FROM IT TO ICK: HOW THE BIRKIN LOST ITS LUSTER
Updated: May 6
"It's not a bag, It's a fucking Birkin!" Any Sex and The City enthusiast would certainly remember that line by Samantha Jones. The storyline of the episode was about how bad she wanted to get the ultra exclusive Birkin bag and bitch about the waiting list she had to be in. Rightfully so, the bag has become a fashion icon on its own and one might have the impression of climbing the fucking Everest in order to get it in through your own effort.
[A corcodile skin Birkin bag /Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images]
Made by the French luxury house Hermès, it is difficult to get it through your OWN effort. Unless, of course, if you are a major celebrity , a public figure, a head of state, a royal or one of the family members of the Hermès big family or somewhat closely related (Dumas, de Seynes, or Guerrand family). Doing the classic action of buying a bag in a luxury store simply does not apply.
The house of Hermès clearly made a success out of creating such a desire for the bag. Priced at around 6,500 euros up to 6 digits depending on the leather and the hardware, it might be more than just a bag at this point. It is a symbol of status, an investment piece. Yep, a study shows that the Birkin bag is a better investment than stocks and gold today. The bag also broke the record as the most expensive handbag ever sold. The rare Himalayan crocodile Birkin with white gold detailing and 245 diamonds was bought for $300,168 by an anonymous buyer at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong. Pretty craaaay.
But with all these exposures, can the house maintain the bag's integrity? and most importantly, is the bag really synonymous to excellent taste today?
It is interesting to look at it from the historical perspective. The house of Hermès was initially a saddle maker back in 1880. Leather bags were produced later on catering to horseriders who wanted to chic-ly carry their equestrian goods.
The Birkin is not the house's only iconic bag. Their very first IT bag is actually a bag which was originally called Sac-a-dépêche. The late Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco loved it so much and carry it around everywhere. The street was saying that she used the bag to hide her unannounced pregnancy at that time. Ever since, the bag is called The Kelly bag.
Then comes Jane Birkin. The British-born actress apparently inspired the house to make a bag and name if after her. Known as a singer and actress, she was famous for her romantic long-term relationship with French musician Serge Gainsbourg.
[Jane Birkin on1968]
According to Hermès , it was an airplane encounter between the house's CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas and Ms. Birkin that gave the idea of the bag. Some said she was complaining about how impractical her Kelly bag was for travelling, and some reports stated that she simply accidently spilled her belongings out of her tote bag. Regardless, an idea of a bag for jetsetting women was born and that bag is called the Birkin bag.
Then of course, an It bag is not an It bag without any sightings on the arm of celebrities. Back in her extravagant platform-heels-and-bob-hair era, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham almost never seen outside of her home without a Birkin (or sometimes a Kelly) on her arm. In any size, any leather, any color, her collection alone reportedly worths 2 million pounds!
[Victoria Beckham with her Birkin collection]
As she got more serious when she dove her Fa-SHUN self with her own fashion brand, she kind of ditched the bag (and the look alltogetherl).
Then comes a moment when Lady Gaga came into the scene and slaying everyone with her unique, over the top style. She added a Birkin bag on her traffic-stopping street style when out and about in Japan. Of course it wouldn't be Lady Gaga without a Gaga twist on the bag; she basically made someone wrote all over her white Birkin in Japanese "I love little monsters, Tokyo Love" (yes, i just assumed she made someone do it because I didn't know Lady Gaga can write in Japanese. But anyway-). It has become one of the iconic moments for the bag and for Lady Gaga's fashion.
Why, then, that glorious bag lost its appeal? I do think there are several reasons.
The bag is still a very coveted bag, most notably in Asia. In countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Indonesia (where I am from), you see women carry Birkin EVERYWHERE. In Indonesia, for example, the bag is like a uniform for every wealthy woman.
[Wealthy Asian women and their uniform handbags]
Unfortunately, their fortune can't buy them any taste. Many of them don't even know the real purpose of a handbag, which is not supposed to be for events like dinner parties or black-tie events. Yet a big number of them would still do it, because that's all they know about "glamour". A Birkin is glamourous and therefore they somehow thought it's good for every glamourous event.
Some of them love to flaunt the bag in the flashiest color. The bag might actually be really cute. But the poor taste of the women (and men) who carried them can still show in the clothes they are wearing, and they thought carrying the bag will do the look. Sadly, they failed miserably as it looks more like the bag is wearing them instead of the other way around. Lord have mercy.
This can be one factor why Birkins have become out of style, especially among the stylish fashion communities. Because, why would they wanna carry a bag that people with bad taste carry?
[Francesca Eastwood and her crocodile skin Birkin bag / Tyler Shiels]
The Hunger Games
If you are a regular person who happens to have the money to get a Birkin bag in an Hermès boutique, good luck. In most cases, they would tell you they have nothing in their stock. According to my personal insider source, the staffs at Hermes are trained to study each coming client who asks for the bag. This includes their race, their style, the country they are from and their gender.
It sounds horrible, but that's really how the game goes.
In Paris, the biggest stock is known to be the house's flagship store at rue Faubourg Saint-Honore. The bigger the stock, the bigger the chance of getting it. However, it might not be the case for the bag as the competition of getting one is also bigger there. They used to set out dates where we can order it, and the bag could be available from 6 to 12 months. This system has been wiped out (in the Paris flagship store at least), and people from around the globe bombarded the shop trying their luck, making the ground floor of the Faubourg shop looks more like a Moroccan souk.
