Friday, July 11, 2008


On the Beach, Under a Tiffany-Blue Sky

There are two unorthodox things about this summer’s most adorable chick-lit book: It’s a work of nonfiction, and it’s written by a guy. Michael Tonello’s “Bringing Home the Birkin,” the story of one man’s relentless assault on the world’s horsiest luxury-goods label, may break the mold a bit, but it does a fine job of fulfilling this genre’s basic requirements. It’s smart. It’s fizzy. It’s amusingly snarky, with attitude to burn. The genre’s four basic food groups are ambition, romance, travel and partying, and Mr. Tonello dishily delivers (he adores alliteration) them all.

Even better, when its Tiffany-blue dust jacket is removed, “Bringing Home the Birkin” looks as if it’s bound in Hermès crocodile. This is an expert feat of one-upmanship, since the most merchandise-minded beach books are hellbent on putting something either flauntable or edible on their covers.

Trumping the competition’s graphics took ingenuity. After all, the flashiest beach book of the moment, Lauren Weisberger’s “Chasing Harry Winston,” has cover art depicting diamond rings stacked on the super-high spike heel of an inexplicably hairy shoe. (Something very bad appears to have happened to a white pony.) That is the season’s high-water mark for either wretched excess or fabulousness, depending on your point of view. But Mr. Tonello’s antic memoir takes a more interesting view of consumer culture. And it has the rare advantage of being as much fun to read as it is to tote around.

His bright story idea ......But Mr. Tonello found a canny way to capitalize on the cravings that Ms. Weisberger takes seriously. After pluckily deciding to change his life and move to glamorous Barcelona (a fluffy premise if ever there was one), he needed to make a living. And he noticed that Hermès merchandise, though a trifle steep in stores ($295 for a pair of men’s cotton boxers), could be sold for even crazier sums on eBay. He then became obsessed with digging up obscure Hermès items from stores’ old inventory and reselling them to Hermès fanatics. He quickly graduated to Hermès’s showiest products: crocodile Birkin handbags in the $20,000-and-up price range.

His ace in the hole was Hermès’s insistence that buying a Birkin required putting one’s name on a waiting list. Some Hermès stores even told him that the waiting list was closed. So Mr. Tonello, whose book is worthwhile even on the level of business strategy, developed a set of tactics that enabled him to outsmart Hermès salespeople. His irreverence, coupled with the company’s pretension and the overall weirdness of crocodile-handbag addiction, make this book a welcome cure for the usual shop-till-you-drop pathology.

The snobbery, treachery and status seeking that Mr. Tonello describes are, of course, staples of the beach-book world. Penny Vincenzi, an accomplished if long-winded British writer whose style Publishers Weekly has called “chickensian,” has a particular affinity for all of the above. She sets “An Absolute Scandal” in the 1980s and lets it revolve around Lloyd’s of London, though its characters fall into sharply defined socioecomic categories. Told that one character is a “name at Lloyd’s,” another character doesn’t really understand what that means, except that it appears to be “a club for posh, rich people” and “very socially desirable....”

Monday, April 7, 2008


Starred Review. In a funny, whip-smart memoir sure to be a sensation among Vogue and W devotees, erstwhile hair and makeup artist Tonello (now a columnist for chronicles a surprising (even to him!) trans-Atlantic move from Provincetown, R.I. to a city he’d fallen in love with on a short trip: Barcelona, where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. Tonello’s initial euphoria dissolves when his new job fails to materialize. To stay afloat, Tonello starts selling items on Ebay with startling results: his first, heart-racing success, a year-old $99 Polo scarf he sold for $430 to a Midwesterner (“I guess he really liked plaid”) makes Tonello an instant believer in the resale capabilities of high-end luxury items. Thus his new trade, and his quest for the Birkin, the “it bag” of all time, famous for its impenetrable waiting list (“What do you mean the waiting list is closed? It’s a waiting list. So I can’t wait?”). After many failed attempts, Tonello plans a weekend drive to Madrid in search of the haute couture holy grail; the result is a both a hilarious raid on fashion’s strongholds and a memoir that satisfies like a novel. Fashion die-hards, and many others, will be delighted from beginning to end.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


