By Lee Gale
One of the main problems with casual fashion is that the Iberian peninsula and, by association, South America, holds too much sway over the way the British currently dress. Where once our fashion pointers were derived from All Creatures Great And Small, golf or WWII armed forces, today’s High Street hotsteppas are more likely to resemble Mario Kempes on a post-Argentina ’78 beach holiday.
When it comes to buying casualwear, a handful of trusted style oases exist, but you have to carry out research to find them. Manchester’s Oi Polloi is one such watering hole. Established in 2002, Oi Polloi was one of the first outlets to bring Swedish outdoor brand Fjällräven (Swedish: “arctic fox”) to our attention. The label was quickly adopted by cooler elements in Northern football grounds before filtering down to a select fashion audience. Wearers of Fjällräven tend to be secretive about their supply source. Like DJs with white labels, they don’t want you to own what they have found.
Northern interest in a Swedish label is hardly surprising given that the Viking expansionism of the 9th century meant that Yorkshire and Lancashire came under the jurisdiction of the Danelaw. Don’t forget that Northerners are very proud of their Norse heritage – take a look at Doncaster Rovers’s badge, featuring a Viking warrior in profile. Fjällräven is also an exotic-looking name. It has two umlauts for a start. It’s about as anti-Mediterranean as you can hope for.
Although Fjällräven’s upland aesthetic was easily adopted by discerning Northern casuals, its Kånken backpack has a cult following nationwide – and not just with men. Kånkens have become a sort of fashion equivalent of the VW Type 2 camper van. On the road, Type 2 drivers will give a friendly nod to each other, but without the protection of a windscreen to offset social awkwardness, Kånken owners tend to stare at each other, a bit like dogs on leads. They have one thought: “What events in life have led you to your backpack?” Kånken owners consider themselves rucksack rebels, revelling in the fact that they stand apart from the more commonplace easy-to-purchase Eastpaks, Jansports and Karrimors.
Far from being essential kit for tackling a peak, the Kånken is actually a schoolbag, introduced in 1978 to alleviate an age-old Swedish problem of backache. By the mid-Seventies, 80 per cent of the Swedish population was affected by some form of back discomfort. Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin, who had been developing backpacks since the early Sixties, believed Sweden’s thoracic and lumbar troubles were a product of the school run, with children straining to carry heavy textbooks and folders between classroom and home, setting in motion a lifetime of strains. The Kånken distributed weight evenly across the shoulders, a fact not lost on Sweden’s pensioners who, by 1980, started buying the backpack en masse.
Sweden’s OAPs realised that with free arms, they could stroll unimpeded with a walking stick to collect their pension and roughage. By the time that Abba’s internal problems were becoming apparent, Swedes, regardless of age, had been captivated by the Kånken’s simple charm.
Kånken disciples are quick to discuss the bag’s waterproof properties. The secret is the material itself. Vinylon F is a synthetic fibre that, like a natural fibre, swells when damp and creates a waterproof shield around your homework. Incredibly, during heavy downpours, a puddle develops on the roof of its front zip-up pocket, where you keep your pens and keys, in the manner of a gutter.
“They’re brilliant,” says Oi Polloi co-founder Steve Sanderson. “The functional design, the colours and the fact they were designed as an antidote to kids getting back problems while carrying their books – it’s form following function, a similar design ethos to orthopaedic shoes like Birkenstock and Finn Comfort. Oi Polloi has a history of re-appropriating these kind of items. The Kånken truly is the people’s bag. You can have one of these from a really young age, all through school, college, everything in between and beyond. They’re good for your lunchbox, sports kit and laptop. We sell a fair amount. They have universal appeal and also represent great value for money.”
Today, Fjällräven makes 200,000 Kånkens a year, in a variety of sizes and shades. Just don’t be surprised when Swedish tourists suddenly approach and begin speaking to you in Nordic tongue, like you’re a long-lost friend from Malmö. They’ll naturally assume you are of Scandinavian origin – one of them. Which, of course, most Northerners are.
From £55. fjallraven.com