With burgeoning waiting lists in years gone by, a bold size and ladylike allure, the Birkin is a must-have bag for a never-ending succession of modern women.
The Kelly might have endured and grown, but its formality was very much of its time and it took a very modern star in the 1970s to prompt Hermès to make a bag that has engendered more hysteria, magazine headlines and waiting-list fears than arguably any other accessory.
At first sight, the Birkin looks remarkably similar to the Kelly, but the ethos is entirely different. If the Kelly is the bag incarnation of the ice princess, all cool elegance and witty retorts, the Birkin, named for the eccentric British actress and singer (and honorary Frenchwoman) Jane Birkin, is about free-spirited, sexy provocation.
Perhaps that’s a lot to read into a bag, but Birkin, in her groundbreaking raunchiness and firework-lighting relationship with her French lover Serge Gainsbourg (their song ‘Je t’aime... moi non plus’ said it all), and her chaotic lifestyle, was the inspiration for this big, bold bag.
The story is now legendary: it was 1981 and she was on the same flight as the Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. Stuffing her customary straw bag back into the locker, the contents spilled out onto the floor, leading her to bemoan the difficulty of finding a good travel bag. Dumas went back to Hermès, revisited the haute à courroies (the source of the Kelly design too) and by 1984 had created the soft, spacious bag that would become the Birkin.
Birkin herself might now bemoan its tendonitis-causing weight, not to mention apparently customising it with protest stickers and beads, but that hasn’t stopped a generation of women losing their sanity over it.
The six-year waiting list, back in the early 2000s, helped cement the bag’s status, inspiring an episode of Sex and the City, as well as an exposé in Michael Tonello’s Bringing Home the Birkin. Nowadays the list has been abandoned, but in spite of the celebrities who buy their many Birkins to match their outfits (we’re looking at you, Victoria Beckham), it’s no easy task to get hold of one. That’s less because of deliberate rationing than the painstaking craftsmanship that is still used to make the bags.
Like the Kelly, the Hermès is hand-sewn by craftspeople who must train for several years before being let loose on the precious leathers and hardware they use. The famous double saddle-stitch, using waxed linen thread, two needles and an awl, can only be done by hand. It doesn’t matter how rich you are: you just can’t speed up that process. That’s real luxury.