From Fashion Snobs to Rap Songs: The History of the Hermès Birkin

According to Hermès lore, the humble birth of the Birkin bag began on an airplane when style icon Jane Birkin spilled the contents of her straw tote in front of Jean-Louis Duman, a chief executive at Hermès at the time. Four years later, the Birkin was born. 

The History of the Birkin

While Hermès is best known for selling the Birkin, a bag which has a waitlist of six years, and other socialite-approved purses and printed silk scarves, Hermès was originally recognized for crafting fine horse harnesses and carriages. The Parisian shop opened in 1837, but wouldn’t enter the world of luxury handbags and fashion until 1922, when their first iconic bag was born. 

The Kelly, their first “It Girl” bag, was originally called the Sac à dépêches. The change would occur after being photographed multiple times hanging on the arm of Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. It’s said that both the Kelly and Birkin bags are designed based off an old Hermès designed from 1892 called the “Haut à Courroies,” a bag inspired by horse feed and saddle bags. However, according to Jane Birkin, she and Dumas designed the bag based on an airplane sick-bag, which is a bit more entertaining than finding inspiration from within a horse stable. 

The Birkin wasn’t an overnight success. During the 1980s when the bag was introduced, Chanel was dominating the luxury bag market. However, the bag would forever become known as the ultimate status symbol when it was used as a plot-point in Sex and the City. In the 2001 episode, Samantha Jones tries to skip the five year wait list to get a Birkin. After the airing, the Birkin’s waiting list actually tripled, which says a lot about the cultural impact of the show itself. Thirty years on from the launch, the demand is so high that there’s no longer technically a waiting list in the classic definition of the term. It’s more of a wish list. 

The Anatomy of a Birkin 

Unlike the Kelly, the Birkin has a tote-like silhouette that features two top handles for practicality. As it was originally created for travel, each Birkin comes with a lock and key so the flap may be completely secured. Inside, it’s basically a tote including a pocket and a zip compartment. 

Hermès is known for their quality materials, and the leather they use is no exception. A few of the most popular materials include box calf, alligator, Clemence, Epsom, Togo, and Ostrich leather. 

Box Calf is the oldest type of leather available and was initially used for the Kelly. This leather is smooth, which means that scratches are incredibly easy to see. 

Alligator comes in either matte or a shiny lisse. 

Clemence leather is also calf and is scratch resistant with a grainy, matte look. 

Epsom is scratch resistant, but has finer grains than Clemence and is easier to clean. 

Togo is also calf and has a soft, pebbled finish.

Ostrich is easily distinguishable due to the large pores of the leather, also indicating that it would be more difficult to clean. 

Each Birkin bag is completely handmade by a single artisan and takes at minimum 12 hours to produce, with time fluctuating depending on specialty features that the buyer may request. 

The bag includes two handles, a plaque, a pontet, flap, clochet, lock and clou. The clou are four feet on the bottom of the bag in order to keep the bag standing straight (plus it reduces scratches and getting it dirty). 

Investment

With the bag having a 14.2% average annual return and prices on the secondary market being 50% above the retail price, it’s easy to see why the bag is an incredibly good investment. It beats shares in the stock market due to having an average return higher than both the S&P index and the price of gold. That is, if you can afford it and get your hands on it. The first Birkin in 1984 retailed at $2,000, but in 2017, the most basic version of the coveted carryall costs $11,900. The bag currently retails anywhere from $11,900 to $150,000. Resale prices go up to as high as $223,000. 

At one point, the Birkin could arguably, have been called the rarest handbag in the world. It was difficult to get information on how to buy and who was allowed to buy, with rumors of the wait list taken as gospel and those who did manage to acquire a bag guarding the answers as though they were the nuclear codes. 

Today, the fashion resale market thrives online. Privé Porter, a Miami based resaler, has a lineup of nearly 80 of the newest Birkins on any given day, selling them to anyone who wants one and can afford it, with a majority of the sales taking place on Instagram. 

The RealReal and StockX are also major digital players, holding more than 300 and 235 Birkins, respectively. While this is great for fashion snobs, it may not be as good for Hermès, with the Birkin at risk of market dilution, and the loss of value and allure that once came from exclusivity and carefully measured supply. 

Regardless, the Birkin bag remains a coveted and iconic carryall. And always remember what Samantha Jones said, “It’s not a bag, it’s a fucking Birkin!” 

 

Photo Sources: 1, 2