Saturday, June 01, 2013

An Haute Hippie Inspired the Birkin Bag



Owning one is de rigueur for the super-rich and fashionably famous. Victoria Beckham carries one. So do Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian. Since its introduction by Hermès in 1984, the Birkin Bag has become a symbol of lavish wealth and haute couture. Crafted from a variety of hides, from crocodile to ostrich to lizard, lined with goat skin and often encrusted with a fortune in jewels and precious metals, a Birkin can command a price from $7,000 up to $150,000—and beyond.

The inspiration for the iconic leather carryall was the beautiful British-born actress and singer Jane Birkin. She first burst onto the Swinging London scene as a fashion model in 1966, but caused a sensation in France with her 1969 duet with singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, "Je t'aime...moi non plus" ("I love you...me neither"). The pair married soon after, and Birkin was elevated to superstar status in France. She went on to appear in several films, including two Agatha Christie mysteries, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun



In 1981, Birkin was seated on an airplane next to a gentleman who watched with interest as the actress struggled with a battered straw tote containing her possessions, spilling the flimsy bag's contents all over the first-class cabin. She confided to her seat partner that she could never find a leather organizer bag she liked. The man on the plane was Jean-Louis Dumas, the CEO of Hermès International.

In 1984, Dumas presented Birkin with a supple, simple black leather bag, based on an 1892 design. A phenomenon was born. Even today, each Birkin Bag is meticulously hand-sewn, buffed, polished and accessorized by artisans, taking several days to finish, which, Hermès maintains, justifies its exorbitant price.

As the years went by, the down-to-earth Birkin became an activist embracing human rights causes, leaving her little time to live the life of a jetsetter, socialite or fashionista. At the same time, the design of the Birkin Bag seemed to become more and more ostentatious. Apparently unrestrained opulence wasn't Birkin's "bag," after all, and she rarely carried the Hermès creations that she inspired and which now bore her name.

In April, 2011 Jane Birkin auctioned off one of her namesake totes to benefit Japan Tsunami Aid. The well-worn black bag was emblazoned with beads and stickers and signed by the free-spirited actress herself. When interviewed, Birkin explained, tongue obviously in cheek, "There's no fun in a bag if it's not kicked around, so that it looks as if the cat's been sitting on it—and it usually has. The cat may even be in it! I always put on stickers and beads and worry beads. You can get them from Greece, Israel, Palestine—from anywhere in the world. I always hang things on my bags because I don't like them looking like everyone else's. A Birkin Bag is a very good rain hat; just put everything else in a plastic bag." Birkin's beat-up Birkin raised a little more than $2,000.

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