THE HISTORY OF THE HERO: THE HERMÈS BIRKIN
It’s not a bag, it’s a Birkin: this 39-year-old phenomenon is a better investment than gold
This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com
With a cameo in Sex and the City, a rap song in its honour, a mysterious waiting list, and an origin story that involves a ‘60s style icon and a fateful plane journey – not to mention a resale value of nearly 200% – the Hermès Birkin is kind of a big deal.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Once upon a time, in 1983 to be exact, a famously befringed, achingly cool Parisian actress called Jane Birkin boarded an Air France flight to London. Her beloved basket bag had been intentionally run over by her then-husband, Jacques Doillon, two days prior, and she was carrying a nondescript replacement. It wasn’t fit for purpose as she ended up dropping her Hermès notebook and remarking that no bag was large enough to hold all of her papers.
Luckily, her fairy godfather – Jean-Louis Dumas, then CEO of Hermès – happened to be sitting nearby. He introduced himself and suggested Birkin find a bag with pockets to accommodate her stationery overflow, before sketching a rough design on the back of a sick bag. From humble beginnings – like all the best fairytale protagonists – the Birkin was born, making its official debut in 1984. Much, much better than a glass shoe, we think.
Unlike the Chanel bags dominating the 1980s, the Birkin was quietly luxurious and devoid of shouty logos. It was distinguished by a semi-structured body, two rolled handles, clou ‘feet’, and a turnlock closure, which could be secured with the accompanying padlock and key. (We’d posit that one ought to be less concerned about the contents than the bag itself, which had the princely sum of $2,000 then – £5,000 in today’s money – and retails at around £8,800 at the time of writing.)
At 35cm wide, it was a more petite (yet adequately capacious) version of Hermès’ Haut à Courroies – the travel bag of choice for Jane Birkin’s ex-husband, Serge Gainsbourg. Today, the Birkin comes in three additional sizes: 25, 30 and 40 centimetres.
Perhaps it was the Birkin’s discreet styling, or the fact that Chanel had the luxury market in an exceedingly chic chokehold, but this now-iconic bag got off to a slow start. Nevertheless, by the mid ‘90s it had gained considerable momentum and by 2001 it was firmly in It bag territory, its status sealed by Sex and the City and the iconic line, “It’s not a bag. It’s a Birkin.”
In Season Four of the cult show, publicist Samantha Jones falls in love with a red Birkin 35, telling Carrie, “When I’m tooling around town with that bag, I’ll know I’ve made it.” After discovering there is a five-year waiting list, she pretends the bag is for her client, Lucy Liu, and ends up losing both her job and the Birkin. If you needed further proof how difficult it is to obtain such a bag, it was recently revealed that a blue ‘Birkin’ Carrie totes in Season Five wasn’t, in fact, the genuine article.
The Birkin’s hard-to-get reputation is part of its allure. The details of how to purchase one directly from Hermès remains a closely-guarded secret but rumour has it that customers must have an established purchase history with the brand and have added the objects of their desires to their ‘wishlist’ – a term Hermès introduced since it no longer offers a traditional waiting list (some conjecture it never really existed, anyway) and only delivers a select number of Birkins to each boutique.
The Birkin’s scarcity has a lot to do with the time it takes to make. Each bag takes between 12 and 18 hours to create, at the hands of master craftspeople who have to undergo between two and six years of training before starting work in Hermès’ leather workshop. Additionally, the majority of the Birkin is sewn by hand using the brand’s signature saddle-stitching technique.
You can purchase a Birkin on the resale market, but be prepared to pay a premium. Given how difficult it is to buy directly from the source, resale Birkins are at least double the retail price, ranging from around £15,000 to £30,000 for a classic style in good condition, and well beyond that for something extra special (for example, the diamond-embellished Himalaya Crocodile Birkin, which sold at auction in 2021 for over £400k). If you can afford it, it’s a worthy investment. A 2017 study revealed that the Birkin’s value has increased by 500% in the last 35 years, and according to a 2020 report by Knight Frank, an investment in the bag is better than stocks or gold.
Eagle-eyed Birkin fanciers may be able to find pre-loved options around the £9k mark, if they’re willing to settle for a less popular shade or one with some wear and scratches – with the exception of Jane Birkin’s well-loved bag, which, cat bites, scuffs and all, sold at auction in 2021 for £119,000. In fact, there has been an uptick in those searching for loveworn Birkins after an old photo of Mary Kate Olsen carrying one resurfaced on Reddit. In their Luxury Consignment Report, The Real Real writes, “There’s a growing number of shoppers specifically seeking the je ne sais quoi that comes with a little wear-and-tear.”
Jane Birkin only has one namesake bag in her possession at any given time (she sells them when they become old and battered), but other celebrities live by ‘the more Birkins, the better’ mantra. Virgil Abloh owned more than a dozen Birkins, Drake has been collecting them for years (for his future wife, apparently), and Victoria Beckham is said to have amassed over 100, but this pales into comparison alongside the 200 owned by Singaporean socialite and entrepreneur, Jamie Chua, who is thought to have the largest collection. Other notable Birkin owners include Kate Moss (who allegedly used hers as a nappy bag), Winnie Harlow, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and North West, who was pictured with a white Birkin at the tender age of six.
As a bag steeped in fashion lore, it’s no wonder the Birkin has been the subject of (sometimes controversial) art. In 2012, Francesca Eastwood – daughter of Clint – set one on fire as part of an ‘art project’ (thankfully, the bag turned out to be a fake); in 2014, Jeff Koons incorporated several Birkins with eminent former owners into an art installation; and in 2019, rapper Gunna released a song called ‘Baby Birkin’. More recently, an NFT ‘MetaBirkin’ (an animation of a foetus growing in a Birkin bag) created and sold by artist Mason Rothschild was the subject of a copyright lawsuit, which Hermès won, prompting brand fans to speculate as to when the luxury house might enter the metaverse.
For those who prefer their Birkins IRL, we’ve scoured the web to find the best resale bags. If anyone asks, tell them it’s an investment – you’d be right.