Thursday, 7 January 2010

Holiday reading: Bringing Home the Birkin

The basic black Birkin.

Over Christmas i read Michael Tonello’s Bringing Home the Birkin (New York: Harper, 2009) which demystifies the most famous and most expensive handbag – the Hermes Birkin – as much a Holy Grail of luxury as it is a pop culture icon with prices as high as $60,000. A light read but significant in it’s exposing of the marketing myths of luxury brands and their inculcation of consumer desire based on false information. The Birkin probably entered popular culture in the late 1990s when Sex and the City (and later in episodes of the Gilmore Girls, Will and Grace and Gossip Girl) devoted an episode to the most coveted of bags and its notorious waiting list. There are even blogs devoted to random Birkin spotting. My first awareness of the brand name Hermes was the film Basic Instinct in 1992; Sharon Stone’s character uses Hermes scarves to tie her victims to the bedstead. She was a classy killer. The Birkin is copied the world over, often spoken of in relation to the smaller Hermes Kelly Bag (named after Grace Kelly) and mistaken for the larger Hermes Haut a Courrois which was originally for transporting horse saddles as befits the company’s 19th century origin. The Birkin name came about when on a flight sometime in 1984 Jane Birkin was seated next to the CEO of Hermes Jean-Louis Dumason when she bemoaned the need for more space in the Kelly and a design collaboration ensued.

Tonello’s book is as much a story of ebay entrepreneurship as it is the story of how he managed to procure hundreds of the impossible to purchase Birkin bags and sell them on for substantial profit. Anyone who has sold through ebay will recognise the same travails of online selling. Tonello explodes two pop culture fashion myths – firstly, the waiting list and secondly Hermes own claims to producing a limited number of Birkins a year. Even if you have the money to buy an entry level Birkin you can’t just go in to a Hermes store and buy one. It doesn’t work like that since it is the unobtainability that amplifies their desirability. You will be told that there’s a waiting list of approximately two years and that’s even if they bother to ever call you back. However, Tonello discovers what he calls ‘the formula’ for getting the Birkin in nearly every Hermes store he visits. His formula for a ‘same day Birkin’, one that bypasses the waiting list and thus reveals it as a fallacy, is buy lots of scarves and leather goods first, spending a few thousand, and then casually drop into conversation asking if they have any Birkins. With that first offering at the luxury altar the Hermes sales assistant (which he breaks down in to five stereotypes and how to deal with them) disappears in to the back of the shop and magically produces a Birkin. The profit on a Birkin re-sell is so high that Tonello is able to fly the world in search of more Birkins for rich American women and, exposing another fallacy, he alone manages to acquire more than the supposed annual production that the Hermes spiel suggests. In the end Tonello tires of the travel, Hermes and the world of luxury goods and no doubt Hermes cottons on and changes its tactics of sale when it comes to keeping the Birkin shrouded in legends of unobtainable.

Product placement: Carrie Bradshaw appears in Season 6 (Episode 16 - 'Out of the Frying Pan') of Sex and the City holding a Rouge H 30cm Matte Crocodile Birkin.

(photo credits: yumyumcherry; DVD screen grab; permissions)


  1. Nice!
    Happy New Year,
    michael tonello~

  2. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

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