Welcome to our new column, Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry’s most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, products and more.
A Birkin is not your average handbag. It is known for its superior craftsmanship and jaw-dropping price tag, with standard models starting around $12,000. Hermès refuses to release the number of Birkin bags that it manufactures each year, limiting the elusive supply to an elite group of customers. Thanks to this tight control, the brand has succeeded in maintaining the bag’s reputation as one of the world’s most desirable and unobtainable luxury items. A recent study showed Birkin bags are actually a better investment than stocks or gold, increasing in value by 14.2 percent on average each year. And in June, the item became the world’s most expensive handbag ever auctioned when an anonymous buyer in Hong Kong spent the equivalent of $300,168 on a single style.
After all, it’s human nature for people to want what they can’t have…. even people like Samantha Jones. From horse stables to “Sex and the City,” read on to find out how the world’s most coveted carryall came to be.
Long before her name became synonymous with luxury handbags, Jane Birkin was a French style icon in her own right. Originally from England, the singer, actress and humanitarian is perhaps best known for her long-term musical (and romantic) relationship with the controversial French musician Serge Gainsbourg. The release of the couple’s sexually explicit song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” in 1969 solidified Birkin’s status as the British-born emblem of French chic.
According to Hermès lore, the idea for the brand’s Birkin bag came from a serendipitous airplane encounter in 1981 between the stylish chanteuse and Jean-Louis Dumas, the late chief executive of Hermès. The well-known story involves Ms. Birkin spilling the contents of a straw tote bag everywhere, inspiring the French label’s executive to create a bag that would be suitable for jet-setting women with too much to carry. Four years later, their airplane “collaboration” resulted in what we now know as the Birkin bag, and voila! A star was born.
Hermès is now best known for selling the Birkin, among other socialite-approved purses and printed scarves, but the historic house was originally recognized for its finely crafted horse harnesses and carriages. The Parisian shop first opened in 1837, but didn’t enter the world of luxury handbags until 1922. Their first celeb-endorsed bag was the “Sac à dépêches,” which was later renamed the “Kelly” bag after being widely photographed on the arm of Princess Grace of Monaco. Both the Kelly and Birkin designs are supposedly based off of an Hermès bag from 1892 called the “Haut à Courroies,” which was inspired by horse feed and saddle bags.  However, in Ms. Birkin’s version of her namesake bag’s origin story, she and Dumas concocted the design and sketched it on an airplane sick-bag, which makes for a much better tale than finding inspiration in a horse stable.
Although it’s difficult to imagine now, the bag was far from an overnight success. As noted in Vogue, Chanel had dominated the luxury bag market in the 1980s.  Although the Birkin bag was first introduced in 1984, it didn’t take off until the mid-to-late 1990s, at the dawn of the so-called “It-Bag” era. In fact, the only exposure that the bag got in Vogue until that time was in an Hermès advertisement that ran in 1989.
The iconic tote became forever known as the ultimate status symbol when it was used as a plot-point in a 2001 episode of Sex and the City. In the episode, Samantha Jones uses one of her celebrity client’s names in order to skip the “five year” waiting list for the coveted bag. After the episode aired, the Birkin’s actual waiting list tripled in length, which is a true testament to the cultural impact of the show.  In 2005, the bag became even more widely-known when Gilmore Girls featured a storyline involving Rory Gilmore’s boyfriend Logan bequeathing her with the precious handbag, only to discover that – gasp! – Rory had no idea what made the bag so special.
Today, Birkin bags can be found on the perfectly toned arms of many female celebrities. It has also become increasingly popular for stylish celebs to subvert the precious bag by customizing it, like Lady Gaga did by basically turning hers into a very expensive sketchpad. More recently, Kim Kardashian made headlines when she was gifted a Birkin that had been hand-painted by her infant daughter. Other stars, including Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham, have even repurposed the luxury totes as diaper bags, proving that a Birkin is, after all, a very utilitarian accessory.
In recent years, there has been some notable tension between Ms. Birkin and Hermès over the production methods that are used to create her namesake bag. PETA revealed in July 2015 that the French label was purchasing crocodile skins from a Texas farming factory employing inhumane practices towards its animals. Ms. Birkin publicly acknowledged the report and asked that her name be disassociated from the handbag. Although Hermès agreed to conduct an investigation in order to help clear its name and make-good with Ms. Birkin, PETA took it one step further by purchasing a single share in the company in order to gain access to its shareholder meetings. A few months later, Hermès announced that everything was “all-good” with Ms. Birkin, as she had been “satisfied by the measures taken by Hermès” to ensure that all skins were obtained ethically.
If there’s just one thing to learn from Jane Birkin and her mythical carryall, it’s that you should always make friends with fellow airplane passengers. After all, you never know when one of them will name an iconic luxury item after you.
Sources not linked:
 Spencer, Mimi. “Fashion: Handbag Mania.” Vogue. February 1, 1998: 242-247.
 Steele, Valerie (ed.). Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 2004.
Want the latest fashion industry news first? Sign up for our daily newsletter.