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Book review: "Bringing Home the Birkin," by Michael Tonello

May 5, 2008
So are you familiar already with what's known as the Birkin bag? It's the product of Hermès, one of those European "designer boutiques" that exists for no other reason than to severely overcharge rich people with self-esteem issues; you know, one of those places that sells hundred-dollar handkerchiefs, $500 t-shirts and the like, eagerly bought up by the wealthy and idle so that they can prove to strangers that they too can afford to waste $500 on a t-shirt. (Yeah, I don't get it either.) But of all the ridiculously overpriced merchandise that Hermès sells, perhaps none is more infamous than their Birkin handbags; named after a famous French singer and habitual Hermès customer, these bags cost a minimum of $10,000 new from the store, and depending on the type can run you upwards of $75,000 or more. And human nature being what it is, of course, it's nearly impossible to get one's hands on an actual Birkin, with there being an infamous two-year waiting list at most stores to even be given the opportunity to blow that kind of money; needless to say, the self-imposed scarcity drives all these upper-class women with self-esteem issues crazy, with some of them willing to go to almost any lengths and pay any price to get ahold of one of them themselves.
And thus enters witty gay entrepreneur and Huffington Post columnist Michael Tonello, whose new memoir Bringing Home the Birkin is a doozy of a book; it's the purportedly true story of how Tonello managed to get his hands on literally hundreds of Birkins himself over just a few years' time, always done legally and with Hermès employees fully aware of his existence, making himself a fortune in the process by reselling them on eBay for insane markups. And I'm telling you, this is exactly what you want a personal memoir to be -- funny, thrilling, chock-full of great cocktail-party stories told with the flair of a natural raconteur, following an overall storyline as tight as any fictional project, one whose ending is not necessarily something you can guess beforehand. It's one of those books I just absolutely love coming across as part of maintaining CCLaP -- one of those books I would never naturally pick up myself, but that turned out to be a real delight, one that makes me happy and glad to be in a position to recommend to others.
So how did Tonello do it? Well, for starters, it helps if you don't buy into the hype of brand-obsession yourself; although a longtime collector of fine clothing (usually in the service of his former day job, providing hair and makeup services to various east-coast media shoots), Tonello admits that he doesn't share the religious devotion to certain designers like his clients do, and finds it emotionally easy to give up ownership of high-ticket items. In fact, that's what brought Birkins to his attention in the first place; after impulsively moving to Barcelona in the early 2000s, then having his prearranged job fall apart once arriving, Tonello found himself selling off big portions of his back wardrobe to the various designer consignment stores around the city, amazed that certain decade-old scarves of his would still be snatched up at nearly the original price by certain crazed collectors. This led him to eBay (of course), where he found that he could actually make a profit off of certain items depending on what they were; this then led to certain customers emailing him with "wish lists," certain old and new boutique items that Tonello would keep a specific eye out for while traipsing across Europe in his travels. And this, of course, is what led him to Birkins for the first time, and for developing the same kind of obsession over their fake scarcity as so many of us do when first hearing about them.
Because that's the smart thing about Tonello, and why he became so good at being a Birkin broker; he realized quite early on that this so-called exclusivity is simply a shell game on the part of Hermès, and that if you could just break their code it shouldn't be hard to buy a Birkin anytime you want, simply by walking into a store and asking for one. This led Tonello to trying out different things at the various Hermès stores he visited across Europe, trial-and-error style until he was able to notice certain things working over and over; and then this realization inspired the expansion of Tonello's globetrotting shopping sprees, to the point of finding himself traveling to places like South America and Russia on a regular basis, just to hit up the stores that rich old white women usually don't make it to. And when all is said and done, really, the winning equation to getting a Birkin turns out to not be that complicated at all...
1) Dress the part -- never walk in a store wearing less than a quarter-million dollars in clothes and jewelry.
