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History behind the hype: Hermès Birkin bags

More than just a purse, the Hermès Birkin has cultivated its own identity as a status symbol. Take one look at the Birkin, and the bag being perched on the forearms of A-list celebrities and wealthy socialites is an immediate impression. The bag, in all its structural glory, radiates an exclusivity that is given greater impact with its US$12,000 (S$17,000) price tag.

Here’s all you need to know about the cult of the Birkin bag.

Not so plain Jane

Cult actress Jane Birkin was the creative influence behind the eponymous bag. To many a director and photographer, her waifish face embodied the essence of late ’60s London in all of its ethereal, hippie glory.

the history of the birkin bag
Jane Birkin and her straw basket. (Photo: Getty)

As the lore goes, Birkin was on a flight with the straw basket she frequently carried, and attempted to store it in the overhead bin. All the contents fell, and Jean-Louis Dumas just happened to be next to her. Dumas was the CEO of Hermès at the time. He spotted the Hermès diary that fell from the bag, inciting conversation. She mentioned to Dumas that it was tough to find a leather weekend bag she enjoyed. The flight was spent with Birkin sketching out her dream purse on a barf bag.

The Hermès Birkin was thus born in 1984.

The Birkin boom

When the spacious, elegant bag was released, it didn’t become an immediate hit. Only in the ’90s, when bags became a serious focal point in fashion, did the Hermès Birkin take off.

It represented a fresher, contemporary direction for the French maison. It was also Hermès’ first celebrity-inspired bag, which gave it an aura of prestige. The bag catapulted Hermès into “It Bag” territory, even going so far as to modernise its clientele.

the history of the birkin bag
Hermès Birkin bags at the Maroquinerie de la Tardoire, a Hermès workshop that specialises in calfskin. (Photo: Mehdi Fedouach/AFP)

One reason why the Birkin became so coveted was the exquisite craft at the heart of each bag. While many ateliers employ numerous craftsmen to work on specific facets of a product, a Birkin is made by one artisan, from handle to bolts. Each bag is made by hand with the finest leather, and takes 48 work hours to piece together.

The marketing mavericks behind Hermès also shaped the mania of exclusivity behind the carry-all. Before brands subscribed to limited release strategies so popular today, Hermès was already there, and taking it to new extremes. The Birkin used to be something one could order, albeit with six-year long waiting lists. Thanks to the intense demand, however, the label decided to almost completely do away with traditional modes of procurement.

In an interview with BBC, 20th-century leather goods dealer, Jérôme Lalande explained, “It’s a wish list, not an order list. [Hermès] doesn’t take orders anymore; you just have to hope.”

the history of the birkin bag
One of Beckham’s many Birkins, this time in white Himalayan crocodile skin.

Throw its astronomical price — which can go up to S$24,000 for unique colours — into the elitist matrix, and it becomes understandable why the Birkin is most frequently seen on the arms of celebrities and beyond. Victoria Beckham is reported to have over 100 Birkins, and the entire collection is valued around S$3.5 million. A little closer to home, and arguably topping the Birkin collectors list is socialite Jamie Chua, who owns over 200.

It’s like Social Darwinism, but make it fashion.

Striking gold

A recent study by Baghunter discovered how price of a Birkin bag has outdone the price of both gold and stocks over the past 35 years. A Birkin bag has an annual return of 14.2%, as compared to the average of 8.7% on S&P 500 stocks. One might not be able to run out and mass purchase Birkins to create a new stock exchange,  but this is certainly telling of the sheer value each bag holds.

The resell market for the unobtainable Birkin has also received mass attention, thanks to the rare models being sold. Last June, an anonymous buyer in Hong Kong purchased a 30cm Birkin, made with rare Himalayan crocodile and diamond-encrusted white gold hardware for S$421,000. This Birkin became the most expensive bag ever sold, ousting the previous top spot holder — another Birkin.

the history of the birkin bag
The most expensive bag ever sold. (Photo: NY Daily News)

Birkins have become the mark of high society, and there’s little sign that this aura will diminish. Ultimately, the bag’s ability to ignite collective desire rests on one thing: Craft, both of the physical purse, and the shaping of the hyper-exclusive shroud that surrounds each piece.

If you’re really hankering for one, rumour has it that you might be able to just walk into an Hermès boutique and ask if they have one in stores. You could just be very lucky.

History behind the hype: Hermès Birkin bags

Beatrice Bowers

Features Editor

Beatrice Bowers writes about beauty, drinks, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she moonlights as a Niffler for novels and can be found en route to bankruptcy at your nearest bookstore. Don't tell her boss.

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