Expert collector and Queen of vintage Hermes and Chanel Catherine B knows iconic handbags unlike anyone else in the world
“So few people truly understand what I do,” sighs Catherine B, and takes another sip of coffee. “This is not a consignment store. This is something different”.
That ‘something different’ is an Aladdin’s treasure cave packed with collectable Chanel and Hermes pieces, on which Catherine is an expert. She can tell a real piece from pirated one more so than many retail directors in the fashion houses themselves. “There are many things to watch for,” she says. “And some fakes today are good…very good. But I know. I just know”.
Meet Catherine B: The Queen of Vintage Hermes & Chanel
This savvy collector stocks the most elusive bags, jackets, scarves and shoes from the 30’s to the 90’s – but not beyond – in her boutique called “Les 3 Marches de Catherine B” on rue Guisarde in the 6th district in Paris, She’s not interested in being a depot for the unwanted bags of fickle rich girls; instead, she sees her shop as half museum, half retail store. And the prices of her rare items are more akin to what you’d pay for a precious antique, rather than a fashion accessory.
But with good reason: “Some people can’t understand why I am charging more for a 2.55 bag than the listed price in a Chanel boutique”, she continues. “But it is because the 2.55 I am carrying is a one-of-a-kind piece designed by Mademoiselle Chanel herself, that cannot be found anywhere else in the world!”
Indeed, some of her stock is so rare, it isn’t even for sale. Take her Chanel bicycle, for instance. One of about a hundred left on the planet, it features two side saddle ‘handbags’ and the signature Chanel quilting not only on the bags, but on the seat as well. She also owns the original Birkin bag from Hermes. It boasts the initials JB and is numbered 0–it being the first. It also features a strap created at Ms Birkin’s request: “She wanted to be able to put it on her shoulder while she looked for things inside the bag,” explains Catherine.
Her assistant assures me that there are many more treasures cached around the store. “She will only show them to people who are truly interested”, she tells me. But when Catherine finds those people who share her enthusiasm and love for vintage Chanel and Hermes, it makes her day–even if there’s no sale.
A New Opportunity
Catherine explains she loves to share her enthusiasm for these collectable designer pieces in a modern venues, such as at Liberty of London, where she has had a show of her collections. And most recently, she has had a huge victory: she was asked to show her prized piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The ‘Bags Inside Out’ exhibition examines the central role of the handbag in celebrity culture, and its semiology as a status symbol amongst celebrities and the elite. Alongside the Hermes “Kelly” bag and the “Lady Dior” bag dedicated to Princess Diana, Catherine B will showcase the world’s first Birkin Bag.
The iconic black bag was produced in 1984 for the actress and musician, and bears not only her initials, but several travel stickers, and a brass lock. Jane Birkin donated it for an auction for AIDS in 1994 and Catherine obtained the bag later in 2000 during a sale to Drouot.
The ‘It Bag” phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave a huge boost to Catherine’s business and profile, and is a part of the history of the handbag that is emphasised at the V&A show.
The exhibition houses 200 objects of various shapes and sizes, including tiny purses worn with the fingertips, to luxuriously large travel trunks. In fact, the show illustrates the world heritage of bags and how they have been used from the 16th century to the present day.
Of course, Catherine is delighted to be a part of it. It’s hard to imagine what could top this career high, but the Queen of vintage Hermes and Chanel states she would love to have a booth at Harrods Department store one day. She believes the English have a better appreciation for all things vintage than the French, who are more likely to use accessories that were passed down through the generations rather than buying vintage pieces themselves. ‘At the end of the day, it’s all about heritage,’ she says.
And we see her as a guardian of an important one: that of France’s two biggest luxury designers.