Bonjour les amis,
This week we return to our popular French Icons series. If you thought la baguette, le béret, la marinière, French cafés and la tour Eiffel were quintessentially French, I’ve got another one coming.
Last fall, while spending Thanksgiving weekend in Portland, Oregon, I spent some time in a wonderful local bookstore, Powell’s Books. As I was browsing the Fashion section, looking for a book on a favorite lady of mine, Coco Chanel, my eyes were caught by a funny looking cover and a funny sounding title. That is when I found it: The book that taught me everything there is to know about the most famous handbag in the world, the Birkin, by Hermès.
|A must read even if you don’t like fashion|
To those readers who are not interested in fashion, handbags, material possessions, or money talk, I apologize, truly, I do. But I had to write this story, and if you stay with me until the end, I hope you agree it was worth it.
When I found that used copy of Michael Tonello’s book a year ago, I had heard about the Birkin Bag, and as a French native, I knew the prestigious Maison Hermès. I have stopped by their flagship store on elegant Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris over the years.
Founded in 1837 and family-owned for six generations, Hermès stands tall and proud in the high fashion world. A visit to a Hermès boutique is a delightful and unforgettable experience. Most people are not accustomed to living in the lap of luxury; I know I am not. In an age when so many goods are [cheaply] mass-produced in foreign markets, looking – and, if luck strikes – touching objects painstakingly handcrafted (usually by the same highly trained artisan,) with the finest leathers, fabrics, or hardware available, is an incredible, and entirely sensuous experience. Hermès’ fine crafstmanship and meticulous attention to detail were on display in major cities last year during the company’s “Festival des Métiers” (Festival of Crafts). The worldwide tour started in Seattle. Many locals (some belonging to the French community) were invited to watch Hermès employees while they created some of the legendary products the company is famous for: handbags, silk scarves, ties, watches, and saddles. You can read more about this unique event here.
From the start, when the company opened as a harness workshop serving European nobility, Hermès has always been associated with quality… and luxury. A saddlery line was introduced later on (it still runs today, and the horse motif is represented on many Hermès products, including, bien sûr, the iconic company logo.) By 1914, the company was granted the exclusive rights to use the zipper (“la fermeture Hermès,” “the Hermès fastener”,) for leather goods and clothing, and they introduced the device in France over the next few years. Leather handbags were launched in the 1920s, soon to be followed by a full line of accessories: the iconic “Carré Hermès” (silk scarves) in 1937, elegant and exclusive watches in the 1930s, and the perfume line, in 1949. There are 14 product divisions chez Hermès today!
|The legendary Hermès logo and signature orange boxes
were introduced in the 1950s
As Hermès expanded over the world, in particular in the United States through a partnership with Neiman Marcus, the company designs became increasingly inspired by illustrious works of art, books, and themes deeply ingrained in contemporary French culture. These motifs were – and still are – more noticeable in the design of the Hermès silk scarves, often entrusted to French and international artists. It is no wonder, then, that so many Hermès products have become instant collectors’ items while Hermès, to millions of people around the world, has come to represent… France and the French culture.
|Catherine Deneuve wears Hermès’ most famous scarf pattern:
“Brides de Gala” (Gala’s Bridles), produced over 70,000 times since the 1970s
|Grace Kelly was a big fan of “Le Carré Hermès…”|
|… as was Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis|
|A framed Carré Hermès as wall decor|
While silk scarves account for about 12% of Hermès sales (the legend claims a Hermès scarf is sold somewhere in the world every 25 seconds,) over 30% of sales are said to come from leather products.
All Hermès handbags are handcrafted with natural products and international symbols of luxury. They are produced in limited quantity and can be hard to come by. In spite of their exorbitant price tags, two handbags are particularly coveted by fashionistas all over the world.
First, the Kelly bag. Launched in the 1930s as “Le Sac à dépêches,” (the dispatches bag,) it became an instant hit when Princess Grace of Monaco used it to hide her first pregnancy in public in 1956. Later on, she was featured carrying a crocodile version of the bag on the cover of Life Magazine. The marketing team chez Hermès promptly renamed the bag: “Le Kelly,” as demand soared.
|Being a princess has its perks!|
Today, a Kelly fetches astronomical prices, in Hermès boutiques or on Ebay: We are talking several thousands of dollars for a basic model, les amis, and tens of thousands of dollars for the most coveted and rarest skins, like crocodile. The average Kelly bag takes 18 hours to make – by a single artisan – and it has a lifetime warranty. Your bag can be sent back to the Hermès workshops in Paris at any time, and it will be refitted and returned to you like new.
In the movie “Le Divorce,” I was not terribly moved by the ups and downs and break ups experienced by the leading characters (Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson.) What crushed me was the final scene when Kate Hudson throws the brand-new Kelly bag her [older] French lover gave her as a parting gift from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Silly American girl.
|So you lost the French lover, but you still have the BAG, girl!|
|Nope, I guess she did not need it. Voilà le Kelly, flying over Paris!|
If you think the Kelly has a cult following, wait until you hear about its younger (and larger) cousin, the Birkin, a.k.a. the ultimate elite status symbol, a.k.a. the most coveted handbag in the world!
