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Behind the Birkin

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PREFACE
After years and years of salivating over and guessing, I wanted to know: what’s with all the brouhaha behind the eponymous Birkin bag? Since as long as I can remember, I had been groomed as just a little girl that the “it” bag and the “only” bag was the Birkin bag. But why did the title come with so much baggage (puns intended)? There are thousands, if not millions, of designer bags available in stores and online, but why has this one particular design cornered the market with an excruciatingly high demand (estimates show that if you place your name on the Birkin bag list now, there is a reputed wait between two and six years, depending on the style – the longest wait for any bag in history). So I decided that I wanted to dig deep, and find out what was the bottom line behind this beyond beautiful bag.

A bevy of Birkins

HISTORY
The first thing you should know, is that the Birkin bag is handmade by Hermès, made of leather, and named after actress and singer Jane Birkin. The bag has become a symbol of wealth due to its high price and usage by royals and celebrities. The price of a new Birkin bag ranges from $7,400 to $150,000 and sometimes the used, vintage bags can even cost more. A “carefully used” one typically fetches between 80% and 120% of what the previous owner paid for it. In contrast, a lesser brand handbag in the same condition can be resold for only about 10% of what the original owner spent. “So if you can afford it, you’re making a better economic decision to buy a special piece that’s going to hold its value,” says Matthew Rubinger, director of luxury accessories at Heritage. Costs escalate according to the type of materials, with leather and canvas being the least expensive and crocodile being the most expensive. The bags are distributed to Hermès boutiques on unpredictable schedules and in limited quantities, creating scarcity and exclusivity.

A  vintage Birkin

In 1892, Émile-Maurice Hermès, grandson of founder Thierry Hermès, invented a large bag known as the haut à courroies (which loosely translates to “high belts”). It was originally designed to carry saddles and other equestrian equipment on long travels. A modified, smaller version called the petit sac haut à courroies was introduced in the 1930s. In 1956, Grace Kelly was photographed carrying this bag over her belly, trying to hide from the press that she was pregnant with Princess Caroline. The photograph was published in Life Magazine, and Robert Dumas–the then chairman of Hermès–decided to rename the bag “The Kelly”.

Grace Kelly with her namesake bag (left) and Jane Birkin with hers.

Grace Kelly with her namesake bag (left) and Jane Birkin (right) with hers.

One day in 1984 on a flight from Paris to London, British actress Jane Birkin complained to the man sitting beside her that there wasn’t a decent weekend bag for women. She imagined the perfect bag to him: “not too big, not too heavy when it was full, and made of the best materials so that it would last a lifetime.” The man sitting next to her was Jean-Louis Dumas, then chairman of Hermès and son of Robert Dumas. Not long after their meeting, a package arrived at Birkin’s doorstep. It was the leather weekend bag she had described and, like the Kelly bag, it was based on the original haut à courroies from 1892. It is now universally known as “The Birkin”. 

Jane Birkin carrying her Birkin bag


DESIGN

Birkin bags are sold in a range of sizes. Each one may be made to order with different customer-chosen hides, color, and hardware fixtures. There are also other individual options, such as diamond-encrusting. The bag also has a variety of hides such as calf leather, ostrich, crocodile, and lizard. One of the most expensive is saltwater crocodile skin. Bags with smaller scales cost more than those with larger scales. The bag is lined with goat-skin. The color of the interior always matches the exterior. Prices for the Birkin bag depend on the color, hardware fixtures, and skin. The bag comes in sizes that range from 25, 30, 35, to 40 centimeters. The 50- and 55-centimeter bags are meant for traveling. The bag also comes in a variety of colors such as pink, red, brown, baby blue, navy blue, olive green, orange, white, black, and golden tan and buyers have the option of mixing and matching colors as way to make their bags look even more unique.


35cm Birkin Bag Orange with Blue Electric Bi Color
The bag has a lock and keys. The keys are enclosed in a leather lanyard known as a clochette, carried by looping 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. Earlier 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. These numbers for locks can 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 to prevent tarnishing. Hardware is updated regularly to maintain the top quality available in the industry at time of production. The metal lock may be covered with leather as a custom option and diamonds as another custom addition.

Birkin lock and key
A “Shooting Star” Birkin has a stamp shaped like a shooting star adjacent to the “Hermès, Paris Made in France” stamp; this is in gold or silver to match the hardware and embossing. Rarely, the stamp is colorless, if the bag is made of one or two leathers on which Hermès does not use metallic stamping.  Every bag bears the stamp of the craftsperson who made the bag. These identifications vary widely but are not different for every bag made. More than one craftsman’s stamp on a bag is not uncommon because the stamp is not a serial reference. Fonts and stamping orders may vary depending on the craftsman.

An example of a Birkin shooting star
All Hermès bags use the classic saddle stitch because it will never unravel if done properly. The linen thread, which comes from France, is coated with beeswax to make it smooth, waterproof, and to prevent rotting. The thread always matches the color of the bag, except when the skin is golden-brown or neutral, in which case white thread is used. Rather than using several threads, the artisans use one very long thread with a needle on both ends to avoid making knots in the stitching.

