Essay: Hermes Birkin Bags the Cost

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Hermes Birkin Bags

The cost of the average handbag traditionally runs from $20-$100. However, patrons of the exclusive fashion designer Hermes are always in search of the 'next new thing' to delight their eyes and impress their friends. The Birkin Bag proved to be just such an item. Hermes is a brand that has long cultivated an image of exclusivity and the Birkin became one of its flagship products.

"Hermes bags stand alone, prominently on a pedestal of definitive grace and grandeur. Hermes bags are the most coveted creme de la creme handbags, handbags that boast waiting lists of ten years. Hermes is the designer behind the much sought after Birkin bag, a bag that celebrities simply itch to possess; and the price of this masterful creation only starts at 6,000" (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know).

This price tag is obviously beyond the reach of most ordinary consumers. Defenders of the price of bag often point to its styling and modeling as a reason for its exorbitant prices. It is custom-made. However, the emphasis on hard-to-find colors and materials as a way of justifying an even higher cost for the product, the fascination with celebrities who own the coveted bag, and the high price tag when so many people cannot afford necessities have caused many to see it as an example of wretched excess (Givhan 2004).

What is it?

Hermes was founded in 1837, making it one of the oldest fashion houses today (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know). It first became famous for purveying scarves. "These scarves were modeled after those worn by Napoleon's soldiers, and the liberated women of the early 1900's eagerly adopted these somewhat masculine scarves. Even today, the Hermes scarf remains the most commonly-purchased item" (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know).

However, the company's flagship scarves have been eclipsed by its Birkin Bags. While many of Hermes' bags are several thousand dollars, the Birkin Bag is particularly notable for "requiring several years on a waiting list. The Birkin bag can come in styles crafted out of ostrich skin or turquoise leather, with gleaming gold hardware comprising the delicate front clasp" (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know).

The bags are custom-made by the hands of a single artisan and are never mass-produced. "Each bag requires a single, flawless skin, rendering production wholly susceptible "the throes of Mother Nature. If there's a drought in New Zealand, as there was a few years ago, the availability of ostrich decreases drastically. It typically takes six months to two years to find an exotic skin for a bag. After that, the entirely by-hand construction of a Birkin requires 72 hours to two weeks to complete, limiting weekly output to two or three bags" (Kroll 2007).

To drive demand and encourage current owners to covet new bags, Hermes is always featuring new models, such as its new shoulder bags. The 'classic' Birkin is black with a gold clasp. "Its hardware is gold-plated. It comes with a small padlock and keys" (Givhan 2004).

The name 'Birkin' originates with the British film actress Jane Birkin, "for whom it was designed," but its status and mythology" has far transcended the actress' celebrity to the point that the bag is better known than its namesake (Givhan 2004).

Who's doing it?

Birkin bags are seen on the arms of many celebrities across the world. They increased in popularity after being featured on a Sex in the City episode, which portrayed the publicist Samantha Jones using the name of a famous client to get a bag, pretending that the Birkin was for her client Lucy Lu -- although Samantha wished to keep it for herself (Givhan 2011). The fact that Samantha would lie, cheat, or steal to get the bag indicated that the Birkin was something desirable and elite to viewers (Givhan 2011).

The bags are deliberately sold in limited quantities. By making them exclusive, they become a badge of honor for fashionistas, rather than merely a place to store makeup and sunglasses.

How does it work?

Birkin bags used to be exclusively ordered from Hermes. Waiting lists ran for years, and specific colors and fabrics were more expensive and more difficult to obtain. However, Hermes recently did away with its mandatory waiting lists, although it remains difficult to secure a bag, making it challenging for someone even with "platinum American Express card or a large wad of cash -- to walk into an Hermes boutique and purchase a Birkin" (Givhan 2011).

As well as communicating wealth by simply having a bag, the colors and fabrics themselves suggested even higher levels of elitism on the part of the wearer. While the standard quoted prices for a Birkin is $6,000 at the lowest end of the scale, some can run as high as $85,000, such as the one "made of crocodile and has solid gold closures that are adorned with diamonds. [Even] perusing eBay in search of Birkin bags, one can find a version in matte brown crocodile priced at $22,999" (Givhan 2011).

What is its significance?

"Hermes is characterized by classic elegance. Hermes is the name for a generation of women past who possessed a certain air…an air of grace. A Hermes woman is not seen out at 2am in a nightclub, staggering along the dance floor after an excess of intoxicants. No, impossible. The Hermes woman is delicate and refined. She walks to the tune of an invisible symphony. She has a driver, a coat with a fur-collar, and her perky patent pumps are never scuffed" (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know). The ability to afford Hermes and a love of Hermes show to the world that the owner prioritizes fashion and has enough dedication and connections to secure a bag -- as well as to afford one.

What are the downsides?

Of the Birkin-carrier it is said: "she is admired by all…from a distance" (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know). Birkin bags are used to reinforce class status: "an image that many young women would kill to attain without the encumbrance of an au pair and charm school," that they are a member of the 'upper crust' (Hermes Bags, 2011, Love to Know) The fact that so many celebrities carry the bags is testimony to the fact that 'modern royalty' and Hermes are conjoined in the public imagination, along with the idea that it is possible to buy 'class' and money connotes human and social worth.

The mixed feelings people have about Birkin bags were manifested when Martha Stewart's decision to bring one to her trial for insider trading became public news: "And for a certain breed of woman, it is the handbag equivalent of a Rolls-Royce or a dozen illicit Cuban cigars. It is a bag that announces that one has achieved a breathtaking level of success. It can declare its owner's wealth and status from a distance of 50 paces" (Givhan 2011). Stewart's decision to carry the bag was seen as a sign of arrogance, as a way to communicate her elite position in American culture.

Finally, the fact that the bags are made from exotic animals like ostriches and crocodiles have drawn the ire of animal rights activists, even if the animals are not endangered. Killing animals for fashion is seen in some circles as decadent and unnecessary.

Where is it going?

The Birkin bag has lost some of its cache, given that waiting lists are no longer common, and 'trends' must be constantly in flux in the fashion world. At the height of its popularity, when Martha Stewart brandished it in court, one reporter wrote: "Stewart's Birkin was a hand-stitched symbol of the underlying issues -- the privileges of success -- that have so agitated her detractors" (Givhan 2011). Still, its high price continues to command public attention. Wearing a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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