The Birkin bag (or simply, Birkin) is a line of tote bags by the French luxury goods maker, Hermès, that is handmade in leather and named after English actress and singer Jane Birkin. Introduced in the 1980s, the bag quickly became a symbol of wealth and exclusivity due to its high price and long waiting lists. Birkins are the most popular bag with handbag collectors, and was once seen as the rarest handbag in the world. The bag's value as a matter of its intentionally high price has led to its being described as a Veblen good.
In 2020, prices started at US$11,000 and have reached up to HK$2.94 million (US$380,000) when a bag was sold at auction by Christie's in Hong Kong for a record price in May 2017. Costs can vary widely according to the type of leather, if exotic skins are used, and if precious metals and jewels are part of the bag. Birkins are distributed to Hermès boutiques on unpredictable schedules and in limited quantities, which create artificial scarcity and exclusivity; however, the bags have flooded the upscale resale market and are frequently sold in second-hand boutiques and through social media.
In 1983, Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas was seated next to Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London. Birkin had just placed her straw travelling bag in the overhead compartment for her seat, but the contents fell to the deck, leaving her to scramble to replace them. Birkin explained to Dumas that it had been difficult to find a leather weekend bag she liked.
In 1984, he created a black supple leather bag for her, based on a 1982 design. She used the bag initially, but changed her mind because she was carrying too many things in it: "What's the use of having a second one?" she said laughingly. "You only need one and that busts your arm; they're bloody heavy. I'm going to have to have an operation for tendonitis in the shoulder." Nevertheless, since the late 1980s, the bag has become a status symbol, though it's become much easier to purchase due to aftermarket resales.
In July 2015, however, Birkin asked Hermès to stop using her name for the crocodile version due to ethical concerns, as PETA alleged crocodile farms supplying the hide to Hermès for the manufacture of the bags crammed their animals into barren concrete pits. "At just one year old, alligators are shot with a captive bolt gun or crudely cut into while they're still conscious and able to feel pain," PETA said. Birkin is quoted as having asked Hermes "to debaptise the Birkin Croco until better practices in line with international norms can be put in place".
Birkin bags are sold in a range of sizes. Each one may be made to order with different customer-chosen hides, colour, and hardware fixtures. There are other individual options, such as diamond-encrusting.
- The bag also comes in a variety of hides such as calf leather, lizard, and ostrich. Among the most expensive used to be saltwater crocodile skin and bags with smaller scales cost more than those with larger scales. Each bag is lined with goat-skin, the colour of the interior matching the exterior. Prices for the Birkin bag depend on type of skin, the colour, and hardware fixtures.
- Sizes range from 25-, 30-, 35-, to 40-centimetres, with travelling bags of 50- and 55-centimetres. It also comes in a variety of colours such as black, brown, golden tan, navy blue, olive green, orange, pink, powder blue, red, and white.
- The bag has a lock and keys. The keys are enclosed in a leather lanyard known as a clochette, carried by looping it through a handle. The bag is locked by closing the top flaps over buckle loops, wrapping the buckle straps, or closing the lock on the front hardware. Locks and keys are number-coded. Early locks only bore one number on the bottom of the lock. In more recent years, Hermès has added a second number under the Hermes stamp of the lock. The numbers for locks may be the same for hundreds of locks, as they are batch numbers in which the locks were made.
- The metallic hardware (the lock, keys, buckle hardware, and base studs) are plated with gold or palladium. Detailing with diamonds is another custom option.
- Hermès offers a "spa treatment", which is a reconditioning treatment for heavily-used bags.
- A "Shooting Star" Birkin has a metallic image resembling a shooting star, stamped adjacent to the "Hermès, Paris Made in France" stamp, that is in gold or silver to match the hardware and embossing. Rarely, the stamp is blind or colourless, if the bag is made of one or two leathers onto which no metallic stamping is used. Sometimes, Birkins or other Hermès bags may be made by independent artisans for "personal use", but only once a year. Every bag bears the stamp of the artisan who made the bag. These identifications vary widely, but are not different for every bag made. Finding stamps of more than one artisan on a bag occurs because the stamp is not a serial reference. Fonts and the order of stamping may vary, depending on the artisans.
