Samantha Jones immortalized the Birkin on Sex in the City in 2001, when she used Lucy Liu's name to jump the five year wait list at an Hermes store. It was the first time many viewers had heard of a handbag waiting list, let alone a bag that cost $4,000 (which is a steal by today's standards). The very notion of it created instant buzz, and the Birkin became part of the America's fashion lexicon overnight. But the bag was already seventeen years old at that point, and it had largely existed under the radar.
Seen by many as the holy grail of accessories, Birkins are the stuff of mythology. From five-year wait lists to Victoria Beckham's supposed one hundred bag collection, they're fixtures in the rumor mill. Many people have told stories of only getting their Birkins after making a bunch of smaller purchases first. At the store, the request to see a Birkin has to be phrased as almost an afterthought. Since they aren't kept on the retail floor, it's casually mentioned once you've committed to spending a small fortune on silk scarves... "Oh, by the way, do you have a Birkin in the back?"
The Birkin buying process understandably leads bag owners to exchange war stories. "How did you get yours?" is a common query between those in the Birkin club. And all of this jumping through hoops serves a purpose: the bag's exclusive allure has remained protected. Not just anyone can get a Birkin, one must be in the know. With such limited availability and more than a little mystique surrounding it, it's understandable that the origins of the bag are somewhat murky. Here's an approximate history of the world's premiere handbag.
The Birth of an Hermes Icon
In 1981, British fashion icon Jane Birkin boarded a flight from Paris to London. She accidentally dropped her straw tote while attempting to stuff it overhead, sending its contents flying across the floor. Hermes CEO Jean-Louis Dumas happened to be sitting next to her. As she was picking up her things, she complained about not being able to find a bag that she liked. Stories differ after this point. He alleged that the two ended up spending the flight talking about a bag design, but she maintains that they also sketched the idea for Birkin on a sick bag. However it came about, their idea was similar in shape to the Kelly. Hermes created the first Birkin five years later in 1984.
Jane Birkin has been carrying her namesake bag for decades now, but she's only on her fourth one. She owns one at any given time, waits until they're completely worn before replacing them, and has said that anything more would be frivolous. She has also bemoaned Hermes for making Birkins so heavy, and is known for adorning her bags with stickers and prayer beads. She's not the first Hermes-owner to deface a handbag.
For such a costly bag, the Birkin has had a long history of destruction. Francesca Eastwood and her photographer boyfriend notoriously burned one in a 2013 piece of performance art. That same year Kanye famously gifted Kim with a $40,000 one painted by artist George Condo. Lady Gaga has a black one that's encrusted with spikes and a white one that's covered in Japanese writing. The opinions on whether or not its ok to deface Birkins remain split, but it's a powerful statement that basically says "I've got money to burn." For those who like to be sartorial stand-outs, carrying a vandalized Birkin is one of the best ways to get noticed.
It's easy to see why the Birkin is so coveted. Its classic styling and impeccable craftsmanship make it a perennial classic. With a shape that transcends trends, a large Birkin carried on the arm is like protective fashion armor. It announces to the world that you are fluent in the language of luxury. And to think that it might have all started with a sketch on an airplane sick bag.