Illustrious and illusive, the Hermes bag has an allure all its own, but what is all of the fuss really about? I know that the bag is named after Jane Birkin, the English songstress and there is an alleged 2 year waiting list. The price of a bag can runs upwards of $50,000 and the iconic bag even had a Sex and the City episode dedicated solely its acquisition. Taking on a Nancy Drew persona, I wanted to dig deeper and get to the bottom of what makes a Birkin bag, THE Birkin Bag.
As the story goes, Jane Birkin, an English actress/songstress was flying from Paris to London in 1984, and found herself seated next to John-Louis Dumas, Chief of Hermes. There are different accounts of the meeting. The first states that the two engaged in conversation over her straw bag. Another version of the story reads that after papers fell out of Ms. Birkin’s Hermes day planner, Monsieur Dumas took the planner, added a pocket to the back and returned it to the songstress. I suppose the accurate encounter is irrelevant, as the end result is the same: the two agreed to collaborate on a handbag project, turning the chance meeting into a highly lucrative endeavor for the privately owned luxury goods company, aptly naming it the Birkin bag.
The bag is a statement piece, an icon in its own right. But what goes into the making of a handbag that can cost roughly the same as a car? Is it the leather, the labor or simply the demand for an exquisite piece of arm candy that justifies the cost?
The price of a Birkin is dependent on the material, which can run the gamut from alligator and calf to lizard and exotic ostrich. To date, the most exotic material used is a salt water crocodile skin, as the smaller the scales, the higher the cost of the bag. Gold and other high quality metals are used for the clasp, keys, buckle and protective feet. Pave diamonds glitter across some of the more elaborate bags. With each Birkin comes a dust cover to protect the bag, a separate one for the keys and another for the lock.
One fashion insider estimates that each bag takes 48-hours to complete, from start to finish. The workrooms in Paris produce a limited amount of bags, roughly 5 per week! A highly skilled craftsman makes each bag by hand. The finished product is shipped to a Hermes boutique, often without a set schedule, so it’s hard to know if a boutique will ever have a bag in their store or in stock. The bag is sold exclusively through the Hermes boutiques, and not through a retail outlet or department store of any kind. While a few private sellers move their vintage bags through online retailers or couture consignment stores, most Birkins found online are generally a knock-off and not an original, especially when they are offering a $7500 bag, for $39.99. If it’s sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Many say imitation is the highest form of flattery, although I’m not sure many luxury good purveyors would agree with that sentiment. To ensure authenticity, look for straight stitches, a gilt stamp that reads “Hermes Paris, Made in France” and also check for a craftsman ID on the bag’s handle.
In search of the perfect bag, many women are willing to go on a waiting list, which can last anywhere from 8 months to six years, for exotic animal. Although recently, there was chatter that the list was a hoax, in order to drive up the demand. Michael Tonello, author of “Bringing Home the Birkin” shared with the world how he purchased over 100 Birkin bags, without ever having been put on a waiting list. His theory and strategy, albeit costly, was simple. Go to Hermes, fill your arms a couple thousand dollars worth of non-Birkin items (which you intend to buy) and head to the cash register. While the sales associate is totaling your purchase, kindly ask if there are any Birkin bags in the store for you to purchase. Mr. Tonello claims that 99% of the time, he or his associate was sold an illusive bag! The business model? If you were a loyal Hermes client, one who shopped in their boutiques often, not solely for the bag, than you were entitled to first dibs on the bag, leaving other consumers who shopped elsewhere waiting on the list. Indefinitely. Brilliant strategy on the part of Hermes to acquire and retain customer loyalty, no? In April 2010, Hermes announced that they had dissolved the wait list, making the bags available to all.
Included in the cost of the Birkin, aside from the prestige, one can ship their bag to Paris for a mini-vacation a la “spa treatment.” For a few hundred dollars, they recondition the leather and buff the clasp and lock, so the bag will come home looking as good as new, no matter how beaten up or how badly in need of TLC it was when it arrived in Paris.
A true investment piece, the Birkin bag holds its value and can often appreciate over time (dependent on the material, condition and availability). The caveat of carrying the near perfect bag? Many complain of the weight of the leather, and in turn, of the bag. Much heavier than a regular purse, the Birkin bag can cause shoulder and arm pain. Is the price of fashion worth the pain of prestige? It’s all in the eye of the carrier, my friends. Oh, and for the record, while I do not own a Birkin bag, the pain IS worth it! For those of you who know me, you know that I’ve been practising for years already, lugging around the uber heavy tote bags, in which you can find everything from paperclips to band aids, notepads to almonds and magazines to honey packets.
My Birkin awaits… hopefully, just not on a list!