Hermès Birkin Bag Is Handbag Couture

Hermès Birkin
Photo: Getty Images

If you thought that Louis Vuitton bags were expensive, be prepared to see the bar raised. Because the most coveted and mega-expensive receptacle the boulevardiers of Paris and New York lust after is a Birkin handbag by Hermès (pronounced “Air-Mezz”).

This bag’s recent history begins in 1983; in the First Class cabin of an Air France flight from Paris to London. English actress-singer Jane Birkin was rummaging through a substitute bag (her favorite woven basket was ran over by her husband’s car “on purpose”), when the contents within cascade down onto the carpeted aisle. Embarrassed, she scrambles to pick up her secrets, all the while profusely excusing herself to the person seated next to her. This person happened to be Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès at the time; and great-grandson to Thierry Hermès, founder of the Parisian house. After helping Ms. Birkin collect her things, Mr. Dumas offers to make a bag for her. She says ok. And together they sketch an outline of the ideal bag on an Air France barf bag.

Upon returning to his workshop, Mr. Dumas instructed his craftsmen to realize the design. The outcome was a squarish bag with two handles, made from black supple leather, and finished-off with a lanyard that restricted the bag’s mouth (instead of a zip); whereby the flaps folded over a central buckle. A cadena lock was clipped on for extra security; presumably to prevent spilling incidents like the one that befell Ms. Birkin in First Class. The product was presented to the actress-singer, who was about to pay for it when Mr. Dumas made a deal: she would get it for free, on the house, if he could name the design after her. Thus, the Birkin bag was born.

Ms. Birkin carried her namesake bag with her everywhere. Incidents of spillage became a thing of the past. The fashion industry called it an icon, because Ms. Birkin herself was an icon. This paved the way for it to later become a status symbol of the highest order. Ms. Birkin is fond of joking that in New York, the bag is more famous than her.

Birkin handbags by Hermès are fashioned by hand (obviously), and can take up to 48 work hours, or more, if diamonds are added; which supposedly justifies their exorbitant cost. As a general rule, the smaller the scales of the leather, the loftier the asking price. This is because reptilian skin does not retain its natural elasticity, its voluminous and bumpy aesthetic, without artificially reinforcing each scale individually. Indeed, a practiced artisan with supreme patience and skill, must handcut microfiber fabric pieces and glue them onto the underside of each scale. The color of the bag also adds to its hefty value, as the dyeing process is tedious work. The house offers Birkins in a variety of colors – there are 25 shades of blue alone.

The price tag of a new Birkin handbag typically begins at the five figure mark, but can increase to six, depending on size, hide, and embellishments. Take this Birkin for example, fuchsia-pink crocodile skin with gold and diamonds, sold at an auction in Hong Kong for $223,000. Note that this is a resale; the auctioneer word for what we normal mortals call secondhand. Another, made from geometrically symmetrical crocodile skin, dyed to evoke images of snow-capped Himalayan mountains, white gold hardware encrusted with brilliant cut diamonds, priced at $432,000.

Naturally, production of Birkins are limited and unscheduled. Scarcity feeds the public’s perception of exclusivity. While there are no obvious brand labels on the Birkin, the bag retains its recognition factor by being the choice receptacle of celebrities; Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” has five.

All in all, the Birkin is a classic and sturdy bag in a category of its own making. To justify its retail price, Hermès promises quality and a good return on investment; whether that be through everyday usage, or auctioning it off in pristine condition at a later year. Buying a Birkin is not a purchase. It is an investment.