.
There was a store in Berkeley, California called The Ski Hut, which was a hub for outdoor companies. In fact, Sierra Designs, The North Face, and Class 5 were created by employees or people who had a close association with The Ski Hut. George Rudolf, one of the owners went on to create Trailwise.
What do you look for when you’re searching for these backpacks?
When I started collecting, I was mainly drawn to how the bags looked. I still am today. I gravitated towards bags with teardrop designs. They’re streamlined, classic, and to me, iconic. I believe one of the only companies that still makes them in this shape with the split pockets is The North Face Purple Label out of Japan. I also look at all the little details. I love packs with metal hardware, YKK zippers and leather lash tabs and pull tabs. Even the straps varied from bag to bag. They were made from different materials such as leather, seatbelt/nylon webbing, foam, and straps that were felt lined. My favorite piece of hardware is where the straps are attached to the pack with a metal ring rather than sewn directly onto the pack. I’m not sure if this is purely aesthetic or if it served a functional purpose. Either way, I love how it looks. When you look at a pack with all these little details, you know they were made with quality and durability in mind. It is the perfect example of how function and design go hand in hand.
There are many outdoor companies bringing these details back into their bags. There are also companies with long histories of outdoor gear releasing heritage lines. Though I appreciate the resurgence, I prefer the originals over the reproductions. That being said, there are companies such as Kletterwerks who are doing it the right way.
The more bags I bought, the more I started to figure out what I liked. I would seek out popular brands of the time like Holubar, Gerry, and Sierra Designs, but I liked smaller unknown brands as well. I have two packs from Ultimate Experience designed to hold camera equipment. I have tried researching this company online but information has been difficult to come by. The only thing I found was an ad in Backpacker magazine from 1976.
I also look for color. I found that many of the different outdoor companies shared the same fabrics in the same colors, so when I come upon a pack in a color that I rarely see, I usually buy it. The one thing I noticed is that there is not much information about this stuff unless you have the original catalogs – which I don’t. I really haven’t had the time to do the research that I would like. Oregon Photos has been my source for information. You can find the history and origins of a lot of companies on the site.
And finally the labels. The colors, typefaces, and simplicity in my opinion are missing in newer bags today. They are just so cool looking. I’ve bought bags from companies I’ve never heard of before, purely based on the designs of the labels.
Have you used any of the packs either for the outdoors or in the city?
The only time I ever use the packs is when I’m traveling or riding my bike. Living in New York and commuting by crowded subways is not conducive to carrying a backpack.
The market for vintage backpacks is relatively young. Do you see an interest for it growing? Will it reach the level of fanaticism that sneaker culture has become?
I do see the interest growing but not to the scale of sneakers. Sneakers are something that everyone wears, from Nike to Adidas to Converse. Backpacks have a niche market. There are collectors but not to the extent of sneaker heads. BUT, the ones who are collectors are fanatics. I guess that’s why information is so hard to come by, there are not enough people researching the history. Most of the big collectors of vintage backpacks are in Japan. They appreciate the quality, design, and history of these packs. I was travelling in Tokyo last year and walked into a vintage clothing / gear store. They had an Alpine Designs teardrop bag with split pockets, metal hardware, and felt lined leather shoulder straps. They usually go anywhere from $200-$300 on eBay and the lowest I’ve personally seen one go for is $150. I happened to find one online for $60. The person didn’t realize what they had. The store in Japan was charging $550. There is someone who will pay that much for it just as a sneaker head would pay for a pair of rare Nikes. The difference is that vintage backpack collectors are few and far between.
Is there an end to your collection or will it continue to grow?
I always tell myself that the last bag I bought will be my last, but right now I have three at my desk at work and two on the way. If I do ever stop, I will eventually move onto something else. I’ve already got my eye on vintage tents.
Jordan Viray’s collection is currently on view at Pilgrim Surf + Supply in Williamsburg.