BRIEFCASES VS BACKPACKS
A briefcase used to mark a coming of age for men but with the advent of smartphones, people needed to keep their hands free to use the device. Also, backpacks are unisex
As anyone who has travelled in Mumbai’s crowded trains knows, briefcases had offensive capability. “The railway platform is a battlefield, the commuters are soldiers and their briefcases are the weapons,” wrote a Times of India railway reporter grimly in 1998. “Stunned victims speak in shivering dread of Briefcasitis Knockoutitis… A knock in the knee-cap can silence you for a few moments, inducing a temporary loss of locomotory facilities,”wroteanearlierToI writer, in 1991.
Itdidn’t end there. The seated commuter spread the briefcase f lat, corners pushing into people seated alongside to gain a few more inches of bench space. If seated with friends, the briefcase became an impromptu table for playing cards. “The briefcase has become the bane of the 90s commuter,” groused one ToI writer. Earlier only First Class passengers had them, filled with office papers, but now they were standard across bogies, packed with “a tiffin, newspaper, napkin, comb, etc.” Today train compartments are still crowded, but knees are safer. Briefcases have overwhelmingly given way tobackpacks,whichstillserve a territorial purpose, but in a less aggressive way. When worn in crowded compartments they double the space the w e a r e r occupies, even at the cost of squeezing others. Often they are worn in front, helping them serve as a battering ram as their owners push through the scrum to disembark. Only the card players remain loyal to their briefcase-cum-tables. The rise in backpacks goes beyond Mumbai’s trains. It is one of the biggest trends in luggage. “We are seeing sales across our brands increase by 35 per cent each year,” says Anushree Tainwala, executive director – marketing at Samsonite SouthAsia.Andwhilethisatthecostofstagnantordecliningsalesofbriefcases,theluggageindustryisn’ttoobothered.“Backpack sales have more than made up for slowing sales of briefcases,” says Radhika Piramal, managing director, VIP Industries.
Getting a briefcase used to mark a businessman’s coming of age. From its solid construction,theleatherorreinforcedplastic exterior and even the distinctive clicks made as it opened, the briefcase signalled serious work. A briefcase was personal – family members knew not to touch it, and its owner proudly carried it until that day when, in a clear sign of crossing into senior manager status, he (and the briefcase was a firmly masculine product) could have an assistant or driver to carry it. Some briefcases acquired legendary status. After Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time leader of Singapore died, one of his assistants wrote a tribute to his red box that, over the decades, held “communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istanagroundstaff,orevenquestionsabout some trees he had seen on the expressway.” After recovering from an angioplasty in 1996, Lee’s first request was “Can you pass me the red box.” The briefcase had national significance:“Insidetheredboxwasalways something about how we could create a better life for all.” In From Russia With Love James Bond was issued a weaponised briefcase that hid daggers, bullets, gold coins for bribes and poison gas that was released if opened the wrong way. Erle P Halliburton, the founder ofthefamousoilcompany,wassofrustrated by briefcases that failed in the extreme conditions of his business that he got his engineers to develop a special range, later spun offintothehightechluggagecompanyZero Halliburton.Itmakesthe‘NuclearFootball’, thebriefcasewiththelaunchcodesforUSA’s nuclear arsenal, now constantly accompanying President Donald Trump.
But it was another, much smaller piece of technologythatslammed thelidonthebriefcase era. “A big reason for using backpacks is smartphones,” says Tainwala. “People are on their phones all the time, so they don’t have a hand free to carry a briefcase.” Manufacturershavetriedtocompensateby adding the shoulder strap, but this makes for a lop-sided, unbalancing product compared to the backpack which sits easily on both shoulders.
“Backpacks are just used in more situations,” says Piramal, pointing to how their far less weight gives them greater function- ality. Briefcases loaded with more than just papers and a few other items become uncomfortably heavy. But we are used to stuffing our backpacks from school and college, and this carries over into the more informalworkplaceoftoday.“Ourlifestyles aredifferentnow.Manypeoplegotothegym fromworkandit’seasiertoputyourworkout clothes in a backpack,” says Tainwala.
A big reason for booming backpack sales is that they are unisex. Few women ever carried suitcases, preferring to take large handbags or cloth holdalls to work. But a generational shift is taking place, at least in metros, and many younger women now use backpacks. “Women have narrower shoulders so we have specially designed backpacks for them,” says Tainwala. Some womenstillcarryahandbag,butuseabackpack for heavier items, like food and water. Piramal says that in the Far East skinny fashion backpacks are popular, and this trend may catch on over here as well.
The tech industry, in general, has been the biggest driver of backpack sales, with its need for space for laptops and other devices, as well as a more informal work culture. Just moving away from suits and ties freed up shoulders for backpacks (though some trendy young businessmen abroad, combine backpacks with suits – and bicyclesthat,again,arenotsuitedtobriefcases). Tainwala also points out that cheap backpacks are one of the most common free gifts attechindustryshows:“Andoncepeopleget usedtousingthemforworktheystartthinking of paying for a really good backpack.”
Briefcase devotees still find reasons to resist the embrace of backpacks. They point to their greater efficiency in opening completely – unlike the sack-like structure of backpacks which always seems to result in users scrabbling around inside. And they arguethatbriefcasesaremoresecure,their solid material less easy for thieves to slice into and better at protecting the contents when dropped.
But backpacks are catching up even here. “Our models are really well structured inside, with different compartments for different devices,” says Piramal. Keeping in mind the security requirements of airline travel she says that some of their backpacks have sections that open out easily for laptops to be removed for security scanning. Its common now to have openings for headphones or exterior compartments for power banks that can be accessed without opening the whole backpack.
Security and protection of contents remain an advantage of briefcases, but Tainwala points out that theyhavespecialmodelsfor security made out of bulletproofnylonthatcan’tbeeasily cut into. She also points outhowradioscanningtechnologyhasallowedthievesto steal data from electronic devices so their security models have special pockets to block such scanners. One final reason for the fall of briefcases is hinted at in those ToI reports from the 1990s. As long as they were a marker of First Class status they were secure, but when everyone had themthatreasonvanished.From being a marker of senior managers, briefcases became identified with door to door salesmen and medical reps, and their image suffered. It probably didn’t help that they became synonymous with shady transactions – as demonetisation reminded us, with a spurt of sightings of briefcases full of old, undeclared notes.
But here perhaps one can see a hint of the trendturning.Asbackpacksbecomeubiquitoustheymayalsolosestatus,becomingless associated with cutting-edge techies and more with the overburdened delivery boys of our digital economy. And backpacks can be used for nefarious purposes as well. The bombs that devastated Mumbai’s Centaur and Sea Rock hotels in 1993 were left in briefcases, but the bombers that blew up London’s underground system in 2005 used backpacks; it is a dark truth that their body hugging nature suits suicide bombers well.
“There will always be a niche for briefcases,” says Piramal, and increasingly that might be a luxury one. James Bond’s deadly briefcase was based on a model made by Swaine Adeney Brigg (SAB), a British firm famous for its hand-crafted and very expensive briefcases. SAB supplied its briefcases for Kingsman, the 2014 hit movie about a super secret and super stylish British undercover agency, whose second instalment is due to release this year. As the world at large straps on its backpacks, a select few might be taking their briefcases in hand once again.
Illustration ANIRBAN BORA