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Hermès 101: The Birkin Breakdown

Your Guide to the World’s Most Coveted Handbag

The Birkin bag may need no introduction at all to the fashion initiated, but the Hermès house is so secretive and shrouded in mystery that for newcomers, dipping into the world of the Birkin bag may be daunting. However, information is power, and we’re here to clear things up and guide you through all things Birkin. Prepare to add this to your arsenal when planning your next, or first, Birkin bag purchase.

THE ORIGIN STORY

In the year 1900, Émile-Maurice and Adolphe Hermès set out to create a line of equestrian leather goods to suit the needs of the burgeoning upper echelons of global society. Included in this fresh product lineup, was the Haute-à-Courroies, known colloquially as the HAC. The original HAC was designed to carry a saddle and help transport equestrian equipment for the rider. This design remained largely unchanged before one fateful Air France flight in the early 1980s in which Jean-Louis Dumas and Jane Birkin happened to meet.

Courtesy of the Telegraph

En route to London from Paris, the head of the company Jean-Louis Dumas was serendipitously seated next to the radiant actress Jane Birkin and her daughter Lou. They talked for a while and Jane began to lament that she could not find a handbag that would be able to securely carry all of her personal items and Lou’s bottles. Thinking quickly, Jean-Louis Dumas sketched on the back of a sickbag the first design for a bag that featured a spacious interior, two rolled handles for firm holding, a flap top for protecting contents, and a turn-lock closure for securely locking away possessions. In 1984, the Birkin bag was put into production, using the actress’s name who inspired the design.

THE RISE OF THE BIRKIN

The Birkin Bag was an instant commercial success, however, Hermès had an interesting marketing tactic that they are now notorious for using. Hermès would artificially decrease the number of Birkin bags that a given store could buy. When Store Managers would go to Podium, the twice-yearly international Hermès buying extravaganza in Paris, they would have a select number of Birkins they could buy for their stores depending on their client base and supply. This created the appearance of scarcity that Hermès still implements. The number of Birkin bags currently in retail and resale circulation is unfathomable. Hermès does not report the production numbers to the public so there is not much insight into the secretive process. In 2014, it was reported by The Economist that an estimated 70,000 Birkin bags were created that year for global supply.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, rumors spread of a “Birkin Waitlist”, or a list at each boutique that prioritized clients in order of their requesting for a Birkin bag. The intention of the list was for clients to believe that when their name was next, they would receive the opportunity to purchase the must-have bag. Reports for many years have been that the store associates, when asked about the availability of the Birkin, would have one of two responses: 1) We do not have a Birkin in stock, or 2) Please put your name on this waitlist and we will call you when one becomes available. This waitlist was rumored to be anything from several months to three years long or more, which is quite the to-do surrounding any handbag or designer.

However, the waitlist rumors began to fall apart when clients began to share and talk to one another about their Birkin buying experiences on various handbag forums and platforms. Buyers began to strategize how to attain one for themselves based on experienced sellers’ know-how. Reports came in about having to buy a certain quantity of non-leather goods in order to qualify, having to build rapport with sales associates at a specific boutique to qualify, and even to dress in a “deserving” outfit in order to get your hands on a Birkin bag. All of these rumors went up in smoke when clients began reporting that they simply walked in one day and got offered one upfront, no purchasing or previous Hermès experience under their belt. How is this possible when there is more than likely a long waitlist at these stores? It seems likely that the Birkin waitlist was either purely fictional or perhaps a subtle technique that stores used to drum up anticipation and an aura of exclusivity. So, what’s the best strategy to get your hands on one? Ask nicely and you may get lucky!

THE SIZE BREAKDOWN

The Birkin bag has been offered in many sizes over the years, with some being introduced and discontinued along the way. To date, the Birkin bag has been offered in the following sizes to offer complete versatility to each clients’ needs:

LIMITED EDITIONS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Over the decades that the Birkin bag has been king of handbags, Hermès has injected their signature whimsy into the design by adding a plethora of Limited Edition versions of the bag to their roster. Each design brought unique qualities that make the Birkin bag more than a simple tote, but a collectible piece of contemporary design and sculpture. Outside the realms of the special order Birkin, indicated by a foil horseshoe stamp next to the logo stamp, Hermès has created many limited editions to collect and to admire.

THE SHOULDER STRAP BIRKIN

In the early 1990s, Hermès produced an extremely small batch of Birkin bags that were designed to have shoulder straps. The original and commonplace design does not include a shoulder strap or any area to connect one, only the two rolled handles meant to carry the bag with the flap open.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

THE SHADOW BIRKIN

In 2009, Hermès took some inspiration from trompe l’oeil, a movement of artistic expression where the lines between perception and reality are blurred, and decided to fuse the idea into the Birkin bag design. What came out of this was the Shadow Birkin, which features the bags iconic design elements melded into the bag itself as a leather debossing.

