It’s considered – by celebrities, socialites and tai tais at least – as the ultimate status symbol to carry on your arm. The iconic Hermes Birkin bag, named after actress Jane Birkin and produced in very limited quantities by luxury French fashion and leather goods purveyor Hermès, has achieved a cult-like cachet and is coveted by royalty, both of the blue blood variety as well as those from Hollywood and lovers of luxury. But apart from is mystique, what makes the Birkin so highly sought-after and valuable? Here is a breakdown on why some people would literally risk life and limb to get their hands on this bag.
As far as handbags goes, there isn’t one that comes close to the Birkin when it comes to the craftsmanship and skilful techniques employed in its making. Hermes’ leather atelier is located on the outskirts of Paris and it is at this facility where the Birkin takes form and comes to life. A leather artisan has to undergo rigorous training with more experienced masters from between three to four years before they are allowed to create this portable work of art. When they have passed the stringent test which makes them a Birkin craftsman, they then are responsible for making the Birkin from start to finish using the same tools that were used in the 19th century, ensuring that their initials together with the year, and name of the workroom where the bag was made are stamped in the bag so that if the bag is brought back for repairs, it can be repaired by the same craftsman who made it.
Making a Birkin bag comprise four main stages, starting with the selection of raw materials. From the tanning of calf leather to the specialised treatment for crocodile skin, Hermes pays meticulous attention to quality control and the provenance of the leather and skins used for the Birkin. After an exposé by PETA on alligator farms in Texas and Zimbabwe sparked an outrage among animal rights activist as well as the actress whose namesake bag used the crocodile skins, Hermes assured everyone concerned that this was an “isolated irregularity” and would ensure compliance with best management practice and reiterated its “firm commitment in the ethical treatment of crocodiles in partner firms.” No doubt ensuring all these SOPs are strictly adhered to will inevitably add to the cost of the making the Birkin. There was however, no mention of lizard, ostrich or calf leather and whether those animals were ethically treated or not.
The requisite 18 hours or more taken to make one Birkin bag means that the particular craftsman will devote one to two weeks just on that one particular bag. Bearing in mind that France has a 35-hour working week, a craftsman at Hermes can only make about two Birkin handbags a month. This very limited production ensures that the quality of a Birkin is never compromised and that its quantity guarantees exclusivity. Making a Birkin bag has also been compared to building a house, with the bottom of the bag as solid as the top and the interior as durable and luxurious as the exterior.
Available in four sizes, all Birkins are stitched using Hermes’ famous saddle stitch, a hark back to its heritage as a saddle and harness maker for the carriage trade back in 1830’s. This specialised way of sewing joins two pieces of leather together using only hand and is painstaking as it is laborious. It’s the same way a saddle for horse riding is also sewn and it requires two needles and beeswax-coated linen thread. This saddle technique involves the needle crossing at every thread so that if the thread is cut at any point, the entire stitch will not unravel.
With the most basic Birkin starting at US$10,000, the sky seems to be the limit when it comes to the stratospheric prices they command. The most expensive Birkin sold to date was a matte white Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Birkin 30 with a diamond encrusted white gold clasp which was sold for US$383,522 (RM1.53 million) at an auction in Christie’s Hong Kong last year. Birkins are bona fide asset classes, with investments rivalling a Picasso or Matisse when it comes to yields. Forget gold or stocks and bonds, according to The Independent newspapers in the UK, a Birkin handbag outperformed both gold and the S&P 500 in the last 35 years, rising by 14.2 per cent compared with gold at 1.9 per cent and the stock market at 11.7 per cent.
With an interminable waiting list, and that is only if you are well connected, it appears that the probability of buying a Birkin from a Hermes store is on par with winning a lottery. Blame it on savvy marketing strategy, the vagaries of supply and demand or the fastidious methods involved in making a Birkin as outlined above, but this scarce and much desired commodity which appeal is enhanced by being seen dangling on the arms of style icons such as Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé will continue to inspire and draw admiration from women (and some men too!) the world over.