Mouline linen thread in the Hermès atelier.
Dana Thomas explains the process of pearling as follows: “The artisan puts the clasp on the front of the leather and a metal backing on the backside, sticks a nail from the back to the front through each corner hole, and clips off the length of the nail, leaving a tiny bit. He takes a special tool that looks like an awl but with a slight concave tip and taps the bit of nail gently in a circle until it is as round as a tiny pearl. Each piece of hardware has four pearls–one on each corner–and each is exactly the same shape. The pearls hold the two pieces of metal together forever.”

Working on a piece of leather secured in a clamp by her legs

The hardware can be attached before the stitching even begins. Clear plastic film is used to cover the hardware so that the metal is not tarnished or scratched during the rest of the construction process.
Inside the factory where the bags are being finished

Most Hermès bags are manufactured inside out to conceal the stitching. Turning the bag inside out is a very delicate process because the leather is easily rubbed and deformed. Once the bag has been turned, it is lightly hammered and steamed to remove any traces of handling. Crocodile skin is steam ironed scale by scale.

Peach Crocodile skin silver hardware 30cm

CRAFTSMANSHIP
Before one can consider themselves an official Hermès craftsman, they must train for several years before they are allowed to make a bag. Most of the Hermès craftsman come from a school in Paris called Ecole Grégoire-Ferrandi, who specialize in leather, particularly saddle making and “maroquinerie” which refers to handbags and similar items. Once you’ve completed the course there, you have 15 months of training at Hermès, where you make watch straps, handles, and do other exercises. After that you can start on bags, but craftsmen need five years experience making bags before they can “graduate” to crocodile. There are about 2,000 craftsman working for Hermès, and each craftsman usually only specializes in four bag shapes. Luggage is made in a separate workshop, and is usually made by men as luggage requires a lot more strength during its construction, particularly when it is turned out.

A craftsman attaching hardware
As aforementioned, the bags are handmade in France by expert artisans. The company’s signature saddle stitching, developed in the 1800s, is another distinctive feature.

Saddle stitching

One of my favorite facts about the creating of a Birkin bag is that the craftsmen use the very same tools as they did 150 years ago!

Using original tools to create a Birkin
Each bag is hand-sewn, buffed, painted, and polished, taking several days to finish. An average bag is created in 48 hours. Leathers are obtained from different tanners in France, resulting in varying smells and textures. Because of the individual craftsmanship, other details of the bags may not all match. The company justifies the cost of the Birkin bag, compared to other bags, based on the meticulous craftsmanship and scarcity. 

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Using tanned red leather to put together the makings of a Birkin bag

 Adds Rubinger, “One craftsman sits in factory in southern France and starts with the first stitch, from start to finish. You pay for that craftsmanship,” he said. “If they can’t get enough of a certain material that meets their standards, they discontinue it.”

The classic Birkin look
Rubinger also looks at the bag as an investment, saying “In the luxury space, if you buy a new luxury car, you are not thinking of lasting value…If you buy a Range Rover, you aren’t planning to sell it for more than you bought it…Luxury handbag collectors, on the other hand, can…If you really pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re not going to lose money, and in the best case scenario you can make money on this bag that you enjoyed,” he said.

A Birkin bag with a diamond clasp, due to appreciate greatly

DEMAND

Although the Birkin bag is free of logos, it is one of the most recognized bags in the fashion industry and by the public. It is known as the holy grail of all bags and as such, carries figures that could leave a jaw dropping. In March 2013, the Philippine Star reported that the very high-end, 30-cm Shiny Rouge H. Porosus Crocodile Birkin with 18k gold fittings and encrusted diamonds fetched the staggering amount of $203,150 at an auction house in Dallas, Texas (well, the adage “everything’s bigger in Texas” certainly proved true.) Because of this intrinsically high demand for new, used, old, and absued – heck, ANY type of Birkin, we have seen the influx of websites dedicated to selling the nominative bag such as 1stdibs.com, whatgoesaroundnyc.com, and portero.com to name a few. Because the demand is so high, if you do happen to get your hands on a Birkin I would suggest taking the following “three S’s”  into consideration: Shade (what am I going to wear this with most often? Is bright pink just a want-on-a-whim or will I benefit more from a neutral color such as brown?) Size (what will I be carrying with me most often? Do I travel a lot or will this bag mostly be used for day excursions?) Skin (do I fear, at worst, being perceived as ostentatious if I go with a rare animal skin?) 

Whether this article has swayed you or not to justify the validity of the high price, one point that can’t be argued is that the Birkin is undoubtedly a timepiece whose value, unlike the fickle stock market, is almost guaranteed to rise, and if nothing else, time has already told that this bag is a classic piece of fashion history who’s joys are meant to be betrothed from generation unto generation. If you should be so fortunate, I would suggest you buy into a piece of fashion real-estate that will appreciate fiscally for years to come. The Birkin should never leave you feeling broken, so before you break open the piggy bank just know that this style is going nowhere soon and you can have plenty of years to save up for your lizard lover. If you want to buy a Birk’ – girlfriend get to work!
Ashley Olsen

Juliane Moore

Nicole Richie

Victoria Beckham

Gisele Bundchen

One Response to Behind the Birkin

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© 2015 Alexa Winner. All Rights Reserved.