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By Karin Barnhoorn
The story is a good one: apparently, in 1981, Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas was seated next to Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London. She was known for carrying an open straw bag around in place of a handbag, and as she put hers in the overhead container, its contents spilled out. Birkin, embarrassed, explained to Dumas that it had been difficult to find a leather weekend bag she liked, so in 1984, he created a black leather bag just for her, large enough for her to carry all the stuff she needed for her new baby, Charlotte.
She asked for a shoulder strap to be added so she could hang it whilst she searched for stuff inside, but even though it was made for her needs, she eventually gave it up: “(It) busts your arm; they’re bloody heavy. I’m going to have to have an operation for tendonitis in the shoulder,” she complained.
Nevertheless, the bag has since become an icon and still bears the name of the woman who inspired it. But there’s another Hermès bag named after another style icon: the Kelly.
The Hermès Kelly bag was originally called The Sac a Depeches (rough translation: the Hurry Bag). But in 1956, when Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco attempted to hide her increasingly large baby bump from a Life Magazine photographer by holding her stylish Hermès handbag just over her abdomen, the bag’s name changed: the Kelly bag was born.
Iconic Bag Shopping
Dying to own a Kelly or Birkin now? Well, forget about knocking on the door of an Hermès Boutique to purchase this lifetime piece of luxury. Oh no. You must first be a regular customer before they will even pop out the breath-taking leather samples in an array of colours and textures. When you finally made your decision, (will it be purple? Oh, let’s go for baby blue. Or is black the safest?) the staff will politely explain that they will try to order the bag. But since every store is only allowed to place Kelly bag orders twice a year (June and January), the wait may be long. If they agree to make the bag at all.
So why even bother? Sure, the bags’ minimalist lines, slightly triangular shape, subtle clasps and classic straps are eternally chic, and these bag are literally never out of style, but it’s probably far easier and more eco-chic to go for a pre-owned-with-love bag. Not only will such a bag come to you faster and be kinder to the Earth, but it will be infused with secrets and stories–who knows? Maybe it was even used to disguise a secret pregnancy!
Where to Hunt for Vintage Hermes Bags
1. Paris thrift stores: Unlike thrift shops around the world, those in Paris cater to high-end brands. Expect to find vintage YSL, Chanel, Kenzo, and of course, Hermes, but don’t expect hugely discounted prices! The idea here is that because a bag is vintage, it’s actually MORE valuable, as there are fewer around. A good shop to visit is The Trois Marches de Catherine B, in St Germain–she’s a Chanel and Hermes specialist.
2. Auctions: Sotheby’s and Christies are the two best known, but look around your town for estate auctions: it’s not uncommon for iconic bags to be part of their lots. Recently, Christie’s sold a crocodile skin Birkin bag for a whopping $222, 912, proving just how valuable and desirable vintage truly is!
3. Online sites: Yes, you have to be careful here: there are plenty of caveats when buying expensive vintage items online. But there are some highly reputable sites, like Vestaire Collective and www.designer-vintage.com, both of which guarantee the authenticity of their stock.
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