“It’s not a bag, it’s a Birkin!” This phrase has entered popular culture through Sex and the City, uttered by an Hermès sales clerk to Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, who does not understand how hard it is to get ahold of what is possibly the most coveted and mysterious model in fashion. Its history is full of rumors and myths. The bag’s much-talked-about waiting list —a subject the brand refuses to talk about, possibly aware of the power of rumor— is due to the fact that its production rate does not keep up with demand. In an effort to clarify the truth Michael Tonello wrote the 2009 book Bringing Home the Birkin, a book in which he claims that he only needed three months to get 130 examples of the model.
Despite Tonello’s words, the fascination with the Birkin has only grown, with special thanks to resale platforms. Vestiaire Collective notes that searches for the Hermès Birkin grew by 20% on average last year compared to those dating back to 2021. “Since the beginning of 2022, Hermès handbag sales have recorded a 15% increase compared to the same period last year. January 2022 saw the maximum rise, which reached 40% compared to the previous year,” they say.
“On the one hand, we are faced with the legend of inaccessibility that surrounds them, and the truth is that it is increasingly difficult to get them. That makes people want them more. When you go to an Hermés store to buy a bag, the brand wants you to know its tradition, its history, its quality and everything behind the brand. Their desire is for you to have an experience with the brand and to get to know their products. In fact, if you buy other things, you might have a better chance of buying a Birkin. That’s why they want people to approach the brand, because they are the ones who decide if you are ‘worthy of having a Hermès bag.’ You might have to go three to four times to get one. Without a doubt, it is a status symbol,” says Virginia Ibañez Dionisio, founder of La Agencia Secreta, which hunts down luxury brand objects.
The popular bag was created in honor of Jane Birkin. On a flight from Paris to London with the then-owner of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas, the actress told him that she had never found her dream bag. In 1983, three years after the informal chat, fashion’s most popular design was born. What few people know is who owns that bag. It is Catherine Benier, a renowned collector, lover of vintage Hermès and Chanel designs and owner of part of the archives of the aforementioned French fashion houses. Catherine B, as she is known, is the owner of Les 3 Marches, a small Parisian boutique that has become a temple for fashionistas, visited by celebrities like Cameron Diaz.
She has owned the Birkin for 23 years, and she refuses to say how much she paid at the bag’s second auction: in 1994, Jane Birkin herself auctioned it to raise money for an AIDS charity. “No one knew where it had gone since then and I never imagined it would ever come up for auction again,” Catherine B explains in an interview posted on Christie’s auction website. “In 2000, a friend at a Paris auction house told me she had something I needed to see. When I went, she pulled a bag out of a safe. It was the one I had seen a thousand times in photographs on Jane Birkin’s arm. I knew it had to be mine,” she confesses. “When I got it, the first thing I wondered was how I was going to pay for it. But I had already sold some other pieces so I could buy it.” “I’ve always loved old things that tell a story,” she added.
She assured then that she would never sell it. Recently, though, when asked again, she responded to Instagram account STYLE NOT COM with an enigmatic “Who knows?” She has said that her intention was never to profit from the bag’s resale, as it is “part of fashion and design history.” In fact, it saddens her greatly that so many people acquire luxury pieces planning to resell them, as she believes that an investment of any kind, without passion, has no future. In her own store, she makes sure that her acquisitions and sales are guided by what her heart dictates, and not by her pocketbook. She has gone so far as to reject pieces that she knew would sell, but that she didn’t believe in.
Catherine B’s “Who knows?” brings us to ask what price the bag might fetch. Time magazine claimed years ago that the Birkin bag was a better investment than gold. “Considering that one of the three original bags sold for over €110,000 ($115,500) in 2013, imagine its price 10 years later! Some parameters to take into account: Hermès is a symbol of luxury, and its owner an icon, added to the bag’s history and rarity. The Birkin bag’s fame has surpassed that of the actress, Jane,” explains Arnaud Maillard, an expert in vintage clothing.
People on the street got a close-up look at the original Birkin in 2020 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where the piece was the epicenter of the Bags: Inside Out exhibition. Previously, it was on display at MoMA. Catherine herself has explained to STYLE NOT COM the condition of the bag is. “When I got my hands on it, it was in acceptable condition, considering the way Jane used her bags. The design was created to live and travel with her, and that’s what it has done. I haven’t touched it, nor have I modified it at all. I’ve even left her nail clippers inside,” Catherine B has assured, noting that since it is considered a museum piece, it has been treated and kept as such.
On her Instagram profile, she did not hesitate to post an image of the bag, tired of hearing so many stories, “all crazier than the others,” about the bag. “I pose [sic] here the original birkin in black box, with a non-removable shoulder strap and the initials J.B issued in 1985,” she wrote next to the photo.
Will we ever know where the first Birkin is, and will it eventually be auctioned off? Maillard doesn’t think so. “Knowing her, I know she won’t want to part with the original model. I think her daughter will inherit this treasure full of stories and emotions,” he says. If true, that would have horrified Birkin herself. She once said that owning one of her mother’s Birkins seemed horrible to her, which is why her daughter Lou never had one.
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