If you have never heard about the Birkin, do not fret. I did not know that much about the iconic bag until I read that funny little book by Michael Tonello, Bringing Home the Birkin. Then I saw the Light. Watch him explain below how, in the 1990s, he became the saving grace of wealthy women all over the world – and Hermès’ worst nightmare – when he reinvented himself as a successful high-end merchandise reseller on Ebay. Until Michael, there was a notorious “two- to five-year waiting list” to get a Birkin bag– or so Hermès claimed. Tonello figured out Hermès boutiques did, in fact, have quite the Birkin inventory in their back rooms. Through trial and error, he came up with an [honest] way of buying the best Birkin bags from said boutiques, and resold them – at a profit – to his ever-growing client list.
A story of creative entrepreneurship, the book is light-hearted, and entertaining. Tonello takes you through the luxury world of the great European capitals, including Barcelona, where he finally settled down and found love. When you close it, you will understand why Sex and the City’s Samantha (in the above video clip) makes a fool of herself at the Hermès store. You will understand (well, maybe…) why stylish Victoria Beckham is rumored to own the world’s largest collection, with Birkins in every size and color.
|Birkin-endowed but sour-faced Victoria Beckham|
At the very least, you will laugh at Michael’s on-the-dot descriptions of the Hermès marketing machine and sales staff. You will not believe what some women have done to get their hands on a coveted Birkin. After browsing online, I can officially ask: Which celebrity does not own a Birkin? Voilà some favorite shots…
|Renée Zellweger and her orange Birkin|
|Expensive, but handy: The Birkin as a travel bag|
|The ever-stylish Sarah Jessica Parker with a striking blue Birkin|
|Sandra Bullock hangs on to her Birkin in Le Proposal (2009)|
|Another orange Birkin… for Julia Roberts
(in her best BOurgeois-BOhemian wear)
|What NOT to do to your Birkin: Lady Gaga|
Even though every single starlet in Hollywood seems to prance around, a Birkin dangling from her [skinny] arm, the legendary bag was created for an iconic European star, Jane Birkin, in the 1980s.
British singer, actress, model and activist Jane Birkin is rumored to have met a Hermès executive during a London-Paris flight. After she complained she could not find a good weekend leather bag to carry her numerous belongings, he offered to create one just for her. The Birkin bag was born!
|A young Jane Birkin -with a straw bag-
has not met her Birkin yet! (1960s)
|“Jane (Birkin) and Serge (Gainsbourg)”:
An iconic 60s couple
|Jane was rumoured to hide Serge’s beloved cigarettes
inside her Birkin
The legend has it Jane thought the Birkin was too heavy and had contributed to her tendinitis. Hermès probably did not mind, as Le Birkin has since then become their best-selling bag. Last April, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Jane auctioned off her [customized] original bag on Ebay on behalf of the British Red Cross and raised over $160,000.
Jane’s original, customized, tendinitis-inducing Birkin
|“Au revoir, faithful Birkin!”|
|Jane, autographing her Birkin|
There are people in this world who only hesitate a split second before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a handbag – not any handbag, mind you, a Birkin or a Kelly. Will I ever get one? Non. Even if I could afford one of these beauties, I would be terrified of letting it out of my sight. I am glad they are are out there, though, and as a dedicated people-watcher, I’ve had fun catching occasional sightings of the famed Hermès products on a Parisian sidewalk, in San Francisco or in New York. I honestly would not know what to do with a Birkin, here in my corner of suburbia. Others might disagree. I wonder how many [affluent] soccer moms show up at their kids’ games carrying gear in their Birkin “à la Renée Zellweger?” Better to arrive on the soccer field with the ultimate status symbol covered in grape juice or goldfish cracker crumbs than show up with a generic carry-on, non? 😉
Moi, I am happy there are companies out there like Hermès; companies who still make quality goods; who take the time to train their employees; and who stand behind their products. I was so impressed with the skills and professionalism of the Hermès craftsmen I met in Bellevue, WA during last spring’s Hermès Festival of Crafts! There is hardly any turnover, as most employees stay with the company for the duration of their career, quite amazing in this day and age.
So let’s wrap up this story with the wonderful skilled artisans of Hermès. Without them, none of the beautiful handbags I have shown today would exist. Chapeau, les artistes! (Hats off to the artists.)
|Handcrafting a Kelly bag (Mykonos blue)|
|Two master silk printers creating another fabulous “Carré Hermès”|
|The finished product: the softest, thickest silk you have ever touched.|
|The friendly saddle-maker (each saddle is numbered and entered manually in the Hermès register)|
If you want to know more:
Witness the famed Hermès craftsmanship in these video clips. Amazing.