It’s 2005, and somewhere in an imaginary bourgeois suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, Emily Gilmore is positively mooning over the fact that her Rory has been gifted a Birkin bag by her boyfriend, Logan Huntzberger. It’s a reaction lost upon her granddaughter, who earlier mused, “I went to school with a guy named Birkin.” If there was any question in Rory’s mind of the significance of the Birkin, Emily’s dumbfounded glee hammers home the significance of the gesture, as with a raised eyebrow, she spills, “A Birkin bag… I’m going to remember this day.”
To breathe the word Birkin is to whisper a holy incantation among the upper crust. To fashion elite and likeminded social climbers, the bag seems to indicate not just luxury, or wealth, or celebrity, but a kind of social prowess. One must be well-connected, as they aren’t often displayed in-store, and up until recently, required the endurance of a years-long (and now abandoned) waiting list. And so the bag has become a pop culture icon, conjured in TV and film to symbolize, so succinctly, any number of profound emotions; from a symbol of ardor by the social elite in Gilmore Girls, to the blinding consumerism that led to Samantha shamelessly name dropping Lucy Liu in Sex and the City, to a most subtle indication of Lydia’s abused power dynamic in the Oscar nominated film Tár.
The origin of the Birkin bag is charming, to say the least. In 1981, Jane Birkin spilled her handbag on an airplane, and lamented its shortcomings to her neighbor, who, serendipitously, happened to be Jean-Louis Dumas, CEO of Hermès.
Birkin, a London-born actress and singer, rose to fame in France in the 1960s and was most well known as the lover and muse of French actor and musician Serge Gainsbourg, collaborating with him in music and film. The two were partners for 12 years, and share one of Birkin’s three daughters, Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was during this time Birkin established herself as a fashion icon, spending her time in the limelight painting the town with Gainsbourg, enjoying the benefits of French celebrity, and rubbing elbows with artists and musicians.
As a long-time customer of the fashion house, Birkin remarked upon spilling her bag, “The day Hermès makes one with pockets, I will have that!” and to her surprise, Dumas responded, “Well I am Hermès, and I will put pockets in for you.” Dumas surely would have been acutely aware that Jane Birkin was a style icon spanning the ‘60s and ‘70s, and may or may not have considered the irony that she was infamous for not carrying a purse at all, but a large, drum-shaped wicker basket, which accompanied her to Parisian street markets, discos, and red carpets alike.
Women Deserve Pockets, By Any Means
The notion of toting a large basket was a departure from women’s handbag trends in the ‘70s. While the 1950s were all about impeccably coordinated purses that matched one’s hat and shoes, and the ‘60s were about introducing more daring and exciting materials( à la Coco Chanel’s gold chain strap), the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were about a new level of practicality. Pockets were suddenly all the rage in women’s clothing, and handbags had to step up their ease of use. No longer fussy, and increasingly less cumbersome, handbags were still very much a staple of female fashion, and women often opted for a bag that was sleek, small, and flashy.
“The day Hermès makes one with pockets, I will have that!”Jane Birkin
In contrast, Birkin’s wicker tote conjured images of the pastoral. And yet, her inherent charm and effortlessly quirky style endeared the masses. Carrying a “Birkin Basket” was a significant style trend throughout the 1970s, one that is called upon even today within contemporary publications as natural textures and colors – macrame, wicker, jute, and rattan – experience a renaissance in fashion and interior design.
A Nonplussed Icon
Birkin’s particular brand of laid back and unpretentious fashion was somewhat an antithesis of Hermès’s precisional sensibilities. While Hermès has built a reputation on sturdy, yet refined construction and exceptional attention to detail, Birkin often donned jeans and fitted t-shirts. Even in her more high-fashion moments, she was nonplussed, and forewent fussiness for a playful approach, unafraid to turn a dress backward, add a bangle or a broach, and shrugging off otherwise scandalous moments—such as when a photographer’s flash exposed the sheerness of her dress, as well as all that sat underneath it. When the photos surfaced, a bemused Birkin stated, “If I’d had known it was see-through, I wouldn’t have worn knickers.”
