History of the Hermès Birkin Bag
The origin of the Hermès Birkin bag is the stuff of fashion lore.
In 1981, British-born, Paris-based actress Jane Birkin received a surprise upgrade on her Air France flight, finding herself seated next to then-chief executive of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas. There are many versions of this story, but all revolve around the contents of Jane’s bag—including her Hermès diary—spilling all over the floor. In reaction to the mishap, Dumas kindly suggested she find a bag with pockets, which prompted Jane's now historic declaration: the day Hermès made a large bag (not a weekend tote) suitable to carry all of a woman's belongings, she would give up her signature oversized basket bag. Dumas immediately pulled out a pencil and an airplane sick bag, and the two collaborated on a sketch for the now iconic Birkin bag, which Hermès debuted in 1984.
Although the Birkin has worn the crown as Queen of Handbags for some time now, it was not a runaway success. It took until the late 1990s for the bag to become known as the chic handbag of choice for elites. The episode of “Sex and the City” chronicling Samantha’s quest to get her hands on the elusive bag helped usher the Birkin into an even brighter spotlight. Now, over 30 years since its launch, it’s as hard as ever for potential owners to get their hands on this chic accessory.
What was previously known as the bag's ‘waitlist’ is now referred to as its ‘wishlist’ – it can take years to get one's hands on a bag, which is often not even possible without an ‘in’ with an Hermès representative. The price tag can range from around $8,500 to upwards of $200,000. In 2013, a diamond-accented Birkin set the new World Record for handbags, selling for a staggering $223,000 at auction in Hong Kong. According to Forbes and Bloomberg Business, a Birkin bag is perhaps a better financial investment than gold or stocks since they almost always increase in value.
Hermès, a house with a history making impeccably handcrafted leather goods, was originally known for its equestrian wear. The brand takes production extremely seriously, training craftsmen for a minimum of five years—even longer if they want to work with lavish materials such as ostrich and crocodile, which command the highest end of the market. A single bag can take anywhere from 20-48 hours of solid work, which contributes to the bag's relative scarcity and in turn, helps to keep it in high demand.
Unsurprisingly, the bag is a favorite among celebrities. Victoria Beckham famously admitted to owning more than 100 Birkin bags, and often makes appearances with a flawlessly coordinated outfit and bag. In a testament to the true versatility and timelessness of the Birkin, model Kate Moss used hers as a diaper bag. There is also a trend of celebrities like Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian defacing Birkin bags, and actress Candace Bergen even started a business she calls “Bergen Bags,” where she paints on people’s high-end handbags.
While Kim Kardashian may have gotten a lot of flack for having not one, but two, modified Birkin bags—one of which was finger-painted by her one-year-old daughter—it seems the bag’s namesake might actually approve. Jane Birkin herself is only on her fifth bag, and consistently defaces them. She has covered her bags with protest stickers and worry beads, auctioning them for charity when she is, at last, ready to retire them and move on to the next.
“There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around, so that it looks as if the cat’s been sitting on it – and it usually has. The cat may even be in it!” Birkin once explained to Vogue.
Freeman’s is very pleased to have two quintessential Birkin bags from the early 2000s in its upcoming December 13 auction, which is comprised of jewelry, watches and luxury accessories. Both handbags showcase 35cm leather with palladium hardware, with one featured in the Rouge Garance color and the other, Vert Anis. As Department Specialist Lauren Peck put it, “No other bag has as much notoriety or prestige surrounding it as the Birkin.”
If you are interested in learning more about the value of your handbag, or are looking to consign into our upcoming auction, please contact the Department.