Celebrating the history of the Birkin, as it turns 40

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The iconic Hermès Birkin is turning 40Jeremy Moeller - Getty Images

With a cameo in Sex and the City, a rap song in its honour, a mysterious waiting list, and an origin story that involves a Sixties style icon and a fateful plane journey – not to mention a resale value of nearly 200 per cent – the Hermès Birkin is kind of a big deal. In fact, it's probably the most famous designer handbag of all time.

Whether you are looking to invest, want to understand how to to get your hands on a Birkin or just want to learn about the fascinating history of the most coveted handbag in history, we divulge everything you need to know about the Birkin right here.

The origins of the Birkin

Let’s start at the very beginning. Once upon a time, in 1983 to be exact, a famously befringed, achingly cool actress called Jane Birkin boarded an Air France flight to London. Her beloved basket bag had been intentionally run over by her then-husband, Jacques Doillon, two days prior, and she was carrying a nondescript replacement. It wasn’t fit for purpose as she ended up dropping her Hermès notebook, and remarking that no bag was large enough to hold all of her papers.

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Luckily, her fairy godfather – Jean-Louis Dumas, then CEO of Hermès – happened to be sitting nearby. He introduced himself and suggested Birkin find a bag with pockets to accommodate her stationery overflow, before sketching a rough design on the back of a sick bag. From humble beginnings – like all the best fairytale protagonists – the Birkin was born, making its official debut in 1984. Much, much better than a glass shoe, we think.

Unlike the Chanel bags dominating the 1980s, the Birkin was quietly luxurious and devoid of shouty logos. It was distinguished by a semi-structured body, two rolled handles, clou ‘feet’, and a turnlock closure, which could be secured with the accompanying padlock and key. (We’d posit that one ought to be less concerned about the contents than the bag itself, which had the princely sum of $2,000 then – £5,000 in today’s money – and now retails at a starting point of around £8,800.)

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At 35cm wide, it was a more petite (yet adequately capacious) version of Hermès’ Haut à Courroies – the travel bag of choice for Jane Birkin’s ex-husband, Serge Gainsbourg. Today, the Birkin comes in three additional sizes: 25, 30 and 40 centimetres.

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When did the Birkin become so popular?

Perhaps it was the Birkin’s discreet styling, or the fact that Chanel had the luxury market in an exceedingly chic chokehold, but this now-iconic bag got off to a slow start. Nevertheless, by the mid 1990s it had gained considerable momentum, and by 2001 it was firmly in 'It' bag territory, its status sealed by Sex and the City and the iconic line: “It’s not a bag. It’s a Birkin.”

In season four of the cult show, publicist Samantha Jones falls in love with a red Birkin 35, telling Carrie, “When I’m tooling around town with that bag, I’ll know I’ve made it.” After discovering that there is a five-year waiting list, she pretends the bag is for her client, Lucy Liu, which does not end well.

Over the course of the decade, and into the 2000s, the bag continued to grow in popularity, eventually becoming the ultimate status symbol. As more celebrities carried it, and as it grew in price, the Birkin became more exclusive, waiting lists started and its reputation started building.

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What is the difference between a Birkin and a Kelly?

The Kelly is another wildly popular handbag from Hermés, which is also notoriously difficult to get hold of. There is sometimes confusion between the two bags due to their similar shapes. In fact, the design – which dates back to the 1930s – was the archetype for so many iconic Hermès bags to come, including the Birkin, but there are some key differences.

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The Kelly was a little sharper, sleeker, more geometric than anything that had been seen before, architected to a trapezium shape, with a flap closed in by two side straps and a neat swivel clasp. In contrast, the Birkin is a little more slouchy and casual, while it also featured double straps and the Kelly featured just a single strap.

Read more about the fascinating history of the Kelly – and how it got its name – here.

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Is the Birkin actually so difficult to get hold of?

The Birkin’s hard-to-get reputation is part of its allure. The details of how to purchase one directly from Hermès remains a closely-guarded secret but rumour has it that customers must have an established purchase history with the brand and have added the objects of their desires to their ‘wish-list’ – a term Hermès introduced since it no longer offers a traditional waiting list (some conjecture it never really existed, anyway) and only delivers a select number of Birkins to each boutique.

