It’s Not a Bag, It’s a Birkin – Why Is the Hermès ‘Birkin’ so Iconic?

Kate Moss | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

The quest to own an iconic Hermès ‘Birkin’ bag can literally take years to fulfill. On a popular online accessories forum, one woman recounts her journey to score a coveted 40cm ‘Black Togo Leather Birkin’, confessing that she frequented her local Hermès boutique for two years, where she endeavored to befriend one of the retail associates. She went in every few months and bought small accessories each time, as a way of gaining the trust of the associate and proving her devotion to the brand. In her journey to own the object of her obsession, she spent thousands of dollars above and beyond the cost of the already-expensive ‘Birkin’ (which starts at $8,500 and goes up as high as $432,000 for the rare Himalayan crocodile version).

Finally, one day, the associate calls her in, telling her that the bag she had been coveting is in stock. Immediately, she dropped everything and rushed to Hermès where her precious new ‘Birkin’ was waiting for her in all its pristine, classic glory. After hearing a real-life tale like this one, and other mythological accounts of five-year wait lists and socialite battles for the bag, it prompts the questions: What makes the Hermès ‘Birkin’ so special? Why are women going through such arduous and costly measures to buy them?

Let’s start with the woman who inspired the most iconic bag in history: Jane Birkin. The famous style icon carved a name for herself in the 1970s as a singer and actress, with an inspiring wardrobe and the kind of gamine good looks that made her the envy of women everywhere. The story behind the bag’s origin is as legendary as Jane herself, and she has been called on to recount the fateful meeting in the media dozens of times throughout the years.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

The legend begins with an infamous Air France flight where Birkin’s handbag spilled its contents onto the floor, and scattered around her feet. The man seated next to her advised her to invest in a bag with pockets, and she famously retorted, “The day Hermès makes one with pockets, I will have that.” Bemused by her statement, her fellow passenger revealed himself to be none other than Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès, who encouraged Birkin to describe her dream bag. On the spot, Birkin sketched out her ideal bag for Dumas on an air sickness bag, and he promised to make it for her. When she was invited to the atelier to see the bag that she had inspired, he requested that she lend her name to it. They say there’s no such thing as coincidence, but this story proves otherwise.

What are the hallmarks of a Birkin bag? The boxy leather design has four studs on the base, a fold-over flap secured with a lock and key fastening, and comes with two top handles (as opposed to the similar Kelly bag which has one). The original 35cm bag created for Jane Birkin was made with black patent leather, but nowadays Birkins come in a huge range of fabrics, colors, and sizes, from handheld mini editions to large travel bags.

Sex and the City Birkin Bag
GIF: Courtesy of Giphy

Recall the episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha is trying desperately to get her hands on a ‘Birkin’, willing to attempt any kind of machination or stoop to any level to snag one. Upon visiting an Hermès boutique where she demands to buy the bag, she is pointedly told by the retail associate, “It’s not a bag, it’s a Birkin.” That sentence highlights the singular level that the ‘Birkin’ inhabits. It is the ultimate status symbol, not only because it is difficult to secure and incredibly expensive, but also because it carries with it the perception that the wearer is somebody special.

In trying to understand what has caused the widespread popularity of the ‘Birkin’, a trio of qualities emerge. First, most women are introduced to the bag on the arms of glamorous celebrities – its classic good looks are an arresting sight to behold, and leave an indelible impression on the viewer. The ultimate celebrity fan, Victoria Beckham, is rumored to own 100 Birkins. Meanwhile, the Kardashian clan has amassed an impressive collection of Birkins between them. Kanye West bought wife Kim Kardashian a bespoke £30,000 design in 2013 and even the couple’s six-year-old daughter was spotted carrying a white mini Birkin in 2019

Second, it’s backed by the Hermès name, which has stood for the highest quality in leather goods since 1837. And finally, there is an air of exclusivity and mythology that surrounds the bag, primarily because it is difficult to buy and luxurious beyond measure. Speaking of luxurious, the most expensive ‘Birkin’ ever, a crocodile skin design with white gold and diamond detailing, was sold by Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2017 for around £293,000.

The ‘Birkin’ has enjoyed exalted icon status for so long because it is timeless; it never bends to trends. These elements have secured the beloved bag’s prime position in fashion history of the most iconic bag of all time.

Click through the gallery below to see all of the famous women – including Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell, and Kim Kardashian – who have made the ‘Birkin’ bag a staple of their wardrobes over the years.

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