If there is one bag around which the entire secondary handbag market revolves, it is the Hermes Birkin. We have all heard the now-iconic bag’s origin story, involving the chance meeting of Jean-Louis Dumas, then Hermes chief executive and Jane Birkin, darling French actress, on a plane heading from Paris to London in 1983. As the contents of Jane’s straw traveling tote tumbled to the floor, she expressed to Dumas her unfulfilled search for the perfect leather weekend bag. The story goes that Dumas sketched out an idea on the back of an air-sickness bag, using one of the House’s classic closures from a decades old saddle bag design called the Haut a Courroies or HAC. The design was realised the following year, with Ms. Birkin receiving the first model of her new namesake bag; a 35cm black Calf Box version with Gold hardware and the original (and now quite rare) shoulder strap attachments at the top. It is said she was mildly surprised when expected to pay for the luxury item, as every celebrity has since.
Jane Birkin’s relationship with the handbag many now consider the most desirable and valuable bag in the world, is that of classic French casual indifference. She has questioned the need for more than one, and reportedly switched to carrying a Kelly bag long ago, as the Birkin was simply too heavy, and hurt her shoulder. Birkin uses her Birkins to death, then sells them at auction for charity, typically achieving massive sums, before buying a new one at Hermes. She is known to break in her latest Birkin by throwing it on the ground and stomping all over it, as she demonstrated once on a Japanese talk show. She reportedly receives around $30,000 a year for the use of her name, and of course, has access to a new Birkin bag whenever she wants one.
As noted previously, the closure design for the Birkin bag came almost directly from that of the HAC bag, a tall, two-handled tote with a flap top originally meant for carrying saddles. The main use of HAC bags had, at the time of Mr. Dumas and Ms. Birkin’s chance encounter, already shifted to travel, so it was natural to adapt the design down to a smaller size suitable for short trips or daily use. The 35cm and 40cm Birkin bags were an instant hit at Hermes stores around the world, with waiting lists for the new style instantly materializing. Demand simply could not be met. Examples of this bag were immediately put on display in the Paris windows by famed designer Leila Menchari, further driving the frenzied desire. If there was one thing Hermes customers wanted from the Birkin, it was simply more. Varied versions were quickly developed, and the bags were continually produced in new materials and colors, including the House’s finest exotic skins.
In the mid 1990’s Hermes implemented massive design changes in their most iconic bags: the Birkin and Kelly. Though any other brands would find these updates trivial, virtually no changes had been made to the Birkin design since its inception a decade earlier, aside from removing the shoulder strap, and neither to the Iconic Kelly since the shoulder strap was first included in the mid 1980’s. 1996 was the biggest year for these adjustments, with the introduction of not only Togo leather, but also the use of Palladium hardware in Birkins and Kellys. A new sleak, round design for the Kelly’s strap clips was phased in, and most importantly, the 30cm Birkin was introduced. This new size was a revelation, clearly made for daytime use, it was a more demure and ladylike version of the larger original Birkin. Prior to this, smaller Birkins had been produced by special order, which allowed for the development of the perfect 30cm size. This would remain the smallest Birkin available for nearly another decade, produced in just as many colors and materials as it’s big sisters.
When Martin Margiela passed the creative torch on to Jean-Paul Gaultier, Hermes felt the need for a new Birkin, and in 2004 released the miniaturized 25cm version. Initially, the new mini-Birkin was not nearly as popular as the 30, or the classic 35, which remained the most sought after until around 2015 when fashion trends made a major shift toward smaller and smaller bags. The 25s were produced in many of the same colors and materials as the other sizes, though in their first decade of existence were only considered about half as valuable as a 35.
While Gaultier experimented with new sizes and styles of classic Hermes designs, developing the Kelly Longue, Cut, and Pochette clutches, as well as the Jypsiere; a sort-of crossbody Birkin, his departure marked the beginning of a new era for the Birkin and Kelly, one that is marked most notably by the proliferation of Limited Editions. Starting in 2011 with the much-loved Candy Collection (which includes the only examples of the mini 15cm Birkin), and the then-unpopular So Black collection, Hermes began releasing seasonal collections of their iconic bags with ever changing design details. These ranged from pre-selected interior-exterior combinations with collections like Candy and Verso, to multiple colors used on the exterior as with Arlequin and Eclat bags. Some editions include embellishments of varying materials, such as Club, Flag, and Ghillies bags. And some utilize wholly unique leather working techniques, such as Lettre and Tressage bags. These bags typically experience high popularity for the first year after their release, which steadily declines for about five years before popularity rebounds as pristine examples become noticeably scarce on the secondary market.
Hermes has produced a few unusual versions of the Birkin design, including massive 45 and 50cm travel versions, a 45cm Version with elongated handles, and some extremely rare “slim” Birkins, which are only half as deep as a full size. There are scant 48cm Cabas Birkins, Birkin Depeches, and Birkin Ados. These odd styles are extremely hard to come by. The Shadow Birkin, which has a wholly different design, sports an open top and the mere suggestion of the classic Birkin design rendered through embossed leather. In 2014 Hermes released their first Sellier Birkin, a 40cm unlined piece done in Vache Hunter with a zippered pouch instead of interior pockets.
The most desirable Birkins of all are the unusual Special Order ones. These custom Birkins are a category unto themselves, requiring an extra level of dedication to obtain at Hermes. These bags often feature multiple colors, selected by the client, and after 2006 were all adorned with the famous horseshoe stamp. Hermes chooses which colors, leathers, sizes, and hardwares they will allow to be special ordered each season, and sets limitations on how many colors can be used. A few years ago Hermes stopped allowing tri-color special orders, and their qualifications for ordering custom exotics have become increasingly demanding. The absolute top level of Hermes’ clients, though, are not subject to these restrictions, and have been able to order extraordinary custom pieces with embellishments ranging from embroidered or fur panels, to delicate beading, fringe, feathers, and other wild unimaginable things. These bags rarely leave the collections of those who order them, and when they do, typically command prices on par with those of Himalayan Birkins, widely considered the most valuable bags in the world.
The Birkin bag has remained an icon, considered the most valuable and desirable bag for decades, it’s popularity only seems to grow. It had been nearly ten years since Hermes made their last update to the Birkin design, with the now-discontinued 15cm Micro version. After the 2014 release of the 40cm Sellier Birkin, Hermes refined the idea further, creating the next big addition to the Birkin lineup. Today, 25 and 30cm Sellier Birkins are starting to make their way around the world. Currently produced in a limited array of colors and materials, with fully rendered interiors, these bags represent the future of the Birkin, and its next ten years of growing popularity. Their release was marked by the exceptional creation of an extremely limited and special Sellier Birkin in a unique 20cm size, embellished with elements affecting the facade of the Hermes flagship store in Paris. The future of the Birkin bag is bright, as the Sellier construction is applied further across the Birkin family. In ten years, we will likely have another exciting update to obsess over!