When it comes to luxury, an Hermès Birkin bag is easily the investment piece of all investment pieces.
And to make a purchase like that could be as simple as walking into an Hermès boutique and walking out one Birkin richer, but before making a purchase like that, it’s worth understanding a little about the bag, what goes into it and what to know when buying one before parting with that disposable income.
Though the name “Birkin” is steeped in luxury connotations now, in the ’80s, it was simply the name of a world famous “It” girl: Jane Birkin. Legend has it the multihyphenate singer, actress, model was upgraded on an Air France flight from Paris to London in 1984. According to Hermès, in speaking to a gentleman next to her, Birkin had been “complaining that she couldn’t find a bag suitable for her needs as a young mother.” That gentleman commented that she should have a bag with pockets, to which Birkin replied: “The day Hermès makes one with pockets I will have that.”
Turned out, the man she said that to was Jean-Louis Dumas, then the executive chairman of Hermès, who responded that he was Hermès and would make one with pockets for her.
The story famously goes that they together sketched the design on an airplane paper sick bag — as Hermès notes, “he immediately sketched a supple and spacious rectangular holdall with a burnished flap and saddle stitching. With a dedicated space for baby bottles!”
And thus, the Birkin was born.
Breaking Down the Birkin
Over the years, owed to princesses and celebrity A-listers alike sporting the exceptionally high-end and elusive bag, the Birkin has become a coveted accessory for the select few who can get their hands on one — and it isn’t as simple as heading to the Hermès website, where you’ll find descriptors of the Birkin but none for sale. Although it isn’t possible to waltz into just any Hermès store and find a Birkin waiting to be claimed, there are a few select stores around the world where this is achievable, often owing to lower demand in that region.
Historically, Birkin’s have been designed in around 15 sizes ranging from 15 cm to 60 cm (that’s the length of the bottom of the bag). Some are limited edition and would only now be found on the secondary market, for instance the 15-cm Micro Birkin, which was seen on the last runway of Jean Paul Gaultier as creative director of Hermès (between 2003 and 2011). The brand has deviated from the traditional silhouette with the HAC (Haut à courroies), which features a longer torso — given that the design was conceptualized to protect and hold saddles and riding boots, and the “Shoulder Birkin,” which has a significantly shorter body and longer handles. The permanent, and most notable sizes now, are 25, 30 and 35.
Hermès, like every brand, presents a new color story each season — these are either completely new or rereleased from the archive. The three permanent Birkin colors (not implying they are any more accessible) are; Noir (black), Gold (brown) and Etoupe (taupe). Owing to the lack of information about the bag direct from Hermès, Birkin seekers often turn to sources like Purseblog for info on what’s available and how to snag one. Purseblog compiles information every season on new Birkin colors and which leathers they have been crafted in. It is always best practice to double-check seasonal colors at an Hermès boutique to ensure they are really colors the brand offers. Some colors are only produced in specific leathers and the most notable leathers for a Birkin are; Togo, Clemence, Epsom, Barenia, Swift and Box. 1stDibs offers some insight into their attributes:
Togo: A pebbled calf leather, and the most popular leather for a Birkin.
Clemence: A slightly bigger grain than Togo, so more durable, but be careful with rain.
Epsom: A very structured leather, and gives a rigid look. Probably the most durable leather from Hermès; being virtually rainproof and scratch proof.
Barenia: A smooth calfskin, which was originally used for Hermès horse saddles — and so is very durable, but will soften and may loose shape over time.
Swift: A soft leather with a very fine grain, and will show any wear and tear (more than Togo). This leather picks up dye very well — so there are some popular bright colors that are only available in swift.
Box: A smooth calf leather (the oldest Hermès leather, created in the 1890s). The appearance is very smooth and shiny, so scratches will be sure to show themselves.