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The Birkin’s scarcity has a lot to do with the time it takes to make. Each bag takes between 12 and 18 hours to create, at the hands of master craftspeople who have to undergo between two and six years of training before starting work in Hermès’ leather workshop. Additionally, the majority of the Birkin is sewn by hand using the brand’s signature saddle-stitching technique.

Recently, social media has been alight with TikTok users sharing with their millions of followers how to play "the Hermés game". According to them, this involves a carefully co-ordinated plan of purchasing pieces from the brand and developing relationships with sales associates in order to be able to purchase the coveted Birkin.

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This strategy, while hugely adding to the Birkin's appeal, has started to cause problems with consumers. In March 2024, two customers in California have filed complaints against Hermés for only selling specific products to customers who they deem "worthy". According to the lawsuit, Hermès is violating anti-trust law by "tying" the sale of one item to the purchase of another, and the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages and a court order barring Hermès’s allegedly anti-competitive practices.

Can you get a Birkin on resale?

You can purchase a Birkin on the resale market – as well as its sister, the Kelly bag – but be prepared to pay a premium. Given how difficult it is to buy directly from the source, resale Birkins are at least double the retail price, ranging from around £15,000 to £30,000 for a classic style in good condition, and well beyond that for something extra special (for example, the diamond-embellished Himalaya Crocodile Birkin, which sold at auction in 2021 for over £400,000). If you can afford it, it’s a worthy investment. A 2017 study revealed that the Birkin’s value has increased by 500 per cent in the last 35 years, and according to a 2020 report by Knight Frank, an investment in the bag is better than stocks or gold.

Indeed, the Birkin is the most searched-for designer bag on luxury resale platform 1stDibs, with the classic Black, Gold, and Etoupe colourways being the most sought-after. "The Birkin bag is arguably the most famous and coveted handbag on both the primary and secondary markets," says Anthony Barzilay Freund, Director of Fine Art & Editorial Director at 1stDibs. "Named for a style icon whose natural beauty and haute-bohemian lifestyle continues to captivate people and seen on the arms of some of the most beautiful and glamorous women of our day, the bag is also functional, versatile and beautifully constructed. The fact is very difficult to procure a new Birkin directly from Hermès, this has driven demand for vintage examples."

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Eagle-eyed Birkin fanciers may be able to find pre-loved options around the £9,000 mark, if they’re willing to settle for a less popular shade or one with some wear and scratches – with the exception of Jane Birkin’s well-loved bag, which, cat bites, scuffs and all, sold at auction in 2021 for £119,000. In fact, there has been an uptick in those searching for love-worn Birkins after an old photo of Mary Kate Olsen carrying one resurfaced on Reddit. In its Luxury Consignment Report, The RealReal writes, “There’s a growing number of shoppers specifically seeking the je ne sais quoi that comes with a little wear-and-tear.”

Which celebrities have carried a Birkin?

Jane Birkin only has one namesake bag in her possession at any given time (she sells them when they become old and battered), but other celebrities live by ‘the more Birkins, the better’ mantra. Virgil Abloh owned more than a dozen Birkins, Drake has been collecting them for years (for his future wife, apparently), and Victoria Beckham is said to have amassed over 100, but this pales into comparison alongside the 200 owned by Singaporean socialite and entrepreneur, Jamie Chua, who is thought to have the largest collection.

Other notable Birkin owners include Kate Moss (who allegedly used hers as a nappy bag), Winnie Harlow, Jennifer Lopez, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and North West, who was pictured with a white Birkin at the tender age of six.

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The Birkin in art

As a bag steeped in fashion lore, it’s no wonder the Birkin has been the subject of (sometimes controversial) art. In 2012, Francesca Eastwood – daughter of Clint – set one on fire as part of an ‘art project’ (thankfully, the bag turned out to be a fake); in 2014, Jeff Koons incorporated several Birkins with eminent former owners into an art installation; and in 2019, rapper Gunna released a song called ‘Baby Birkin’. More recently, an NFT ‘MetaBirkin’ (an animation of a foetus growing in a Birkin bag) created and sold by artist Mason Rothschild was the subject of a copyright lawsuit, which Hermès won, prompting brand fans to speculate as to when the luxury house might enter the metaverse.

For those who prefer their Birkins IRL, we’ve scoured the web to find the best resale bags, which you can see above. If anyone asks, just tell them it’s an investment – you’d be right.

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Edward Berthelot - Getty Images

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