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Birkin gave her name to the iconic Hermes handbag

When the French/British actress Jane Birkin died on Sunday, there was confusion over what her greatest achievement had been.

Within France, Birkin was an icon. She had fled to France from her native Britain after a relationship with composer John Barry (he created the music for many of the early James Bond films), with whom she had a young daughter, collapsed.


She did not speak a word of French but in the Sixties, if you were young and charismatic, you could get by anywhere in the world. Birkin went on to learn the language, became a highly regarded singer and actress and though some people claimed that till the end, her French sounded like she had just stepped off the ferry from Folkestone, most of France loved her anyway. When she died (of cancer, it seems) the news of her passing was confirmed by President Macron himself.


   But elsewhere in the world, where her records had rarely sold and her films were not much watched, her death was notable for an entirely different reason; because of the iconic, expensive and hard-to-get Hermes handbag that Birkin gave her name to.


   Though many people on social media claimed that she had designed the bag, she actually had no role in its creation though she did inspire the designers.


   There are many stories about how she came to be associated with the bag that carries her name but while they differ on the details they all share certain elements.


   It is generally conceded that Birkin was on a flight where she sat next to Jean Louis Dumas, the man who turned a medium-sized family business into the international luxury powerhouse that Hermes is today. Birkin had packed her possessions into a straw bag (according to one version, others disagree on the exact nature of the bag/basket she was carrying) and it was clearly not large enough to accommodate them all.


   At some stage her things fell out and she bent down to gather them up. Dumas, always the consummate gentlemen, got down on his knees and scurried around trying to help her find them.


   What followed next is disputed. Either Birkin complained that Hermes did not make bags that were large enough for women like her who had to carry too many things around or Dumas himself offered to create a bag for her that suited her requirements.


   I only ever met Dumas once. I had dinner with him in the 1990s in Kolkata with his friends Naresh and Sunita Kumar (Dumas was a great India lover and came here every year) and we talked about the bag. At that stage the Birkin which had been created in 1984 was still not the magic name it was to later become and Dumas told the story matter-of-factly. Yes, he had been on a plane with Jane Birkin. And yes, the decision to create a new handbag had been inspired by the sight of Birkin’s belongings spilling all over the aircraft cabin.


   He went back to Hermes headquarters, Dumas said, and asked his designers to come up with ideas for a bag that could suit the lifestyle of women like Jane Birkin who had lots of things to carry around and found little use for the dainty little handbags that many fashion houses made.


   As far as I remember, Hermes was known in the 1980s mainly for its silks (the ties were famous; the scarves were legendary etc.). Yes, Hermes had started out in the leather business — the company originally made saddles — and did sell many high quality handbags but the legend of the Hermes bag was restricted to a tiny circle of jet-setters. At that stage, its most famous bag was called the Kelly.


   The Kelly had been created as far back as the 1930s because Robert Dumas who later ran Hermes for many years (1951-1978) had wanted a modern woman’s bag to present a contemporary image for the house.


   For 25 years, nobody called the bag ‘the Kelly’ till Princess Grace of Monaco began carrying one around. Apparently she used it to conceal the early signs of her pregnancy by holding it over her baby bump. Eventually the bag came to be so closely associated with Princess Grace that Hermes officially renamed it the Kelly after Grace’s real name, Grace Kelly, which she used as an actress before she married into the Monaco royal family.


   Legend has it that Jane Birkin complained to Dumas that the Kelly was okay for rich and stylish women but it was no use to her. She wanted something more practical.


   The bag that the Hermes designers came up with was bigger than the Kelly that Princes Grace had sported and capacious enough to meet Jane Birkin’s requirements. Though Birkin’s contribution to its design had been restricted to asking Jean Louis Dumas to make her a bag, Dumas, always the chivalrous Frenchman, named it after her saying that had he not been on the flight with Jane Birkin, the bag would never have been created.


