Kånken: A history
Of all the Fjällräven products, the simple and durable Kånken backpack has done the most to propel the brand’s recognition worldwide. And it all began during the back-to-school season of 1978.
Virtually anywhere in the world, if you keep your eyes peeled long enough, you will likely see a Kånken. How the family of backpacks, totepacks, mini backpacks and accessories got to where it is today is a story of problem solving, imagination, innovation and tenacity.
Straightening out a generation of schoolchildren.
In the late 1970s, statistics showed that nearly 80 per cent of the Swedish population suffered from back pain at some point in their lives. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this news was that back problems were starting to appear in childhood. The prevailing theory was the heavy shoulder bags popular with children at the time were causing the issue.
Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin was following the story, and during a spring visit to Stockholm he was inspired to design a functional and comfortable square backpack just for children. It would have precisely enough space for their schoolbooks and paper (two A4 binders to be precise) and would be made from the most durable fabric he could find. He decided to run the shoulder straps down the entire back of the bag so they would remain taut in the brackets. Finally, he included a detachable seat cushion. Stored in the interior back pocket, it prevented contents from rubbing against the back and was handy for when you needed to take a break and sit down.
The best part? The backpack would leave kids’ hands free for other activities. Like forest excursions, where both paws are needed to crawl amongst the twigs and leaves, study ants, collect tadpoles and grill pinnbröd (a type of bread baked over the campfire).
The first Kånken backpack was produced just in time for the 1978 school year in cooperation with the Swedish Guide and Scout Association. In the late 1970s, the organisation attracted over 80,000 children to outdoor activities through its Skogsmulle movement. The mulle was an outdoor leader who dressed up as a troll and taught children about nature directly in the forest. Soon enough, Kånken became synonymous with experiencing nature. In the forest with free hands, children learned the old Swedish expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”.
The same seemed to be true for backpacks too.
Challenging boundaries…with colour?
Ensuring the venture was profitable, Åke had to make 5.000 Kånkens. With only one seller agreeing to take 75, he risked it and his brother-in-law – a reporter for a Swedish tabloid newspaper – sent an article about a backpack that could solve back pain in children. Over 100 outlets printed the story. Though Åke had planned to sell 200 Kånkens the first year, he sold twice as many. The following year, sales leaped to 30.000.
Kånken’s success assured, it graced the backs of children and adults in Sweden and Denmark for several decades. However, it sold only in small volumes outside of the two countries. With one exception: Japan. In 2006, on a routine supplier visit in Osaka, Fjällräven’s newly appointed CEO Martin Axelhed met Åke to propose an idea: a colourful facelift for Kånken.
Until then, Kånken was only available in a few colours. In 2008, just in time for Kånken’s 30th birthday, a bold new spectrum was introduced. The colours breathed personality and individuality to the backpack, but it was Martin’s wife who spotted a gap in the new palette. Where was the pink?
Though Kånken was a product anchored in tradition, it was a valid question. Pink – and a range of even more colours – were introduced. From then on, Fjällräven let Kånken push its boundaries.
Kånken started making its transatlantic journey in 2007, when Åke’s son Martin Nordin allowed the backpack to be placed in select trendsetter stores across the United States. Soon enough, Kånken was appearing in magazines, blogs and slung over the shoulders of hipsters and celebrities. America was the launchpad Kånken needed for other markets and people started making Kånken a part of their identity. Fans from around the world personalised their backpacks, taking them globetrotting, and posting their Kånken content to social media.
From 2010 to 2017, sales of Kånken grew tenfold. The strategy of staying true to its unique and simple design propelled the backpack – and Fjällräven – to global brand status. It was during this time also that the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design designated Kånken a piece of utility art. It now has protection under copyright law.
Supporting the environment through innovation.
Due to its popularity and position as Fjällräven’s boundary-pushing product, Kånken has proven a useful platform for innovation.
For example, in 2016 Re-Kånken was a test to make Kånken from as little raw material, water and energy as possible. It used 11 recycled PET bottles and was coloured using the more sustainable Spin-Dye® technology.
In 2019, the Kånken Art series was launched alongside the Arctic Fox Initiative, Fjällräven’s fund for non-profit organisations that protect the environment or encourage people to get into nature. Each year a different Swedish artist uses the backpack as their canvas to express their relationship with nature and a portion of every sale goes to the Arctic Fox Initiative.
My Kånken, my way
The latest innovation in the Kånken-verse is the debut of Kånken Me. Inspired by the Kånken community, who personalise their backpacks with paint, badges and embroidery, the time was right to offer people a way to create their own Kånken online. With 14 colour choices and 15 customisable parts, there are over 100.000-billion possible design combinations. Virtually every Kånken Me will be one-of-a-kind.
But for all the progression, and for all the years that have passed, Kånken has remained steadfastly faithful to its original purpose: a practical and timeless product in which you can carry your stuff comfortably and hands-free.