- The Birkin bag may be distinguished from the similar Hermès Kelly handbag by the number of its handles. The single-handle handbag is the Kelly, but the Birkin has two handles.
The bags are handmade in France using the company's signature saddle stitching, developed in the 1800s. Each bag is hand-sewn, buffed, painted, and polished, taking several days to finish. Leathers are obtained from different tanners in France, resulting in varying smells and textures. The company justifies the cost of the Birkin bag, compared to other bags, claiming the degree of craftsmanship involved.
According to a 2014 estimate, Hermès produced 70,000 Birkin bags that year. The bag is highly coveted and, for several years, was reputed to have a waiting list of up to six years. The rarity of these bags is purportedly designed to increase demand by collectors.
As a result of the strong demand, the Birkin bag has a high resale value in many countries, especially in Asia, and to such an extent that the bag is considered by some people as an instrument of investment. One 2016 study found that Birkin bags had average annual returns of 14.2% between 1980 and 2015, significantly beating the S&P 500 Index in returns over the same period. In April 2010, Hermès announced that the waiting list would no longer exist, implying that it is potentially available to the general public.
The Philippine Star reported in March 2013, that a high-end, 30-cm Shiny Rouge H Porosus Crocodile Birkin with 18-carat gold fittings and encrusted with diamonds was sold for US$203,150 at an auction in Dallas, Texas, US.
In May 2017 a 30 centimeter matte white Himalaya niloticus crocodile Birkin with 18-carat white gold and hardware bearing 245 diamonds was sold at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong for HK$2.94 million (US$377,261), creating a new record for the most expensive handbag in the world.
According to an analyst quoted by The New York Times in 2019, there are more than one million Birkin bags on the market, while a resale boutique in Miami has sold more than US$60 million in used Birkin bags in just five years.
Birkins are one of the most covetable bags, therefore one cannot go into Hermés and simply ask for a Birkin bag. One must have a long-standing relationship with one of the Hermés sales associates. Also, "waiting lists no longer exist at Hermés stores, and it's the limited availability of the bags that is just one of the aspects of why demand has risen", which explains why one can not simply just ask to buy a Birkin bag.
In addition to the possible counterfeits that all well-know brands are subject to, fake Hermès bags including the Birkin bag are alleged to have been made by a group of people including seven former Hermès workers. Ten people were on trial in June 2020, alleged to have made dozens of counterfeit bags which sold for tens of thousands of euros each, for a total profit of over €2m. The crime was discovered by police investigating unrelated stolen products. Four of those on trial were skilled leatherworkers; the bags were made using Hermès stitching methods. The counterfeiters imported crocodile skins. Leather offcuts, tools, zips and faulty bags that were to be destroyed were stolen from Hermès.
In popular culture
The Birkin bag is a major plot point of the Sex and the City episode "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda", in which Samantha is placed on a five-year waiting list for the bag. She is so desperate to obtain one that she falsely says the bag is for her celebrity client Lucy Liu. When Liu finds out she fires Samantha and keeps the bag for herself.
In the Will & Grace episode "Last Ex to Brooklyn", Grace is gifted a Birkin by her husband's ex-girlfriend Diane, who works at Vogue. Will angrily says that he has been on a two-year waiting list for the bag.
Kim Kardashian made news in 2013 for a US$40,000 Birkin, gifted to her by husband Kanye West, on which the artist George Condo painted a group of nude figures. Another picture showed Khloe Kardashian's child nestled in US$108,000 worth of the bags, which drew some unfavorable comments about conspicuous consumption from her adherents. Additionally, Kim's daughter was publicized while carrying a US$17,000 Hermes bag.
Rosmah Mansor, the second wife of Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia, is claimed to have the largest Birkin collection in the world. In 2018, Malaysian police found a total of 272 Hermès bags, worth nearly US$13 million, after seizing the family's three apartments in Kuala Lumpur.
Other known larger collections of Birkin bags include: Singapore socialite Jamie Chua, who reportedly owns more than 200 Hermès Birkin and Kelly bags, and celebrity fashion designer Victoria Beckham, who reportedly has more than 100 Birkin bags.
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