"Jane Birkin had wanted a capacious bag but Hermes had done such a fabulous job of designing it that even at a large size it still looked stunning."

   Like most stories in the luxury business this one took a different turn. Jane Birkin had wanted a capacious bag but Hermes had done such a fabulous job of designing it that even at a large size it still looked stunning. Other women who did not share Jane Birkin’s need for space began ordering it and eventually Hermes started making smaller versions. For herself Jane Birkin continued using a large bag, treating it not as a fashion accessory but as simply a practical item made for her by a great French house.


   Around 15 or 20 years after the Birkin bag was created, an era of global prosperity and a craze for luxury goods swept the world. The dirty little secret at the heart of the luxury business is that most houses try and make their ready-to-wear goods as cheaply as possible while selling them at vast mark-ups. Brand-crazy consumers will pay huge amounts for factory-made goods if they have the right label.


   Hermes, on the other hand, has refused to go down that route. It still sees itself as an old-style artisanal house and distances itself from brands that mass-produce their goods in factories in China or other places where labour is cheap. 


   A decade or so ago, I went to Paris to see how a Birkin is made. I was surprised to find that each bag is made by hand by a single artisan. Deep inside the bag you will find a number corresponding to the name of the artisan who made the bag. If you need to get it repaired after you have lugged it around for some years, Hermes will send it to the artisan who originally made it and he will handle whatever repairs are necessary.


   As you might imagine, the hand-made artisanry not only takes time but because the artisans need to spend years in training, there is, at any given time, only a limited number of people  who can make the Birkin.


   This has the effect of restricting supply. Hermes simply cannot keep up with the demand for Birkins. That the bags are very expensive is not a surprise, given the high cost of the leather and the painstaking artistry. But here’s the thing. They are in such short supply that even if you have lots of money you may not be able to buy one.


   You can’t usually walk into a Hermes store and buy a Birkin. You have to order it. That process could take up a year. And because demand is so high, all too often Hermes will refuse to even accept an order, no matter how wealthy you are.


   The law of supply and demand suggests that if Hermes were to double (or even quadruple) the price of a Birkin demand and supply would match. But Hermes refused to do that. The bag is already very expensive it says because of the high cost of making it so it would not dream of exploiting the shortage to make more money for itself.


   This drives rich women crazy. Anyone can buy a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci bag. You just have to be rich enough. So the idea of a bag that isn’t available to the highest bidder befuddles wealthy people.


   A huge, largely illegal and certainly dodgy, subsidiary market has grown up around the Birkin. There are bootleggers who make fairly good fake Birkins that the average person would not recognise as bogus. Given that a Birkin costs around Rs. 9 lakh these days, fakes that go for around 2 lakh are considered a bargain. In Bangkok, where I am writing this column, there are skilled forgers who meet customers only by appointment and accept orders for bogus Birkins. My guess is that a high proportion of the Birkins you see on the arms of many rich ladies in India have no connection to Hermes or its artisans.


  And then there is a grey market. The moment you buy a Birkin you are in possession of a product that can be sold for much more than you paid for it. I imagine that some lucky persons who have scored Birkins use them for a few months and then sell them on the grey market at a profit.


   Hermes is desperately unhappy about all of this. But the market is the market. So there is only so much it can do.  It tries to fight piracy but like all luxury brands, it knows that it can never fully stamp it out.


   When Jane Birkin died on Sunday, the New York Times noted that in America the bag was more famous than the women who inspired it. This is true. But I admire Hermes for respecting her Bohemian legacy and refusing to sell the bag she inspired to the highest bidder for some absurd sum.


   And it is good to see luxury houses in this brand-crazy era that stay true to the legacy of the men who built the house. For Jean Louis Dumas it was always about artisanship. Not about branding and showing off by the vulgar rich.




  • Asha Dixit 22 Jul 2023

    Super read..

Posted On: 18 Jul 2023 11:00 AM
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