The History and Evolution of the Birkin Bag

Birkin bags are considered the pinnacle of luxury. A number of notable cultural and economic sources, including Time magazine, have determined Birkin handbags are actually a better investment than gold, and certainly less risky than stocks.

The value of a Birkin has been increasing by an average of 14.2 percent each year. The Himalayan bag, so named because its coloring resembles the famed mountain range, became the most expensive handbag sold at auction when it fetched a whopping $379,261 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in June 2017.

With a good many costly price tags swirling around, it may seem shocking that the purse was actually initially modeled after a simple handwoven basket. Interestingly, the glamorous Birkin bag came from humble beginnings and still serves a highly practical purpose today.

The Origin and History of the Birkin Bag

According to fashion lore, the birth of the Birkin happened on a serendipitous plane ride when style icon Jane Birkin spilled the contents of a straw tote in front of Jean-Louis Dumas, a chief executive of Hermès at the time. Dumas was immediately inspired to create a purposeful bag suitable for the modern women and invited Birkin to collaborate with the brand. Four years later the Birkin bag was born.

In an interview with The Telegraph from the Hermès show in 2012, Birkin recalled specifically requesting a larger bag with pockets for all of her jet-setting. She then proceeded to draw her idea on a disposable airplane sickness bag. The practical appeal of the Birkin bag lies in its functionality. It is large enough for travel and seals to avoid spilling its contents on airplanes.

Hermès has a history of partnering with “It Girls” that represent the pinnacle of femininity and success to market their designs. Another of their top-selling bags is commonly referred to as the Kelly because it was popularized by the former Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. The Kelly evolved from a saddle holder first introduced in 1892. While the bag existed in the Hermès collection prior to Grace Kelly’s association, she elevated its status and popularity. 

Unlike the Kelly, the Birkin has a tote-like silhouette featuring two top handles indicating its practicality. As it was initially created for travel use, all Birkins come with a lock and key so the flap can be completely secured. Inside, the bag has one pocket as well a zipped compartment. The bag sits on four feet, referred to as clou to keep the bag standing straight.

In 2001, after an episode of Sex in the City aired featuring Samantha trying to skip the five year waiting list to get a Birkin bag, the Birkin’s actual waiting list tripled in length – cementing its place as an iconic “It Bag” of the 21st century.

The Anatomy of the Birkin Bag

There are a few key components that make the Birkin bag easily identifiable, which are highlighted below. Note the simplicity of the shape, style, and additions. Each of these elements can be customized allowing for a wide variety in textures, prices, and glamour.

In part due to the relatively low number of Birkin bags Hermès produces, the value of the product has continued to rise over the last several decades. Hermès has also kept the price high by maintaining exclusivity. Acquiring a Birkin bag is no small feat. You have to prove your allegiance to the brand by waiting for an undefinable amount of time, finding a connection, or purchasing several other expensive products.

Popular Birkin Materials

Hermès is known for their quality materials, and their leather is no exception. A few of the most popular materials include box calf, alligator, Clemence, Epsom, Togo, and Ostrich leather. After Jane Birkin made headlines for protesting the treatment of animals in 2015, the company’s ethical standards for the sourcing of materials became even more strict. While Birkin bags can be found in a variety of colors, they are largely made from the leathers listed below.

  • Box calf is the oldest type of leather available, initially used for the Kelly bags. The smoothness of this leather means scratches are easy to see, unlike many other popular materials used.
  • Alligator material comes in either matte or lisse, which is shiny.
  • Clemence leather comes from a calf and is scratch resistant with a grainy, matte look.
  • Epsom is also scratch resistant, but has much finer grains than Clemence and is known to be easy to clean.
  • Togo, also scratch resistant, is made from a calf and has a soft, pebbled finish.
  • Ostrich is an iconic material, easily distinguishable due to the large pores.

Each Birkin is completely handmade by one artisan and takes at least 12 hours in production, but the time can easily be doubled depending on specialty features. 

Selection of the World’s Most Expensive Accessories

In the chart below on the world’s most expensive handbags, note how many belong to the Hermès brand under the Birkin umbrella.

A standard Birkin model retails for around $12,000. While all investments have an inherent risk, the Birkin bag shows no signs of decreasing in value in the near future. In fact, the retail price of a base model Birkin bag has gone up nearly $10,000 in the 30 years they have been in production. Even taking inflation into consideration, that signals a strengthening of the market.

Hermès keeps the number in production under lock and key, resulting in increased demand and value. While the scarcity requires patience, it also maintains the investment for owners. Keeping your bag in tip-top shape also helps retain its value. To that end, Hermès also offers gratis servicing for its valued customers for life.

In 2016 it was reported that the wait list for requiring this exclusive bag was 6 years, but now the list is a thing of the past further elevating the status of this accessory. Unfortunately, acquiring a Birkin bag directly is a herculean task, so be sure to keep your eye on auction finds

Sources: Hermes | Time | The Economist | Fashionista | CNBC | The Telegraph | Purse Bop | NPR | Baghunter | Who What Wear