Courtesy of Christie’s

THE GHILLIES BIRKIN

For Fall/Winter 2011, Hermès offered a brogue inspired collection of Birkins. This collection was dubbed the Ghillies and was originally offered exclusively in Tadelakt leather in three hues: Fauve, Vert Veronese, and Rubis. Since the original capsule, the Ghillies line has expanded to include a large number of material combinations like Toile Jean, Togo and Swift combined, and even entirely Porosus Crocodile.

THE CLUB BIRKIN

In 2012, Hermès produced a line of Birkin bags that gave a “sporting life” look to the classic handbag design. Adding two Lizard stripes flanking a leather or Ottoman de Crin (Crinoline) center contrasting panel, this new look brings color blocking and exotic accents to an otherwise classic bag.

THE GRAND MARIAGE BIRKIN

In 2013, Hermès created a limited edition Birkin style that pulled out all the stops. A fabulous combination of three highly prized exotic materials, the Grand Mariage Birkin is the apex of luxury. A few colorways have been created, but all were done with lizard handles and sangles, ostrich Ghillies trim, and an alligator body. For a finishing touch of elegance, every Grand Mariage Birkin is adorned with either Palladium or Permabrass hardware.

Courtesy of Luxury Promise

THE FLAG BIRKIN

Also coming out in 2013, the Flag Birkin exhibits the extraordinary qualities of Hermès canvas. Hermès has been using their canvas since the beginning of the 20th century, all the while praised for its quality, lightness, and durability. The Flag Birkin takes its inspiration from the great transatlantic ocean liners of the past, incorporating a look that resembles the maritime tags in unique colors that passengers would attach to their luggage. The central stripe pays homage to these tags and offers a reminder of these epic voyages.

THE FRINGE BIRKIN

As secretive and exclusive you can get with the Birkin bag, the Fringe Birkin was a limited edition run of Birkin bags, all created by client request (so they don the covetable Horseshoe Stamp), with a custom panel of leather fringe affixed to the front. A distinct and playful bit of flair, the Fringe Birkin is certainly ranked among the holy grails of Birkin bags for collectors.

Courtesy of 1stDibs

THE ENDLESS ROAD BIRKIN HAC

The “Endless Road” is the 2018 flagship pattern for Hermès’ menswear collection, and with this pastoral idea of the winding California roads and landscape came the Endless Road Birkin HAC. A simple design on the surface, the bag is actually done in many pieces of applique, expertly affixed with the detail and craftsmanship that only Hermès can master.

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

THE TOUCH BIRKIN

For 2017, Hermès began to play with the Birkins material possibilities and added yet another “touch” of whimsy to the style. To make the first creation in the Birkin Touch line, Hermès took the body of the bag fashioned out of Matte Vanille alligator and attached two Natural Sable Veau Butler leather handles to the top, creating a charming combination that looks incredibly special. Later, they began to play with this idea further, creating versions where the two rolled handles, flap, and the sangles were fashioned out of Matte or Shiny Crocodile or Alligator, and the body is done in recently introduced Novillo leather. This stunning bag has been on the top of many collectors’ lists and is sure to be a top-ranked collectible in the future.

ONE TWO THREE AND AWAY WE GO BIRKIN

In 2018, Hermès partnered with British artist Nigel Peake and created a Birkin design that is replete with color and pattern. With the name that evokes nursery rhyme, the “One Two Three and Away We Go” Birkin is done in supple Swift leather, in a beautiful array of colors. An incredibly rare limited edition, this bag was only created in the 25cm size.

THE OFFICIER BIRKIN

Military aesthetics have always been a draw of inspiration for fashion, from camouflage prints, to padded shoulders, and to severe structured silhouettes. Hermès turned their attention to this trend in a subtle way with the Officier Birkin in 2018. Incorporating two Swift leather stripes down the left side of the front, the Officier Birkin evokes the decorated shoulder sleeve insignia of uniformed officers, hence the name Officier Birkin.

THE DIAMOND BIRKIN

No compilation of Hermès rarities would be complete without mention of the absolute pinnacle of luxury handbags. The absolute ne plus ultra of Hermès bags, the Diamond Birkin is a juggernaut that straddles the line between sculpture, luxury handbag, and an object of fine jewelry. The 35cm size for Diamond Birkin bags is brimming with 182 VVS F White Round Brilliant diamonds on the plaques, 7 diamonds on the touret, 16 diamonds on the pontets, and 40 diamonds on the Cadena lock, for a total of 8.2 carats. If that was not enough, the whole display is set in 10 grams of 18K White Gold. But wait, there’s more! Hermès even created only a small handful of the Diamond Birkin in White Himalayan Niloticus Crocodile, one 30cm version of which went on to be the most expensive handbag ever sold on the secondary market, at around $380,000 USD.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Courtesy of Christie’s

The Birkin may come in all shapes, colors, patterns, and materials, which makes for a seemingly personalized handbag that feels as though it was designed just for you. Part of the allure of this bag is how many variations there can be, which opens the imagination and possibilities for the future. If you could have your ideal Birkin bag, what would you make it? Anything is possible with Hermès.

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