The `Fanny Pack' Phenomenon

FOR this reporter, 1988 was the year of the fax. That's when the little machine that had sat quietly in a back room became something you wonder how you lived without. Similarly, 1989 was the year the cellular phone moved from being the exotic toy of the few to being darn near ubiquitous. People put them in special holsters. You saw them on restaurant tables, next to the bread plates. They're so prevalent in Los Angeles that residents are talking about barring them from restaurants and theaters.

The closest thing I saw to a fad in 1990 was the fanny pack - those zippered nylon pouches that people wear around their waists, often in front. Versions have been popular for years with people traveling in Europe who wanted to protect money and passport from lightfingered thieves. Bicycle messengers in New York City streak across town wearing black ones. But the fad has spread. Last summer in Seattle fanny packs were everywhere.

Unlike the annoying and ostentatious portable phone, controversy may not arise from this handy accessory. As far as inventions that change people's lives go, the fanny pack could be the Volkswagen of the '90s. A three-year-old named Kaia looked at me like I was crazy when I reminded her to bring her purse - ``That's my fanny pack.'' This is from someone who doesn't talk a lot.

The 10,000 volunteers at the Goodwill Games were given bright pink ones. They're eminently practical for lots of people. An octogenarian told me her doctor recommended them to all of his older patients because muggers can't rip them off their shoulders. They're handy for people who use wheelchairs, for windsurfers, parents, rollerskaters, skiers - anybody who wants to carry small things and keep his hands free.

But beyond being practical, are they fashionable? Some men seem to be using them, but will they really supplant women's purses? Unzip them the wrong way and your whole life spills out. Businesspeople will always need briefcases, for many reasons. One of them is to have something sturdy to grip. Can you imagine fitting a Filofax into a fanny pack? (Though Filofaxes may become pass'e, a relic of the over-organized, frantic '80s.)

Designers have worked fanny packs into their designs. The packs can be both trendy and accessible in any price range, from nylon to velvet. A Seattle telemarketer had one in leather that she said everyone had been asking her about. That might work.

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