Then, there’s the hardware. The two standard options are palladium (silver) or gold. There is a style of Birkin without hardware called the Shadow Birkin, dubbed by Hermès as “a Birkin bag of mischief,” in which the hardware shape is embossed into the front of the bag. This was introduced by Jean Paul Gaultier in 2009 and again a decade later. There are other hardwares, including rose gold, guilloche and permabrass to name a few, however, styles with this hardware may be particularly scarce. Hermès also offers a brushed gold hardware, though this is reserved for “special order” bags — a service where the elite Hermès clients can be invited to design a bespoke piece.
Paying the Price
There are two options when it comes to purchasing a Birkin, each with their dis/advantages. Either buy directly from Hermès, or on the preloved or secondary market.
Monika Arora founder of PurseBop, the “ultimate source for luxury handbag news,” according to the company, provided an insight into the approximate prices of Birkin’s in the U.S. Note: These are starting retail prices and are subject to change. As of November 2021, a Birkin 25 starts from $9,750, the 30 at $11,000 and the 35 at $12,300.
In many cases, Hermès Birkin bags appreciate in value, making them among the wiser investments when it comes to handbags.
As explained by Sabrina Sadiq, founder and chief executive officer of luxury resale platform Luxury Promise: “It is basic economics when it comes to the resale value of the Birkin. Low supply, high demand means prices rise.” However, like every luxury brand, Hermès is also no stranger to price increases. “It is a catch 22 that if there wasn’t a price increase, would your bag truly be an investment?”
The priciest are the likes of the The Himalayan Birkin 30. The rarest of the rare, crocodile skin dyed in white and brown hues to emulate the soft peaks of the Himalayas with an ultra-luxe hardware — diamonds, and about 8.2 carats to be exact. These can now be found on the secondary market for around $649,000. As reported by Sotheby’s, the same Birkin sold at a record-breaking price of just over $400,000 in 2017. Conversely, the pieces that stray from the most recognizable silhouette of the Birkin, such as the Shoulder Birkin 45, can be found for just shy of $5,000.
The “Unspoken Rules” of the Birkin Game
Hermès does create the atmosphere that a divine intervention is necessary in order to have the orange box of dreams, perhaps confirmed by their decision to not offer comment for this story. Nonetheless, the fashion community comes together to share the “unspoken rules” of the Birkin game.
It is vital to commit to an Hermès SA (sales associate) and stick with them. Build a relationship and clients have a much better shot at getting a piece. Getting an SA is as simple as visiting an Hermès boutique, inquiring about the products, and request the SA’s business card to keep in touch about anything that becomes available. As Hermès revealed in its 2020 annual report, “Orders are not decided centrally and pushed out to the stores, but are made directly and freely by each store manager, who is therefore directly responsible for choosing the right assortment for their local customers.”
In essence, the store manager makes the choice to bring in a certain number of Birkins for a certain number of clients. “In addition, within the geographical areas, the subsidiaries arrange inter-store transfers to optimize sales at regional level, means unsold stock volumes are naturally very low,” according to Hermès.
The Hermès U.S. website shows stock from every store in the U.S. (of course, excluding the Birkin), so the best practice is to contact an SA at Hermès to request the desired items be brought into the store, this way they can better understand a client’s preferences, and it goes toward the all-important purchase history that could make shopping for a Birkin easier the next time around, provided there will be a next time. Like being part of an exclusive club, once you’re in, you’re in.
There is much speculation in the Hermès community around buying other high-commission items from Hermès. Supposedly, this will put prospective clients in a good position with their SA for a Birkin. These items include fine jewelry, homeware and ready-to-wear. However, this still isn’t guaranteed — and has not been confirmed by Hermès — so it’s advised that prospective clients only buy items they like and would otherwise buy anyway.
Trying Your Luck
At the flagship Faubourg Saint Honoré Hermès store in Paris, an appointment request submitted to rendezvousparis.hermes.com is a must to look at leather goods; bags, wallets and the like, and appointments are not guaranteed. The request system opens at 10:30 a.m. Paris time each day and can only be made for the following day. By 8:30 p.m., clients will be notified as to whether they’ve been successful. (Note that the system does require a passport number).
