“We’ve all had the experience of struggling to open a poorly designed backpack in the dark or the rain, or knowing we can’t put it down on a wet surface because everything inside will get wet,” said Steve Scott, director of the Kendal Mountain Festival, in the U.K., and an adventure sports specialist and former professional skier.
Scott told Fortune that over the years he’s seen dozens of people—ranging from world-class mountain climbers to hiking hobbyists—cutting unnecessary parts off their equipment before using it. But he said he’s never seen anyone strip down a Fjällräven backpack.
“That’s unnecessary since they’re already pretty minimalist,” said Scott, who bought his first Fjällräven backpack while living in Norway in the 1990s. “Besides, the products are rugged. They’d be pretty hard to cut even if it was necessary.”
The first Fjällräven backpack—the difficult-to-pronounce name (“Fyall-RAAH-ven” comes close) is Swedish for “Arctic Fox”—was made in 1960 in Sweden by Åke Nordin, a former soldier who began crafting wooden-framed backpacks with his mother’s sewing machine in his family’s cellar in Örnsköldsvik, a coastal town 300 miles north of Stockholm. Early on, Nordin swapped the wooden parts for lighter and more durable aluminum, and after a while, design improvements resulted in frameless backpacks. In the late 1960s, the company began producing high-end winter jackets and other accessories.
Today, the company’s sturdy backpacks can be spotted in downtown Amsterdam or on hiking trails in Zion National Park, a resurgence that’s padding profits and fueling a solid stock market rally in Stockholm.
A pain in the back
The event that changed Fjällräven’s trajectory came in 1977 when a study showed that Swedish children had an unusually high incidence of lower back pain. The culprit? Hefty bookbags that students slung over a shoulder.
“After the study was released, Åke Nordin decided to adapt the backpacks so they could be used by students, spreading the weight evenly across the shoulders and leaving both hands free,” Martin Axelhed, chief executive of Fjällräven International and an executive vice-president of parent company Fenix Outdoor, told Fortune. Axelhed said that backpack, the Fjällräven Kånken, has remained almost unchanged since it was introduced just ahead of the 1978 school year. The first year, the company sold 400 backpacks; a year later the number jumped to 30,000.
The company does not break down sales data for the public, but the Kånken is also the company’s most high-profile ambassador, a common sight on school and university campuses, hiking trails, and hostels around the world. The more than 30 bright colors—plus the backpack’s iconic boxy shape—also make them a hit on social media, where the company encourages backpack owners to post photos using the #Kanken or #Fjallraven hashtag.
Axelhed, who will turn 45 on Tuesday, has worked at all levels of the company. The son of a Fjällräven salesman, he used his father’s company product samples as a child. And, as a teen, he worked summers and weekends at the company’s flagship store in Stockholm. There, he met Nordin, who took him under his wing, first asking Axelhed to take over his father’s sales position when the father took another job, and eventually to take over Fenix’s Fjällräven subsidiary when Nordin retired.
Things have evolved under the stewardship of Axelhed and Martin Nordin, the founder’s eldest son. In recent years, Fenix Outdoor and Fjällräven have stressed increased sustainability as a central goal. Five years ago, the company unveiled the Re-Kånken—a version of the backpack made of recycled plastic bottles. But Axelhed points to the backpack’s durability as the main feature contributing to its sustainability.
“Tears in their eyes”
There is no doubt many of the first-generation backpacks from the 1970s are still in use: online, it is easy to find stories of them being handed down from parent to child. To underscore that point, Axelhed cited an anecdote from the 1990s when he was a sales clerk in Stockholm.
“We had a store promotion where he offered ten U.S. dollars for anyone who traded in an old Fjällräven backpack for a few one,” he recalled. “A lot of people came in and with sad faces and tears in their eyes they handed over the old backpacks that for them were full of stories and emotion.
As the company expanded from a Scandinavian enterprise to a global brand present in 73 countries and counting, the fierce loyalty Axelhed described has served the company well. Net sales increased by a factor of 20 in as many years, reaching €563 million ($688 million) in 2020. Fenix’s latest annual report showed sales increasing at an average clip of nearly 10 percent a year from 2016 until 2020, when they took a step back amid the coronavirus impact. Over that period, profit margins remained comfortably above a tenth of sales.
Shares for Fenix Outdoor have also turned out to be a solid investment. Part of the NASDAQ-Stockholm’s Large Cap index, the shares lost more than half of their value in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. But they have gained more than 150 percent since their March 2000 nadir, setting new all-time highs in recent sessions. The company says it has accomplished all this by doing well—operations have been carbon neutral since 2015. And, starting last year, it began lobbying and assisting suppliers and other key partners to take similar steps. Among this year’s company goals is improving internal data on water use and waste production so it can more accurately monitor its environmental footprint. “This is the time to be bold, brave, and future-driven,” Martin Nordin, Fenix Outdoor’s chairman and CEO, wrote in the company’s annual report.