The Birkin Bag Phenomenon

It’s become one of fashion’s most enduring tales: Jane Birkin was sitting on an aircraft next to Mr Dumas, Chairman of Hermes, in 1984, she reached into her handbag for her diary, spilled the entire contents of her bag and told Mr Dumas how she wished there was a bag better suited to her needs. He decided there and then to design a practical, timeless piece in her honour.  The Birkin was born.

Hermes was no newcomer to the world of highly sought-after handbags.   The Kelly had been around for a number of decades, made popular by Grace Kelly when she carried a large 40cm black Kelly bag in an attempt to hide a pregnant belly.

 

Since the 1980s the Birkin has become the greatest IT Bag in history, with the longest waiting list of any fashion accessory.     If you are lucky enough to place an order for a bag, you can expect to wait from 6 months to 3 years.  The bag is considered a worthy investment as they hold their value and can be resold on the second hand market.

Sizes: Handbags are made in 25cm, 30cm, 35cm, 40cm, and 50cm sizes and the shoulder Birkin.

In terms of style, the Birkin is actually considered an everyday bag, at least when it is of calf leather rather than an exotic skin.   The 35cm is a large, practical handbag, which many wearers will carry open rather than spend time doing up after delving in Starbucks or Harvey Nicols for change.  The 30cm is popular in the Asian market, and the 40cm is really only recommended for women at least 5’6” tall; otherwise it can look awkward and beware, with all that leather, the bag is heavy!    The 50cm bag is an overnight bag.  The shoulder birkin was created for clients needing to have their hands free: the shoulder straps allow children’s hands to be held and shopping to be carried.

Leather

Hermes bags come in a number of leathers: calf, lizard, ostrich and crocodile.   Bags are made by a small team of artisans in France and Italy.   The leathers are:

1. Calf

The leather is European, usually from the south of France.  There are a number of different calf leathers, including togo, clemence taurillon, Epsom, fjord and veau swift.
Soft calf leather: this includes the popular togo and clemence taurillon. The leather feels pliable, and will ‘give’ if you push the bag from the top.  Importantly, these leathers are textured – the surface has a pebbled feel  –  which makes them resistant to scratching.   Out of these two the clemence is the softer leather, but there is little between them and only an expert will be able to distinguish between togo and clemence.

 

Veau swift is also soft, but has a smooth finish, which makes it a more elegant handbag but less practical for everyday use.
Fjord and Epsom leathers are much tougher: these have the advantage of a long lasting bag.  The fjord is textured and looks much like the clemence and togo leathers, but will not give if you push down on it.  Epsom is gently textured, the ‘pebbles’ form very small patterns on the leather.

2. Lizard.

These bags are seldom seen in Europe, and are generally more popular in the United States and Asia.  They are usually made in small sizes – 25cm – which is more of an evening than day bag.     This ombre lizard bag shows graduated leather from the centre to the left and right sides.  The skin is perfectly parallel and is very hard to source and work with.  Hermes is one of very few leather houses who can achieve this.


3. Ostrich
These bags are usually produced in the 30cm size and are extremely rare in larger sizes.   The leather is patterned with dots equally spaced across the handbag.

 

4. Crocodile and Aligator

These bags will sell for up to $100,000.   They are collector’s items, and are hugely popular in the Middle East.    In order to buy one from Hermes a customer must show themselves to be a loyal Hermes customer and can still expect to wait up to three years.

There are two types of crocodile, the nilocitus and the porosus. The nilocitus is originally from the Nile, mostly Somalia, and the Porosus is Northern Australian. The latter are the most exclusive (and expensive) hides and are those most often available in Europe.   A porosus 35cm crocodile bag will sell in a shop at approximately £25,000 and will be usually 45 – 50% more expensive on the private market.

Aligator is from the US, and is less expensive. The scales are slightly different, but again only an expert will be able to distinguish between them.

The crocodile bags come in shiny and matte finishes: the shiny is more bling, but the matte is more easily damaged by water (each bag comes with a rain cover).

Metalware

The most common metalware is silver, which is palladium.  Gold is often more popular for more mature customers.   Both options occasionally come in brushed metal, where the metal is essentially matified.  Brushed 24 carat gold is the most exclusive, and highly unusual.

Authenticity and Stamps

Europe is relatively free of inauthentic handbags, but across Asia these are rife and clients are often concerned.  There are a number of ways of telling a fake: the most obvious the stamp on the  strap.  Behind the strap at the front of the bag the craftsman will stamp his mark (usually his initials) and a date. The current date is N.  This is for bags made in 2010.

Hermes doesn’t provide certificates of authenticity, but each bag comes with a dust bag (which used to be orange but is now beige), rain cover and a little Hermes card telling you about the leather.   In order to return a bag to Hermes  – and this can be done for many years following purchase – the bag should be in its orange box, regardless of its condition!

Purchasing

A number of resellers have emerged over the last twenty years.  These range from established companies to one person who has inherited a handbag selling on ebay.   While fake bags have been sold in Asia and America, this practice is luckily not known in the UK.