...Several months later, I heard through the grapevine that Hermes was opening a shop in Athens in a few weeks. Now possessed of a completely different view of Hermes openings, I immediately picked up the phone and called Paris to try and get a phone number for the Athens shop, and with luck finagle an invitation in the process. No such luck. I racked my brain. Suddenly I remembered Katrin, one of my Birkin clients, who lived in Los Angeles and had a summer home in the Greek islands. I phoned her posthaste, hoping she was in California, praying that she had some specific information on the opening.
"Hi Katrin, it's Barcelona."
"Hi, sweetheart, what a surprise. Are you in Barcelona? Oh, you just said that. I just got home from Paris last night, so I'm a little dopey." We moved through some pleasant idle chatchat and discussed the new French collections, which she just returned from seeing. Katrin never missed a single runway show. Usually, I loved talking with her and listening to her prattle on in her thick, sweet, French accent. However, today I had an agenda.
"Katrin, are you going to Athens for the Hermes opening?" I hoped it sounded like I was already going, rather than like I was fishing for an invite.
"I'm going with Constantine, who is from Greece and is only twenty-three but acts like he's thirty-five and has more money than Croesus. His father is a real Greek shipping tycoon..." Katrin rambled on and on, giving me every detail of this Constantine character. While I'm sure normally I'd be riveted (yeah, right), instead I was calculating my next question. When she took a breath, I pounced.
"So where are you staying?" I asked in a tone I hoped was less CIA, and more drawing-room.
"Oh, the Grande Bretagne, I always stay there. It's right near the best shopping and I don't see any reason not..." she blathered on. Oh, Lord. Why hadn't I asked when instead of where? Now I suddenly had Rick Steeves on the phone. When she was running out of oxygen again, I rolled the dice.
"I better book soon, or I'm gonna end up in some dump. When is this thing again?" Blissfully unaware of my machinations, Katrin threw me the bone I had been praying for. Since any hope of an actual invitation had been quashed, I decided to crash the party. I booked a flight and reserved a room at the Grande Bretagne. (Thanks for the tip, Katrin.) I figured what the hell, some Birkin buyer somewhere in this universe was paying, even if they didn't know it.
When I arrived into Athens, it was raining, which was kind of a drag. But then I reminded myself I was here for business, not pleasure. Thus resigned, I checked into the hotel and asked the concierge how long it would take to get to the Hermes shop. Much to my surprise, he told me that it was directly behind the hotel, less than a minute's walk. Fabulous. Armed with a ridiculously giant hotel umbrella, I walked over to check out the windows and see if there were any bags visible. As I rounded the corner behind the hotel, I was immediately confronted with a large orange tent that ran the entire length of the small block. I was accosted with a virtual nuclear explosion of orange: a symphony of orange pillows, orange urns cascading with orange flowers, orange carpets with orange fleurs-de-lis; obviously, some event planner was given a fat budget to really orange it up. I anticipated seeing Champagne flutes with orange juice. There were dozens of people (fortunately, none of them orange) frantically working to get everything in place for this evening, and I tried to remain invisible as I maneuvered my way to the front of the shop and the mammoth plate-glass windows. I could not believe my eyes: I counted four croc Birkins, the highlight of which was a bleu roi and a poudre. Then I spotted the mother lode: a black matte lizard Birkin, which is so rare as to be nearly mythological. Oh boy, this was going to be fun!
I headed back to the hotel to shower and dress. I donned the chalk-colored Prada suit from my Pierre Gagnaire evening with Serge, now properly tailored. This time I paired it with a baby-pink two-ply cashmere turtleneck from Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Now an expert in shawl/chaine d'ancre interaction, the only adjustment I made to that combo was the shawl color - I went with my new fuschia one this time. I did one last thing before leaving the hotel room - texted Sarah about possible croc Birkins coming her way. I figured, why not be positive?
It was forty-five minutes after the appointed time when I finally arrived. Feeling like a character from a bad spy film, I had already tied a small piece of Hermes cloth ribbon around my wrist. Since I knew that this company's only bit of creativity went directly into their scarf designs, I figured this would again be the "secret handshake." Their dogged love of tradition would serve as my gilt-edged invitation. My instincts were right. I seamlessly bypassed the "ribbon table" and slipped right into the party. I armed myself with Champagne and disappeared into the haze of orange festivities.
Within moments, I spotted Jean-Paul Gaultier, the "enfant terrible" of Paris fashion and the current director of Hermes women's ready-to-wear. With all his white hair in all that Hermes orange, he looked like nothing so much as a Creamsicle, albeit an expensive one. I bet he wasn't wearing an Hermes ribbon on his wrist. No way to find out, though - sycophants were circled around him like wagon trains at dusk. I scanned the rest of the crowd. I thought I recognized a woman across the room but was not certain how I knew her. Having little else to do besides people-watch, after the second glass of Champagne, I pushed through the throng and approached her.
"Excuse me, but you look really familiar," I ventured. Catching me totally off guard, she gave me a hug, like a long-lost friend at a high school reunion. I still had trouble remembering how small this Hermes world really was. It turned out she was the woman who had sold me the "reserved" crocodile at the Hamburg Hermes shop. Lovely Hannah, of course. The original Grandmother.
"I'm the manager here now," she said with a big smile. I returned her smile without a bit of faked enthusiasm. I was really excited, because I knew Hannah loved me. Visions of croc bags leaving the shop with me danced in my head.
As we spoke, a man sauntered up. He looked like he had looted an Hermes shop and was wearing all the bounty: a bright orange croc H-belt, diamond brooch, with rubies and sapphires, diamond-encrusted watch, orange croc shoes, the whole nine yards. As if that gauche display on any one person wasn't garish enough, he was carrying a woman's 40cm orange croc Birkin. What the fuck? Some orange crocodile out there was missing her mother. Hannah evidently knew this apparition and introduced us.
"Michael, I'd like you to meet Lakis Gavalas. Mr. Gavalas designed the Kelly Lakis bag for Hermes."
Oh, wow, here he was - Serge's summer playmate. I hadn't expected him to look like this, but on second thought, how could I have? I decided to show him that he might not know about me, but I sure knew a few things about him.
"Wow, this is really amazing. Serge at the Faubourg sold me a Kelly Lakis a couple of years ago. He told me about your vast collection of Hermes bags, and your fabulous house parties out on Mykonos," I said. I inwardly cringed at how gushy I sounded, but that's why I was there, after all. As much as it pained me, I had to play the game.
At this point, Lakis extended a limp hand. I didn't know whether I was supposed to shake it or kiss it, as if he were some sort of pope of homosexuality. I nearly gagged, and settled on weakly gesturing with my Champagne flute in his general direction. Placated by my pandering, Lakis then launched into what was less a conversation and more a self-aggrandising monologue. I found myself mesmerized - not by his inane, solipsistic drone, but rather by his teeth, which had been bleached so many times they were now the color of moonstones. Set off against his George Hamilton uber-tan, they honestly made him look Photoshopped. He finally begged off and headed in the direction of the Creamsicle......

Michael Tonello's books on Goodreads


NBC-TV/Today Show
Summer Reading Round-Up

Bringing Home the Birkin
top 10 summer reads!




May 18, 2008
Bag Man