Monday, April 25, 2016

The bag you are not allowed to buy

They're so covetable, snooty stores will only sell them to the A-list. So what happened when we sent ordinary women to ask for a Hermes handbag

  • Hermes handbags are favourites of celebrities like Victoria Beckham 
  • They carry and £6,000 plus price tag, but distribution is strictly controlled
  • Sales assistants say they aren't in stock and don't know delivery dates
  • Bags take 18 to 25 hours to make by specialist 'artisans' in France
The immaculately turned-out shop assistant in the Hermes concession at Harrods is adamant. 'I am sorry, madam, we can't take an order and there is no waiting list,' she snaps. 'When they do arrive, they just fly out of the shop. To be honest, it is not easy to get one. Good luck.'
On London's Sloane Street, awash with wealthy Arab women and designer shops, it's the same story. A liveried doorman waves me into the gleaming Hermes emporium and I make my way to the handbag display.
But when I announce 'I'd like to buy a Birkin handbag, please,' the sales assistant raises an eyebrow and a chill seems to fall around the counter.

Celebrity fans: Victoria Beckham clearly has the connections to get her hands on an Hermes bag Victoria Beckham clearly has the connections to get her hands on an Hermes bag

For this is no normal shopping experience. This is what happens when an ordinary woman like me asks for the handbag money can't buy.
Commonly spotted hanging off the arms of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, the Hermes Birkin and VB's other favourite, the single-handled Hermes Kelly, are the ultimate in designer arm-candy. 
Costing an eye-watering £6,000-plus each, these bags are so covetable, they are said to be a better investment than stocks and shares - for unlike a new car or piece of jewellery, they appreciate in value the moment you buy them. Just one problem: you have to get hold of one in the first place.

Exclusive: Catherine Zeta-Jones is also a fan of her Hermes bag, pictured here in New York 

Auction house expert Max Brownawell explains: 'Your average woman can't just walk into Hermes and buy one. You'd have to have a long-standing relationship with one of their sales associates.'
This exclusivity and the subsequent mystique that surrounds the Birkin and Kelly has proved to be a phenomenally successful marketing trick.
Where other designer brands have become tacky and ubiquitous, Hermes alone, it seems, has been able to control access to its handbags to the point where they are badges of wealth even for the super-rich. Naturally, they are popular with the A list.

Zoe Brennan went to an Hermes shop in an attempt to purchase an exclusive £7,000 'Kelly bag'
Zoe Brennan went to an Hermes shop in an attempt to purchase an exclusive £7,000 'Kelly bag'
Kate Moss has a Birkin in denim, and celebrity fans include Elle Macpherson, Naomi Campbell and Sarah Jessica Parker, who between them have Birkins in all the colours of the rainbow, in skins from ostrich to crocodile, and price tags reaching up to £35,000.
Legend has it that the Birkin was born when the eponymous Jane Birkin, actress love of Je t'aime singer Serge Gainsbourg, was seated next to Hermes CEO Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight. She carried a tatty, over-filled straw bag and said she could never find a decent handbag. Dumas invited her to his workshop and the prototype was conceived. The rest is history.
The Kelly bag has just as glamorous a tale behind it. Originally designed as a saddle-bag in about 1892, it is named after the film star Grace Kelly, wife of Prince Rainier of Monaco, because she fell in love with one used as a prop during filming of Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief.

She put the large bag to good use in 1956, when, not yet ready to announce her pregnancy, she held one up to hide her emerging baby bump from the paparazzi. A picture found itself on the cover of Life magazine. With that, the bag was instantly synonymous with Grace and it was re-named the Kelly.
The Hermes website boasts: 'A Kelly is a rare and precious thing' and last week, a spokesman for the company stressed that the number of bags it can produce is limited because only a small number of craftsmen have the necessary skills to make them.
They pointed out that a single worker takes 18 to 25 hours to make each Kelly bag by hand, while the Birkin takes even longer, saying: 'Our production remains highly dependent on the know-how of our artisans.'

Kelly: The 'Kelly' is named after actress Grace Kelly

When I contacted Hermes to find out why I couldn't buy one, they said: 'Each Hermes store director worldwide is responsible for buying for their own store. They place seasonal orders twice a year, which are generally received six to 12 months later.'
Certainly, these bags are elusive - as I discover at the Sloane Street store, a haven of luxurious soft furnishings, gleaming glass cabinets and polished surfaces.
The customers are mainly Arab or Asian, the women dripping with diamonds, men dressed in cashmere weekend wear.
After I've stated my intention to buy a Birkin, a male assistant wordlessly ushers me towards a leather-covered desk and asks me to sit down.
'We do not have any in the shop,' he explains. 'There will be none until next month. And I cannot tell you when the next delivery will arrive. For security reasons, we don't even know what will arrive in the delivery.'
Perhaps I could buy a Kelly bag, then? 'The Kelly is even less available,' he says sternly.
But there is a ray of hope.
Would I like to see the leather samples? He opens a book of butter-soft leather and I am allowed to flick through. I pause when I reach an electric blue leather.
Could I perhaps order a bag, then - in this? His eyebrow arches again.
'No, madam. We do not take orders. It is not possible to order a colour. We get orange or red sometimes, and the odd time an off-white grey. Everyone assumes that you can simply order these bags - but it is not like that. It is a waiting game.'
Maybe I could see a bag?
He disappears, returning with three cloth dust-bags. Reverentially, he unveils their contents: the coveted orange 35cm Birkin in Epsom, a stamped stiff leather, and its cousin, the 30cm black model in Togo, a slouchier leather, and the 35cm Kelly in a soft Blue Jean Togo.