From a purely economic standpoint, buying a Birkin in countries where the economy is booming, like Australia, for example, can be more difficult because there’s more disposable income floating around, making demand for luxury goods higher. On the flip side, buying in countries where per capita income is lower, that gives outsiders with higher purchasing power more opportunities to buy since demand is often lower. Purseforum, sister to PurseBlog, is laden with threads surrounding these “loop hole” Hermès stores. The Lisbon boutique and both in Honolulu are infamous for clients being able to walk in and secure a Birkin on the spot. The same goes for all three Las Vegas boutiques, since most clients are on vacation, meaning for very few individuals will this be their “local” store.
Secondary Market, First Choice?
Buying on the secondary market can seem a daunting task, but the benefits can, at times, outweigh the risks. It’s more sustainable, and can be cheaper depending on the condition of the item and the desirability of that particular style/size. And there’s the luxury of choosing. Hermès has limited stock of Birkins to begin with, so it’s not always likely that, if you are offered a Birkin on the primary market, that you’d be offered your whole wishlist to choose from. Be wary of purchasing a Birkin you don’t love only to consider reselling, as this is something Hermès allegedly keep tabs on. PurseForum threads suggest Hermès is becoming more vigilant with resellers and has been known to “blacklist” individuals who buy for the sole purpose of reselling, or buy and immediately resell.
An undeniable advantage of buying directly from Hermès is that there’s no doubt the item is the real deal.
Luxury marketplace Luxury Promise takes the guessing game out of authentication, according to founder and CEO Sabrina Sadiq. The company says bags are authenticated by two experts, and another layer of authentication is completed with artificial intelligence using microscopic surface images and algorithms to validate items.
“When it comes to authenticating the characteristics of an Hermès Birkin, it is key to look for things such as the way the bag is stitched,” Sadiq explains. Hermès, as an equestrian brand, only uses the saddle stitch (a slanted stitch), she says. Birkins are handmade and hand-stitched, whereas fakes are usually stitched by machine. Hermès is also one of the few luxury brands that does not provide an authenticity card for its bags and instead has a date code stamped inside, which confirms the year it was made, the color and the leather.
If buying from a reputable seller, always ensure a refund will be provided on the basis of authentication, which is something Luxury Promise offers. This is typically a good indication of the confidence they have in their ability to authenticate an item.
Pricing in the secondary market can be extremely volatile, depending on trends.
“Currently, the smaller the bag, the more in demand, and the more expensive it becomes. The best sizes to go for in the preloved market are the bigger size bags — this is where the Birkin can be obtained for less than retail,” Sadiq said.
This notion that small is king is reiterated by PurseBop founder Monika Arora, who also added, “Not all Birkins are ‘created equal’ when it comes to resale. For starters, premium pricing mainly applies to brand new in-box items.” The term “full set” is also given to a bag that may or may not have been used, but comes with the box and relevant papers.
“Once the bag is used, value drops — with some exceptions,” Arora said. “That’s not to say a used bag has no value — Hermès Birkins retain value better than any other bag. When it comes to Birkins, color does matter, as does size. Right now, Birkin 25s are in vogue. Make it in Rose Sakura or the latest new hard-to-obtain shade and prices are well over cost. Birkin 30s also sell for over cost, just not as much or as quickly as the smaller model. And the 35s don’t seem to sell as quickly. In fact, you may actually find deals on these bigger models.”
Timing also matters.
“When Birkin stock is particularly low at boutiques — as it is now — prices will be higher at resellers,” Arora added. “The same is true for the holiday season — more gift shoppers seeking fewer bags jacks up the cost. A few years ago, Hermès seemed to have more bags available and newer fans were actually able to grab bags more easily. During that time, the secondary pricing was down.”
For those willing to hunt, it is possible to find heavily discounted Birkins through sites like Vestiaire Collective, bearing in mind some items, if heavily discounted, will be in need of some TLC. But according to Sadiq, it might well be worth reviving the bag.
“The whole purpose of buying an Hermès bag is that it is a bag that can be passed down from generation to generation, and the Hermès spa is there to give the bags a longer life,” she said. “This helps the bag look good for years and years. Hermès [is] proud to look after and repair the bags they made.”