How the Her­mes Birkin be­came the most de­sired bag

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FASHION - By BETHAN HOLT

The Birkin bag has only been in ex­is­tence for 31 years, but it has be­come im­bued with a le­gendary sta­tus which no bag be­fore or since has en­joyed. The Birkin is the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of wealth and lux­ury, just as likely to be seen crocked in the el­bow of a Kar­dashian or a Trump (Me­la­nia has a par­tic­u­lar pen­chant for Birkins.

“This was a spe­cially or­dered off-pink colour that I got in Paris,” she once told the FT of one in her col­lec­tion) as Vic­to­ria Beck­ham, Kate Moss or a high-pow­ered busi­ness­woman.

Named af­ter Jane Birkin — who cel­e­brates her 69th birth­day to­mor­row — the Her­mes de­signs are still hailed as one of the most valu­able and safe in­vest­ments a wo­man (or man) can make.

“It has been such a huge suc­cess for the past 20 years and it sim­ply can­not go down,” as­serts Jerome La­lande, an Her­mes ex­pert and con­sul­tant for Col­lec­tor Square. Ear­lier this year, a croc­o­dile skin Birkin with di­a­mond en­crusted locks sold for $300,000 (£236,610) dol­lars at Christie’s in Hong Kong, while many of the Birkins for re-sale on Col­lec­tor’s Square are in the dou­ble fig­ures of thou­sands with one 35 cm black ver­sion for sale for £26,000.

The bag’s in­ven­tion has be­come the stuff of fash­ion le­gend. One day in 1983 Jean-Louis Du­mas, then chair­man of Her­mes, was sat next to ac­tress and singer Jane Birkin on a plane when the con­tents of one of her fa­mous straw bags spilled out ev­ery­where.

She told him that she could sim­ply never find a bag suit­ably equipped to carry all her stuff (nice to know even chic, cool women renowned for their ef­fort­less non­cha­lance have th­ese is­sues too) and so Du­mas re­solved to go away and cre­ate a bag which would solves the woes of Birkin and plenty of other women try­ing to cart their stuff around in style the world over.

The next year the Birkin was born. “A few months later he had de­signed one which was in­spired a lit­tle bit by the Le Haut à Cour­roies — a travel bag which Her­mes al­ready did. It changed a lit­tle, it was re­duced and redesigned,” says La­lande.

Given the world­wide fame which the Birkin has achieved since, it would be nat­u­ral to pre­sume that the style was an overnight hit, but La­lande says that wasn’t the case. “At the be­gin­ning the bag was not a suc­cess. When it was first pro­duced 1985 it wasn’t re­ally in de­mand and not that many peo­ple knew about it. Then ev­ery­one was still ask­ing about the Kelly,” La­lande says.

“The crazi­ness about the Birkin be­gan in the mid 90s. It’s like the Rolex watch, we don’t know ex­actly why it be­came just so pop­u­lar. I think when peo­ple started to be in­ter­ested in buy­ing Birkin bags, Her­mes lim­ited the pro­duc­tion which in­creased the de­mand even more.”

It wasn’t un­til the late 90s and early noughties that things went “to­tally in­sane”. La­lande re­mem­bers that the price of a ‘stan­dard’ Birkin in Her­mes bou­tique in Paris was around 25,000 francs (which is around £3,000) but “you could in­stantly sell it for dou­ble that.”

Over the years, in­ter­est in the Birkin has gone on some­thing of a round-the-world tour, with dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the mega-rich fu­el­ing hikes in prices. “It was the Ja­panese who made the mar­ket in the first place,” says La­lande. “Then the Rus­sians be­came in­ter­ested; now it’s the Chi­nese who keep the mar­ket high.”

The Birkin comes in an ar­ray of sizes, colours and fin­ishes which means that two bags can look very dif­fer­ent but La­lande says you will al­ways see trends from coun­try to coun­try.

“We sell dif­fer­ent sizes to dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties,” he ex­plains. “Chi­nese women al­ways want the small­est ones whereas Amer­i­cans want the big­gest. Chi­nese women are tiny so they are look­ing for pe­tite bags to match their frames.”

La­lande says that thanks to a 50 per cent tax, it pays for Chi­nese shop­pers to pur­chase their Birkins in Paris where a stan­dard de­sign starts at around 8,000 eu­ros. “That’s why there’s al­ways a line out­side the door,” he laughs. But it’s near on im­pos­si­ble to get your dream bag.

“If you go to the store you can make a wish. Like ask for a ‘dark one’ and they’ll present you with a few bags. But or­der­ing the pre­cise colour is not that easy. They’re not tak­ing any or­ders right now.”

It’s the rel­a­tive scarcity and at­ten­tion-to-de­tail which goes into the cre­ation of Birkin bag which seems to have added to their al­most myth­i­cal story. Each bag is made from be­gin­ning to end by one ded­i­cated ar­ti­san and will take around 14 hours to com­plete. Part of La­lande’s job is to scour Europe for very old Her­mes pieces which can be used to in­form the artistry on new prod­ucts.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing for them be­cause with some bags they have lost the spe­cific knowl­edge of how to make cer­tain parts, like a han­dle, for ex­am­ple, so they wouldn’t know how to re­pro­duce it so we need an orig­i­nal to study to be able to make a new one.”

The big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing the Birkin to­day is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of coun­ter­feits on the mar­ket. “It’s very dif­fi­cult for Her­mes to stop,” sighs La­lande. “There are two kinds of fakes: peo­ple who buy them know­ing they’re a fake, the ones which you buy for a few hun­dred eu­ros just on the street and then there’s no doubt about it, you know it’s not real.

“You just buy it for what it is and for the price it is. The other type is this su­per hand­crafted style which is de­signed to con­fuse the mind of the buyer, that’s the most dif­fi­cult one to com­bat. Peo­ple think they’re buy­ing the real thing, it would be the same price as a real one.”

Ul­ti­mately this all acts as fur­ther proof that the Birkin is go­ing nowhere. “Those bags are very ex­pen­sive, but peo­ple pur­chase them as both a plea­sure and in­vest­ment, they are look­ing for the best value for money — and that comes from Her­mes first and fore­most.”

RAY­MOND HALL / GC IM­AGES

Heidi Klum is seen walk­ing in Soho in New York City with a Birkin bag.

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