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Why is a Birkin bag so scarce?

When the English/French actress Jane Birkin died last July, I wrote about her life and noted that many people, outside of France, who had never seen her films,

still knew her name because of the bag that Hermes designed for her and called the Birkin.


It’s quite a charming story, Jane Birkin was on a flight and found herself sitting next to Jean-Louis Dumas, who headed Hermes, which is a family-run company.


   When Birkin got up, everything dropped out of her bag and she complained to Dumas that she needed a handbag that would accommodate all the things she carried with her. Dumas, promised to help. And a few weeks later, when Birkin was back home in Paris, a package arrived from Dumas. It contained a bag Hermes had specially made to Dumas’s design to cater to her needs.


   Since then, the Birkin bag has become a symbol of understated elegance and timeless luxury. It never forms part of any sale. Nobody can buy it on discount. Influencers are never asked to promote it. It has no celebrity brand ambassadors; Hermes doesn't even sell it at most of its stores. And yet it is the most coveted bag in the world.


   Because it is so hard to get a Birkin (more difficult even than procuring a Kelly, another iconic bag that was renamed after Grace Kelly made it famous) a whole industry has grown up around finding ways to procure a Birkin. There has been a best-selling book about a man’s search for a Birkin. The internet is full of hacks through which you can apparently trick Hermes into selling you a Birkin. (It doesn’t work so the hacks are useless).


   And there is a vast secondary market. Even when you make the huge payment required to purchase a Birkin (I would imagine that prices begin at around Rs. 9 lakh and then stretch to the stratosphere depending on the leather or skin used), you have already made a profit. You could re-sell your Birkin on the spot at something like a 25 per cent premium. If you hang on to your Birkin, it will increase in value every year —- over the last two decades it has constantly out-performed the US stock market.


   All this makes the Birkin much more than a bag: it is a phenomenon like no other in the world of luxury.


   And this annoys a lot of people. Last week, two shoppers in California launched a class action lawsuit against Hermes, accusing the brand of refusing to sell them Birkins “despite multiple attempts to purchase”.


   It’s hard to see how this kind of lawsuit can be sustained. I can hardly sue King Charles for refusing to sell me the Kohinoor “despite multiple attempts to purchase”. Perhaps because they saw the difficulty, the Californians have added another claim to their suit. They say they were told that they would have to buy lots of other Hermes products before they would be allowed to buy a Birkin. And this is clearly unfair, they argued.


   It is for the courts to decide if the Californians are telling the truth but frankly, I find their claims hard to believe. Sales staff at Hermes are trained to be as helpful as possible to customers but to never ever push them into ordering any kind of product. There is no need to do this. Hermes’ profits keep rising and never mind the Birkin, it is now difficult to buy any kind of Hermes bag at most stores.


  "Because of Hermes’s reliance on artisanry, all of its bags are made in much smaller quantities than say, bags sold by Chanel, its only significant competitor at the top end of the market."

   For instance, if you go to the brand’s flagship store in Paris, you won’t be able to buy a handbag off the rack. Instead, you will be told that you have to make an appointment to buy any leather handbag. At that appointment, they will examine your requirements, tell you what is in stock (or what is on its way from the atelier) and will try to see if they can match their availability to your needs.


   In these circumstances, it is very hard to imagine a shopper being told “first you have to buy lots of Hermes scarves and clothes and then we will sell you a bag.”


   So why is a Birkin so scarce?


   The short answer is: Artisanship. Every Birkin is made by hand. Hermes employs around 3,000 artisans at 15 different ateliers in France to make the Birkin. The artisans are highly trained: it can take up to seven years to learn how to master the most complicated bags. This process cannot be hurried along. Though Hermes will not provide any figures it is generally believed that it has trained more artisans in recent years and that the number of Birkins made annually has gone up over the last decade in response to global demand. But it cannot increase production beyond a point. And perhaps we are at that point now. So, demand will continue to vastly outstrip supply.


   Because of Hermes’s reliance on artisanry, all of its bags are made in much smaller quantities than say, bags sold by Chanel, its only significant competitor at the top end of the market. (Both Hermes and Chanel have been family-owned for generations. Nearly every other big fashion/ luxury house is part of some conglomerate like LVMH or Kering.)


   As the people who have come into great wealth in this century have learned to distinguish between luxury brands based on industrial production and heavily hyped labels and those that depend on high quality and artisanship, the demand for all Hermes bags (not just the Birkin) has gone up. Go to any Hermes store and you will be told that the bags on the shelves are for display purposes only. The process of actually buying a Hermes bag will be more complicated.


   While I am sure that Hermes is unperturbed by the current controversy about the Birkin bag, the constant media and internet focus on Hermes handbags has also been a mild distraction. The company famously started out as saddle-makers and then became best known for its silks. It has always made high-end handbags, but the global craze for Hermes bags only started in the mid-1980s after Jean-Louis Dumas created the Birkin.


   But even Jean-Louis Dumas wanted to explore other areas, hiring the perfumer Jean Claude Ellena for instance, to overhaul the perfumery division. Jean- Louis’s son Pierre-Alexis who is now the artistic director of Hermes has pushed the house deeper into other areas: High quality watches, for example, and a well-regarded and booming homewares division as well as a greater emphasis on clothing. So yes, the Birkin is a visible symbol of the Hermes legacy of artisanry, but in the larger scheme of things, it is not as significant as it may seem from the outside.


   Why does the scarcity of Hermes bags, and the Birkin in particular, provoke such a frenzy? My guess is that those are about the only luxury products that the super-rich cannot snap up at will.


   You may be a Russian oligarch or an Arab sheikh or a Chinese tycoon. But when you put your name down for a Birkin, you wait in line like everyone else.



Posted On: 26 Mar 2024 10:30 AM
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