THE HERMÈS BIRKIN BAG
Fashion Statement. Iconic Style. Savvy Investment.
Text by Fiona Clarke

Perhaps it was destiny. After all, when two icons of chic dream up the perfect handbag, we shouldn’t be surprised that the result is another icon. Such was the case when Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas and the actress and chanteuse Jane Birkin met on that legendary 1981 flight and together conceived her namesake bag.
Above: An extremely rare Hermès Himalayan 35 cm Niloticus Crocodile Birkin is accented with palladium hardware.
Since its 1984 debut, the Birkin bag has become a coveted status symbol as much as it has an exclusive collector’s piece. The handbag is among the most expensive in the world, and the appetite for the accessory is well-known inside and outside the fashion industry. Its history owes to a chance meeting on a flight from Paris to London in 1981, when British actress, singer and model Jane Birkin found herself describing her ideal handbag to another passenger. 

The two travelers hadn’t properly met, so it wasn’t immediately clear that she was practically brainstorming a future product with Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. When the latter identified himself, he told the star that Hermès was prepared to produce the accessory of her dreams. A discussion followed that involved rough sketches on an Air France airsickness bag, and the Birkin was introduced three years later.

The Birkin has become an icon, no doubt about it. But it has also become something more surprising: a better investment than a painting by an Impressionist master. When the handbag first became available the cost of a basic model was approximately $2,000, and it has since increased 500-percent. Truth is, however, it’s a stretch to call any Birkin “basic.” Each is handmade by a single expert craftsperson. Price varies with size, hardware, color and type of leather. A limited assortment of leathers and colors is released each year.

Above, left: The classic Birkin in orange togo leather with gold hardware. Middle: A Birkin in Vert Verone Ostrich Leather with gold hardware. Right: A highly-coveted Birkin in Rouge de Coeur Porosus Crocodile with palladium hardware. 
The rarity of certain materials and hues is reflected in resale pricing: In 2019, “Vegas Dave” Oancea paid a record-breaking $500,000 for a 35-centimeter niloticus crocodile Himalaya with 18-carat white-gold and diamond hardware. The skin is the rarest of the rare. The lock alone was worth $80,000.

“The Birkin’s value has consistently risen and never fluctuated downward,” says Reece Morgan, head of handbags and accessories for Xupes, citing the fact that “production has been highly limited to maintain its unattainable aura.” In fact, he adds, Hermès has been “scaling back production each year.”

“I’ve had a lot of men buy their first bag from me,” says Debra Kent, of Mighty Chic. “I’ve always told them that after this bag, there’s no turning back. The next step is you’re going to walk into a room with your wife or your girlfriend, and she’s going to be carrying the bag. Every woman in that room is going to want you and every man in the room is going to hate you.” In short, says Kirk, the Birkin “is the ultimate status symbol.”

Above: The Birkin made its prime-time debut on Sex in the City in 2002 when Samantha and Carrie ogled one in the Hermès window display.  
That wasn’t always so. The Birkin began to arouse mass consciousness and desire in the late 1990s, with the advent of the “It bag.” And nothing was the same after it made its prime-time debut on Sex in the City in 2002. “Oh, honey, it’s not so much the style,” Samantha cooed to Carrie as they ogled a Birkin in the window of Hermès, “it’s what carrying it means.” Approximately 5.9 million viewers watched that episode; it’s possible to imagine “BIRKIN!” suddenly scribbled on nearly as many wish lists.

“It’s a storied product,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute. “That’s what makes it a great investment.” Pedraza considers Hermès “the pinnacle of luxury” and credits the house with excellent stewardship of the design. “It’s a classic case study in how to manage luxury — be meticulous in what you create, and manage the supply. The market will react on its own.”

Regarding meticulous workmanship, each tote is hand-sewn according to Hermès’ centuries-old saddle-stitching technique, and the exotic leathers — a variety that includes ostrich and crocodile — are subsequently painted and polished by house craftsmen in France. Owing to the artisan construction effort behind this globally adored accessory, it may take up to five days to produce a single Birkin bag.

Above and Below: All Hermès leather goods are hand-stitched by skilled craftspersons. Once all the components of a Birkin are prepared, it takes an experienced craftsperson five days to complete one handbag.
And the reaction to the Hermès bag has been quite enthusiastic. A study of luxury investments by the firm Knight Frank in 2019 found that handbags had the highest returns — and the Birkin had the highest of the high. Birkin prices increased 13-percent over the course of the year; art, meanwhile, rose five-percent. 

Contemplating an investment in a Birkin? Consider color: New and seasonal ones are often in great demand; some recent hues include Rouge De Coeur (2019), Blue Azure (2018) and Toffee (2017). And look for rare materials — exotics such as lizard, ostrich, porosus crocodile and niloticus and crocodile.

But a Birkin has more going for it than its good looks. The brand itself helps to sustain sales, even through difficult times. “Hermès has a wonderful history of good purpose and good values,” says Pedraza, adding that the brand “will be valued even more after the pandemic. Hermès will definitely be one of those that will stand tall.”