Birkin was dearly attached to her signature basket despite its less-than-practical form and tendency to topple over, spilling out her belongings. She carried it loyally into the 1980s, until her third husband, Jacques Doillon, known for his tumultuous relationship with Birkin, purposely backed over the basket with his car in the aftermath of an argument Birkin can no longer even recall. The event happened just days before Birkin happened upon Dumas on her flight.
An Airsick Bag Leads to Glamour
And so, in the early ‘80s, with the iconic wicker basket strewn in pieces across her driveway, and the contents of her current bag strewn across the floor of the airplane, Dumas had stumbled into an opportunity not seen by the fashion house since the 1950s, when Grace Kelly demurely featured her own Hermès bag in order to conceal her pregnancy after an onslaught of photographers had caught her off guard. The “Kelly Bag” is Hermès’s second most sought-after piece.
As a flustered Birkin collected her spilled belongings, she remarked that a purse ought to have pockets for everything. Dumas scribbled, and by the time their flight landed, the preliminary sketch of the Birkin Bag sat, unassuming, on the back of an airplane sick bag. A few months later, Birkin was invited to Hermès to approve the prototype, and claimed that even the cardboard version was beautiful. She was humbled when Dumas asked if Hermès could name the bag “The Birkin”, recalling in an interview, “He said, well we’ve got the Kelly, and we’ve got Mr. Dumas’ traveling bag, or something, can we call this your name? And I said, “Ah! With pleasure! You know I was so flattered after the Kelly and everything.’”
Like Its Namesake, a Sensation
What followed was an exponential rise in popularity, with the bag bearing the name of Jane Birkin superseding the popularity, at least in the U.S., of the iconic actress herself. Not only referenced in dozens of instances across music, movies and television, the bag is also photographed hanging from the arms of every major American celebrity. The singer remarked of visiting the U.S., “Now when I go to America, they say, ‘Birkin… like the bag?’”
Each Birkin bag is handmade with premium leathers and hardware, and depending on the color and intricacy of the design, as well as its scarcity – some issues are limited edition – cost can vary greatly.
Take the limited edition Faubourg: intricate detailing depicting the façade of Hermès flagship store is made up of four premium leathers – Matte Alligator, Madame Calfskin Leather, Swift Leather, and Sombrero Leather, as well as Palladium hardware, all hand-constructed with breathtaking detail. Only fifty Faubourg-designed bags in each color scheme and unique 20 cm size exist.
Likewise, the rare waterproof ostrich leather of the Tangerine Ostrich Birkin lends a durability to its charming polka-dotted design. The sought-after bag’s bright orange color that harkens to the signature color of the brand itself is one of only five shades of orange ever used in the construction of a Birkin bag.
But this scarcity, while perpetuating the prestige of the bag, also favors the owner financially. Birkin bags are well known for nearly always appreciating in value. And with Hermès ditching their infamous waitlist, obtaining a Birkin is all the more difficult to accomplish, making resale markets a lucrative avenue.
With the bags’ rare leathers, skyrocketing values, and aggrandized reputation, Birkin herself, although notoriously nonchalant about the entire endeavor, has held the fashion house to a certain ethical standard, even threatening to remove her name from the product in 2015 if Hermès failed to adhere to humane practices in the sourcing of their materials. An activist on several fronts, she worked with the brand to assure to her satisfaction that their leather was procured as ethically as possible before reinstating her blessing that the bag retain her name.
Jane Birkin Forever
As for her own Birkin bag, who would Jane Birkin be if she didn’t approach the concept of her namesake bag with her signature detachment? Ironically, she seems to treat the world famous bag just as she did her farmer’s market basket decades ago. It’s a catchall of sorts, often overflowing with knicknacks, chains, and stickers. She claims it’s just more fun if her bag jangles when she moves. With a shrug she muses, “There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around.” She uses only one Birkin at a time, and wears it into tatters before requesting another. (The expired bags are then auctioned, with the proceeds going to a charity of Birkin’s choice.) Jane Birkin has managed to make a handbag that is world famous for carrying her name both authentically and antithetically Birkin. And so it seems, rather poetically, that there’s only one true Birkin bag in the world.
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