In June, Christie’s are auctioning the world’s two most expensive designer handbags. They’re both Birkins and their combined value is over a quarter of a million pounds. They’re unique, sure – but those figures are not unheard of. Alexander Fury examines the new market for handbags whose craftsmanship – and price – is seen on a par with works of art. And arguably as tempting an investment.
Handbags are big business – and for once, that doesn’t refer to the fashion houses making millions from particular styles they dub to be “It”. The most in-demand bag, in fact, is one you can’t even purchase in a store – the Hermès Birkin. It’s named after Jane Birkin, who inspired the design – on a flight in 1981, she griped to a fellow passenger of the impracticalities of the current hold-all she was toting. Said passenger happened to be Jean-Louis Dumas, chairman of Hermès, who subsequently designed a bag meeting Birkin’s demands, and named it after her.
There are a number of reasons for the Birkin’s overwhelming and enduring popularity. Advertising isn’t one of them – Hermès may feature the bag in a campaign, but they’re as likely to focus on a coat, a printed silk scarf or even a saddle (Hermès was first established as a harness workshop in 1837, and a horsey bent runs through their wares). The longevity of the design – bar occasional tweaked versions by the house’s designers (Jean Paul Gaultier offered a variety of variations on dimensions during his tenure as creative director from 2003 to 2010) – ensure it’s a solid investment. Inured to the vagaries of fashion, it can be used year in and out. Hermès’ craftsmanship is second to none – no glue is used in the construction of the bag, and each is completed by a single craftsman, identified by a stamp on the interior, which enables the bag to be returned to the person who originally made it for any repairs. The bag takes around 18 to 20 hours to construct.
Apocryphal tales abound of customers swanning into Hermès boutiques and purchasing their first Birkin with ease, but generally speaking, you’ll put your name on a waiting list, and wait. There’s a sub-plot to an episode of Sex and the City that revolves around a character’s extreme attempts to bag the bag. Personal relationships with Hermès staff are presumed to help circumvent a list that can, allegedly, require up to six years of patience (helping to save the five-figure sum often demanded for the bag). In 2004, while in the dock on insider trading charges, domestic goddess Martha Stewart was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion when she came to court clutching a Birkin, an unfortunate symbol of wealth itself also subject to well-documented insider swindling to acquire (she was, of course, also later convicted by a court of law). Approximately 70,000 are made each year (a number unsubstantiated by Hermès), which does not meet demand. Hence the fact that today, many are turning to a secondary market – which Hermès would not comment on – to secure the coveted item.
That makes it sound illicit and shady – and there is plenty of that. In 2012, Hermès won a judgement and US$100 million in damages against 34 websites selling fake copies of its goods. The counterfeits ran the gamut, but a glance at some of the websites’ urls – HermesBirkin-Bags.org, or HermesBags-OutletStore.com – make clear the focus of the trade. In 2008, Hermès won another lawsuit, against online auction site eBay, for failing to crack down on a vendor selling fakes.