Photo: AP Images
In the world of accessories, the Hermès Birkin bag stands alone.The iconic handbags, which can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 depending on size and material, are the stuff of legend.
First designed for actress Jane Birkin in 1984, they were produced in such limited numbers that they were nearly impossible to obtain.
The company maintained an infamous waiting list for the bags, often keeping customers waiting for years before delivery.
They’ve draped the arms of the rich and famous; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Katie Holmes and Eva Longoria have all been spotted carrying the bags, and Victoria Beckham is rumoured to own a trove of Birkins worth $2 million.
But the bags aren’t just about a look. They helped Hermès weather a stormy economic downturn–half of the company’s $3.2 billion in revenue came from leather goods sales in 2010, and the company just announced a 50% jump in profits for the first half of the year.
They are also a keen selling point for luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which has been targeting the design house for a potential takeover.
But above all, they are the cornerstone of a brilliant, decades-long marketing campaign, according to Michael Tonello, who spent eight years buying up Birkins and reselling them on eBay and eventually wrote the tell-all Bringing Home the Birkin.
“They no longer use the term ‘waiting list,’ but they say they encourage people the ‘establish a relationship’ with a sale person who will help them try to get a Birkin,” Tonello said. “It’s essentially code for ‘spend money in the store, and you’ll get a Birkin.”
What is it about the bags that has women swooning?
“It’s really very, very iconic,” Tonello explained. “When it comes to women’s goods, there’s nothing remotely similar. Men can have fancy Italian sports cars or Patek Philippe watches, but for women this bag signals, ‘I’ve arrived, I’m wealthy and powerful,’ or ‘my husband is wealthy and powerful.'”
Hermès built buzz around the bags by keeping production numbers low and selling only to VIPs or celebrities, Tonello said.
Tonello, who started out buying and selling Hermès scarves, was at first routinely denied when he walked into a Hermès store and asked if there were any Birkins in stock. But he soon discovered that if he bought an armful of other items first, a salesperson would almost unfailingly produce a giant orange box containing a Birkin from the back room.
Photo: courtesy Michael Tonello
The Birkin turns 27 this year, but it’s star power doesn’t appear to be fading.If anything, the steady stream of celebrities carrying Birkins and their appearances on TV shows like Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls have created a new generation of Birkin-worshippers.
“There isn’t another company that keeps driving home old world craftsmanship like Hermès,” Tonello said. “Their whole schtick is that everything is lovingly made by old world craftsmen in an atelier in Paris–and people buy into that. They consider themselves lucky to be buying something from Hermès.”
“When most brands open a store, the idea is to sell merchandise. at Hermès, their whole thing is, we ‘don’t have it–they act like you’ve asked for plutonium, or a ticket to Mars,” he added “And that works because people want what they can’t have.”
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