Amazingly, the writer was told that the shop assistant could keep an eye out for her when the bags come in

All the bags bear the distinctive Hermes, Paris, Made in France mark. It is rather like being in a museum, yet I am allowed briefly to reach out and touch these coveted icons.
My hand lingers on the price tag - £6,010. 'Oh, I don't know who wrote that,' says the assistant. 'That is an old price. The Kelly is about £7,500 now and the Birkin Togo £6,750. But in any case, they are not in stock.'
So why are they so expensive?
'If you look at this stitching, it is double stitched so that if one thread breaks it will not come apart,' he says, caressing the Birkin.
'We use only the top 10 per cent of the leather we look at. Our artisans are trained for three to four years before they are allowed to touch the hide. Each bag is made by a single artisan - and if you put several bags in front of one of them, he can pick out the one he made.'
He opens the Kelly. 'Look inside. Other bags are lined with fabric or cheaper leather, but we use the same quality of leather inside and outside.'
Trying to buy one is impossible, however. I gaze forlornly at the sample bags before me.
The assistant then shows me a catalogue of other styles, and as we leaf through, chatting about lesser models such as the Lindy, designed in 2007, and the Bolide, with zips down the side, the mood abruptly changes.
'We don't normally take requests but, since you are local, I can keep an eye out for you,' he says. 'I can take your number and call you to let you know when a bag comes in. What colour are you interested in?'
I cannot quite believe it. Amazingly, he is lifting the velvet rope and letting me inside this gilded world. Dazzled at the new VIP me, I can't think what colour to choose.
'The etoupe is a good choice,' he says. 'It goes with everything. Palladium or gold fittings?'
He takes my details, I thank him profusely and spill out onto the street, back among the ordinary people with their cheap single-stitched handbags. Momentarily, I have been seduced into feeling that I am extraordinarily lucky indeed to be given the opportunity to spend £7,000 on a handbag.
Saskia Murphy, 25, visited the Hermes store in Manchester but was told that they had none in the shop
The regretful smile that means 'Go away'
KATE BATTERSBY, 52, visited the Hermes concession in Selfridges.
I am trying very hard to buy a Birkin bag and getting nowhere.
Behind the Hermes counter is a supremely chic woman in her mid-20s, built on a different template to the rest of womankind.
Her waist is the size of my upper arm, her dark hair pulled back in a bun, no scrap of make-up except a crimson slash of lipstick. Her black ensemble is broken only by an Hermes scarf slung around her neck (basement price: £250).
'Hello,' I say. 'All my life I have yearned to own a Birkin or a Kelly bag. Now at last I'm in a position to do it and I'm going to buy one today.'
Mademoiselle Perfect flashes a pitying smile and informs me crisply: 'No. We don't have any available in this store.' I gaze blankly and ask to see one. She repeats the line.
'We don't have any here,' she says again. 'You can check in other stores whether they have any, but we don't have access to other stores.'
Access? Nothing as advanced as a telephone, maybe? Mademoiselle produces her regretful smile again.
I ask why there are none in stock.
'They were sold,' she says. 'Yes, all of them. Hopefully we will get more in. But I don't know when.'
Oh well, I tell her cheerfully. I'll go on the waiting list.
'We don't do one any more,' she says. 'It is first come, first served — you must pop in and ask.' I try one final approach: 'What if the Queen wants one? Does she have to 'pop in and ask'?'
Mademoiselle nods and smiles, as if to a small child who has understood something grown-up. 'That is how it works.'

We are not selling any handbags today
CAMILLA RIDLEY-DAY, 36, visited the Hermes concession in Selfridges and the New Bond Street store.
The young sales assistant, immaculately dressed in navy trousers, white blouse and Hermes scarf, glares at me in defiance.
Having explained to her that I'm keen to buy a Kelly bag, I am expecting her to lead me over to the glass display case where I can see 16 or so handbags.
Instead, her response is clipped and without apology. 'We are not selling any handbags today,' she declares - and when I persist, she calls over an older colleague who tells me they don't have any of the bags in stock.
I ask her if she could check on her computer where I might locate one. But no, she can't, insisting that they 'don't communicate' with other stores. 'No list of stock is held on the system,' she adds. 'Company policy.' Reluctantly, she gives me a card with the numbers of the other London Hermes stores and concessions on it, and suggests I could call each one myself.
I leave and decide to try my luck at the Hermes store in New Bond Street. But when I ask a male sales assistant on the first floor, he tells me rather snootily that 'there are none in stock'.
When I press him on when a bag might come in, he says they don't get deliveries at the weekend and that when their weekday deliveries arrive from Paris, they are not told what stock to expect.
'It just arrives,' he says. 'There might be a Birkin or a Kelly, or none at all. We don't know until the delivery arrives. We haven't had any for the last couple of weeks.'

Saskia is told that the shop does not even have a waiting list, as the demand was so high

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