THE BACK PAGES

How to get the un-gettable bag

ANNE KINGSTON March 3 2008
THE BACK PAGES

How to get the un-gettable bag

ANNE KINGSTON March 3 2008

How to get the un-gettable bag

A soon-to-be-published memoir busts wide open the myth of the unattainable Birkin

ANNE KINGSTON

The fashion world is about to be handed its own Da Vinci Code with Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag. Michael Tonello’s memoir of his years reselling high-end handbags on eBay cracks open one of retail’s top-secret codes: how to procure a Hermès Birkin, a purse for which it’s joked there’s a waiting list to get on the waiting list. The book isn’t out until April but advance buzz is building. The New York Post’s Page Six reported an advance copy sold for US$1,000 on eBay. A movie deal is in the works.

Such is the mythologized mania for the handmade bag designed in the early 1980s and named after the British actress Jane Birkin. The Birkin’s cult status stems from its exorbitant price—which ranges from $6,500 to $200,000 depending on size, skin, colour and hardware—and its celebrity associations: Oprah hands them out as gifts; Martha Stewart toted one to her trial; the theft of Lindsay Lohan’s at Heathrow airport made front-page news. Mostly, though, the Birkin’s exclusivity has hinged on its perceived scarcity: jumping the Birkin wait-list is such a fashion fantasy that Sex and the City based an episode on it.

But now Tonello, an American who moved to Barcelona in 1999, exposes the Birkin’s crass commercial underbelly. In a revelation that will shatter those who cleave to such Birkin lore as that a crocodile must be at least eight years old to be big enough to become one, the author reveals Hermès manipulates Birkins’ exclusivity by controlling supply, then presents them as prizes to customers who drop major coin on other items. We’re talking luxury retail 101 with the twist that Hermès pimps the bag to make customers feel “special,” not merely loaded.

Tonello entered the Birkin market after customers buying Hermès scarves from him on eBay began requesting them. A naïf, he walked into the Barcelona Hermès, asked for one, and was politely rebuffed. It wasn’t until he dropped $2,000 in Madrid, then asked if there were any Birkins, that the clerk trotted to the “Birkin vault,” and returned with a 35-cm anthracite crocodile version that he bought and resold for a nice profit. So began his seven-year descent into the manic world of the Birkinaddicted, who loaned him penthouse apartments and expensive cars to curry favour. Since Hermès won’t sell multiple Birkins to the same customer in one location, he travelled the world, befriending Hermès staff, spending millions, and placing custom orders.

Speaking from Barcelona, Tonello says he believes the fabled “waiting list” is a limbo for second-class shoppers. He says he was shown available Birkins in the Paris shop while people walking in off the street were told there was a waiting list. The bag is dispensed based on how much money you’re spending and how much you have spent, he says. The Birkin is bait. A customer spending thousands will be told by the salesperson that a “wait-listed” Birkin has just become available. “Suddenly you feel like you’re the most special person on the planet,” he says.

“But at the same time, it’s adding $7,000 to the sale.” When told the Toronto Hermès currently has two 25-cm Birkins, one in black, one in white for $6,500 each on the floor, he scoffs, noting the size, created a few years ago, is in little demand. “They were very hot for about three days... until everyone figured out you could not carry it on your arm, nor carry anything in it except a lipstick and a toothpick.”

Tonello knew his Birkin ride was over when Hermès cancelled a custom order. By then, he says, he was weary of the travel and the hype. “After buying hundreds of them I realize they don’t change anyone’s lives; they don’t have the ability to vacuum or to wash your clothes and they perform their handbag duties the way a $50 or $100 purse does.”

Bringing Home the Birkin may dismantle the Birkin myth, but the bag figures heavily in its marketing. Publisher HarperCollins packaged advance copies sent to select media and buyers in the U.S. in a box designed to look like an orange Birkin. One was sold on eBay, a tactic masterminded by Tonello, who donated the proceeds to charity. Publicist Tavia Kowalchuk says that though the Birkin angle adds glamour and narrative drive to the memoir, it’s about much more. “People will come to it for one reason and love it for another,” she says. Such is the Birkin’s grip on the cultural imagination: even exposed as just another high-end handbag, it remains brilliant bait. M

WHAT THEY GOT FOR IT.. . SHAKIRA'S DUDS

A recent Internet auction of the clothes the Colombian singer wore on her 2007 Oral Fixation concert tour fetched thousands of dollars for her charity, which aims to build a school in impov erished rural Colombia. Among the items sold was a US$3,000 beaded and sequined bra and a lavender skirt encrusted with coral and turquoise beading that Shakira had worn when she sang Hips Don't Lie.