2) Identify which of the half-dozen "Hermès employee types" you're dealing with when you walk in, then cater to their weaknesses. (So if it's a "Grandmother" type, act like the pleasant courteous son they never had; if it's an "Incurable Romantic," act like they have a chance of having sex with you later that night.)
3) Blow a thousand dollars first, buying other stupid crap. Or if you're in New York, blow five thousand dollars. Mention items by their specific names, to prove you're a long-time educated collector.
4) When they're ringing you up, off-handedly ask, "Oh, and would you happen to have any Birkins in the back as well?"
5) Ka-ching!
But of course, I'm simplifying the situation for humorous effect; as Tonello actually demonstrates here quite well, the real secret to becoming a Birkin regular is more complicated and ephemeral than that, a strange mishmash of sucking up, buying into the hype, and sincere friendships, a legitimate community of high-end haute-couture lovers that you must somehow ingratiate yourself into, if you want any chance of making an actual career out of something like this. And indeed, this is one of the big strengths of Bringing Home the Birkin, and what separates it from the endless similar chick-lit crap that HarperCollins desperately, desperately wants you to think of when thinking of this book (and seriously, HarperCollins marketing department, if you mention Sex in the City one more time in your promotional material I might just vomit all over myself); because Tonello shines a light here through the foggy haze of all that, and shows how the entire haute-couture culture is an endless house of cards that ultimately relies on peer pressure and catering to people's fears in order to work. It makes it a weightier book than the ones it will undoubtedly get compared to by others, a stronger tale that doesn't have to rely so much on you being an obsessive fashion-lover yourself in order to enjoy.
Now, that said, oh man does Tonello tell some great stories on the way to this disillusionment -- of flying into Rio just to visit a Hermès store, of attending star-studded European fashion events, of racking up half a million on a credit card in a single weekend. In fact, that might be the most enjoyable thing of all about Bringing Home the Birkin, is that Tonello is simply a natural storyteller and gifted raconteur; take for example what is easily the best story of the entire book, his uneasy relationship with a skeevy chickenhawk gay hustler he accidentally meets one night, who has various Hermès employees "eating out of the palm of his hand" and so can therefore get his hands on certain items that Tonello can't. Needless to say, things quickly devolve between the two, with Tonello eventually having to hatch a wacky noiresque scheme to steal back a $25,000 Birkin the hustler stole from him in the first place; there's not much funnier of a mental image in this whole manuscript, to tell you the truth, than that of Tonello sneaking around the streets of Paris with a group of headphoned goons in sunglasses, wondering if his hotel room is "safe" and asking himself just what he's gotten himself into, when first thinking it would be fun to sell a bunch of overpriced purses to a group of rich housewives.
This is what I mean by how wonderful this book is; it at once gives us all the great anecdotal stories that come with the highest end of the fashion industry, while still pointing out all the depressing realities that such an industry produces, all the various hangers-on in a community like that who swirl around the small amount of rich, beautiful and famous in the center. That after all has become the biggest problem with America's entertainment industry as well, that there is simply so much money being generated from it in so many different ways that it's become an almost unstoppable monster; it's no longer just about the actors and directors and producers in the middle of it, but all their yoga instructors and dog psychiatrists and personal shoppers, all the gossip columnists and publicists and people who get paid to convince celebrities to use certain products in public. That's what makes Bringing Home the Birkin so fascinating, because ultimately that's what Tonello's story is about as well -- not the fashion designers themselves, but those who game the fashion system in order to skim a profit off its top, the endless retail employees and eBay resellers and party crashers and blog owners and the rest, all of them taking their own little cuts from the massive amounts of money being exchanged in the middle of it all.
It's a fascinating book that tells a fascinating story, not the best-written thing I've read this year but certainly far from the worst, one of those fabled books about fashion that even non-fashion-lovers can enjoy. It gets a big recommendation from me, and I imagine will also be one of the winners of CCLaP's annual "Guilty Pleasure Award" at the end of the year.
Out of 10: 9.2


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