Yesterday on July 16, 2023, the iconic British-French singer and actress Jane Birkin passed away of undisclosed causes in her home in Paris. In honour of the famous Birkin bag’s muse, here’s its brief history.
It all started in 1981 when Jane Birkin sat next to Jean-Louis Dumas (Hermès’ then executive chairman) on a flight, complaining about how difficult it’s been to find a bag that fits her belongings. The bag was designed by Dumas on the spot and named the “Birkin” when it was produced and launched in 1984.
The story of the ‘Birkin Bag’ by Jane Birkin pic.twitter.com/ymbVD12JyO— Up Next (@upnextdesigner) July 17, 2023
Interestingly enough, several reports suggested Jane Birkin expressed her concerns regarding certain practices related to the bag. In 2015, Birkin asked the brand to remove her name from the bag after she said she was “alerted to the cruel practices endured by crocodiles during their slaughter for the production of Hermès bags carrying my name” by PETA (Protection for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
In response to her concerns, Hermès assured her that it did not mistreat animals and, “following the heartfelt emotion expressed by Jane Birkin and her request for explanation”, confirmed its “firm commitment in the ethical treatment of crocodiles in its partner farms”.
Designed as a spacious, functional tote, the Birkin bag is constructed from high-quality materials and executed with a clean design with minimal embellishments. A Birkin bag can take up to 18 hours to make – I’ve also heard 48 hours – requiring a craftsman to spend up to two weeks constructing it. Since French workers operate 35 hours a week, Hermes craftsmen can only make two Birkin bags monthly.
The exclusiveness and high demand for the Birkin bag have been a defining characteristic since its inception. As soon as the Birkin bag was introduced in 1984, it became a coveted and hard-to-obtain luxury item. To maintain the bag’s exclusivity and desirability, Hermès has limited its production and distribution. Due to Hermès’s strict distribution policy, Birkin bags are primarily sold in boutiques. Since the brand controls its distribution network tightly, acquiring a Birkin bag without establishing a relationship or meeting certain criteria can be challenging.
Since Birkin bags increase in value by 14.2 per cent each year, they are considered better investments than stocks or gold. The most basic Birkin is priced at US$10,000, but the sky is the limit for their prices.
Among the most expensive Birkins sold to date was a matte white Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Birkin 30 with a diamond-encrusted white gold clasp. It sold for US$383,522 at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2017.
Despite the Birkin bag’s introduction in 1984, its popularity didn’t catch on until the mid-to-late 1990s, when the “It-Bag” era began. In 2001, its status symbol reached television. Sex and the City used it as a plot point in a Season four episode, where Samantha Jones skips the waiting list for the coveted bag by using one of her celebrity clients’ names.
While most Birkin fans such as The Kardashians, Cardi B, Victoria Beckham, and so many others carry in pristine condition, Jane Birkin herself was the first to rough up her bag (and the Olsen twins, too; they’re iconic for that).
She would plaster it with badges, stickers, and worry beads. “There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around so that it looks as if the cat’s been sitting on it – and it usually has. The cat may even be in it!” Birkin told Vogue in 2011. “I keep saying to Hermès to make it out of plastic or cardboard, then it wouldn’t be so heavy. But if people want to go for the real thing, fine. If they go for copies, that’s fine too. I really don’t think it matters…”
Besides owning several over her lifetime, she eventually sold them to support charities. In 2011, Birkin told WWD, “I sold one of my Birkin bags for $163,000 to help the Japanese Red Cross. So that rather trivial piece of heavy luggage has done a lot of good in the world.”
As much as Jane Birkin did not like being associated with the bag’s extravagance, it has become a symbol of prestige in the world of luxury. It has appeared in movies, TV shows, music videos, and countless paparazzi shots, securing its place in the public sphere as an exclusive fantasy that only a few can afford.