[The line of desperation in front of Hermes' Paris flagship store / Reno Wicaksono]
Hermès is trying to solve the situation at the flagship store by applying a by-appointment system . Each client who wishes to get ANY bag must stand in line at the opening hour of the store, give their name and phone number, before receiving a time of the day for an appointment with a sales assistant. The appointments are also limited, therefore, one must queue outside way before the store's opening to ensure to have an appointment during the day. If you arrived 1 hour before the store opening, chances are you won't even get any appointment (yes..one hour!). Mind you this is simply to get a sales assistant of the leather goods department to serve us if we want to purchase ANY bag. After all of these you can still have a big chance of getting out empty handed.
Tell me what is luxurious about any of these. If I work hard enough to be able to afford a Birkin, I personally don't think that i deserve to go through any of that shit.
The Birkin Bazaar
Understanding the difficulty to purchase the bag in store, one must be wondering who the hell should I fuck in order to get this bag? Well, if you have the money you do not need to open your legs at all.
Due to the high demand, there are tons and tons of resellers out there. They are basically the ones who hustle to get the bag in store, and sell the bag for you with a margin. There are various type of resellers, some sell them directly and some even sell them through stores. I personally know all about it because I myself have been involved in getting it for someone (as a young student living in Paris, why not?! if you have the courage!)
One of the most fascinating stories of pursuing and reselling Birkins was a subject of Michael Tonello's 2008 non-fictional book "Bringing Home the Birkin". He recounts how he got into "the business" of reselling Birkins, his strategy, his travel across Europe in the quest of getting the bags with every single detail. He probably is one of the OGs of Birkin resellers, way before the rise of Asian demands.
What I have learned recently is that today there are even AGENTS. They hired people online, explained them how it works and the bags to get (Birkin or Kelly), and send them to Faubourg flagship to stand in line and (hopefully) purchase the bag. In fact, one agent once told me that 60% of people in line at Hermes are actually resellers. These agents work more professionally, though I am still unsure who are they supplying to; a particular or a store.
Then there are stores who openly resell the bags. I particularly stumbled into one during my trip to Hong Kong. I was stunned by the number of Birkins and Kellys on display, some of them are limited edtitions! I thought these must be fake, and how crazy are they for selling them publicly in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui; one of the busiest high-end shopping areas of Hong Kong.
Turns out that the shop, called Milan Station, is a reputable second-hand shop of luxury handbags. I guess they introduce themselves as second-hand shop but most of these bags are untouched and come with the original packaging (dustbag, box). Reportedly, they get people who purchase these bags from Hermès stores and sell the bags to them. Each bag could cost 50% to 100% more expensive than in Hermès store, and there is no bargain because simply there are people who are willing to spend extra cash in order to get these bags without hustle. The owner also claimed to have more stock than the Hermès stores, and as crazy as it sounds, I don't think it was a lie.
[Birkin bags lining up on display at Milan Station store Hong Kong]
To me, these stores and the way how some private resellers work totally take the notion of luxury away from the product. Purchasing the bag has been turning into a process for the sake of getting the bag only and no sense of VIP-ness and exclusivity (I mean look at the store display, do you feel like a VIP getting into there?).
In terms of private resellers, each of them work differently. However, I know that in Indonesia many resellers promoted their products through chain messages in WhatsApp or other chatting networks, and THAT IS NOT chic.
The essence of the bag was initially to be exclusive. Then, what is exclusive if everyone has it?
Not only socialites. Reality TV stars, such as the Kardashians, are also fans of the bags, and not afraid to flaunt them and this is a problem.
The Kardashians is without a doubt the most famous reality TV stars out there. They have become a part of the pop culture. However, the concept of famous for being famous still hardly sticks to them. Anything prestigious being associated to them, can still be seen with a side-eye. The Huffington post even blatantly questioned if the Kardashians are the one to blame for the decline of Birkin bag's cool factor.
Moreover, the Kardashians are probably the most photographed celebrities in the planet today. Their love of the Hermès bag can only mean a multiplied exposure of the bag. At one point, the public can just get sick of seeing it.
[Kim Kardashian carried her Birkin painted by artist George Condo / Splash]
Most recent scandal surfaced surrounding the bag when the animal protection activists group PETA released a sickening video about how the crocodiles are treated for the sake of making the bag.
The video, titled "Belly of the Beast" shows undercover footages of the crocodile farms in Zimbabwe and Texas, and alleged that Hermès is the buyer of the skin.
Jane Birkin herself reacted to the video and released a statement that she requested her name to be removed from the bag unless there is a further serious investigation. Though Hermes denied the involvement with any of these farms, it certainly was a major PR blow for the house, and the bag.
Whatever happens, It is ironic that Jane Birkin herself no longer carry her namesake bag. She is known to have an effortlessly chic style; with her flared pants, shirts, flat shoes and sneakers (before sneakers were in vogue), and natural hair. She stated publicly that seeing what happened with the bags today, she has no interest in walking around carrying a snobby bag. She even covered her original Birkin bag with activist badges in order not too look too Birkin-ish.
[Jane Birkin and her namesake bag / Rex]
So, is the Birkin bag still really has its integrity as a prestigious luxury product?
Well, I am sure that the bag will continue to sell like hot cakes as long as they manage to tap into new markets and the desire is pretty much still burning over there.
But tt might no longer be the symbol of elegance as it used to be, and the prestige as THE luxury handbag might not be there anymore.
It is just a fucking Birkin.
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