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Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag, plus Fake Birkin Bags

Michael Tonello

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Dec 16, 2014
Category: Clothing

I can’t believe I’m doing this.

Head Butler is about authenticity. Great art forged by hard work. Artisanal craft. Creativity. Value. Beauty that will outlast you.

And here I am hawking Birkin bags.

Have I field-tested these? Of course not. Because, new, they can easily cost $155,000. And trust me on this, women who’d like a Birkin bag would very much prefer a new one. Oh, you can try the bargain route: “I wasn’t profligate, I bought it used, on consignment.” And she’d look it up — like this one for $12,000 — and try to adjust to discounted happiness.

I’m offering you fakes — for around $100.

As my forefathers used to say in the shops on the Lower East Side, “You want a blue suit? Hymie, turn on the blue light!”

Ok. I’ve combed the Amazon possibilities, read the reader reviews, culled the herd. Caveat emptor.

The favorite: Genuine Leather Shoulder Strap Tote Bag. “List price” was $306. It can be yours for a mere $106. Free shipping, even. The merchant says: “It is bag worth hundreds dollors.” But it was the best reader review that convinced me:

So if I could afford a multi-thousand dollar hand-made French designer handbag, I for sure wouldn’t be typing my own Amazon reviews. I’m not even sure I could bring myself to spend that kind of money on a bag anyway. But, I love the look of that iconic bag and I wanted to buy one that resembled it, but wasn’t a blatant forgery. I was leery of buying a Chinese no-name bag, because sometimes the quality is so bad, but I had trouble finding a leather bag that wasn’t a counterfeit. I was very pleasantly surprised by this bag. I am glad there is no branding, stamping or engraving that misrepresents who makes this…. If this merchant makes a Kelly inspired bag, I would happily buy that too.

Perhaps milady would like a Gator Italian Leather Hobo Tote Handbag. “List price” was $575. Yours for $130.

Why sell these at all? Because….
——-
Beyonce got some sweet gifts yesterday. Her husband, Jay-Z, was spotted shopping at Hermes’ plush Madison Avenue boutique on Christmas Eve. A spy reports, "Jay was in a private room of Hermes doing last-minute shopping. He had a guard standing watch outside. He spent $350,000 on Birkin bags, among other things." The buying binge took so long, Jay-Z missed his scheduled lunch at Nello, prompting the restaurateur to deliver his food to the store.
—New York Post, 12/26/10

Jane Birkin was flying from London to Paris in 1981 when she reached into her bag for her datebook and everything fell out. “I’d love a bag with pockets,” the English singer/actress told her seatmate.

Her seatmate just happened to the chairman of Hermès. He was a good listener. He had his designers make a bag with pockets, and he sent one to Birkin. Then he named it after her.

And then the fun began.

Everything at Hermès  is expensive. Like: a scarf at $725. Or a leather shoulder bag at $6,500. The datebook Jane Birkin used? It now costs $1,025.

The Birkin bag, however, was in another league. Not only was it expensive, you couldn’t get one. Why? Oh, because each bag required 48 hours of craftsmanship. You know: "This isn’t a bag, it’s a work of art."

Demand soon outstripped supply.

Well, not really. But that was the marketing line. And a genius one at that. Create a luxury item so special it doesn’t need a logo. Then make it scarce. Very scarce — at one point, Hermès announced there was a two-year waiting list. Which only made the Birkin more desirable.

It’s a venerable truth: Deny the rich what they want, and they’ll pay anything to get it.

It was only a matter of time — and technology — before Michael Tonello came along.

Our good fortune: Michael Tonello is a delightful writer, and “Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag” is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. (To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.)

Tonello’s outrageous story as a Birkin buyer — and reseller, or, as he liked to think of himself, “leather liason” — began with him living on Cape Cod and jetting off to exotic destinations for fashion shoots “with a can of hairspray and a powder puff.” He gets an assignment in Barcelona. He falls in love with the city. And moves there.

Money, how to make it. He took one of his scarves — purchased years earlier for $99 at Ralph Lauren — and sold it on eBay for $430. He sold a Truman Capote first edition for $1,000. He saw the excitement on an eBay board for Hermès scarves, so he sold one of his for a $400 profit.

And then a curious thing happened — people who didn’t get to buy his scarf wrote to ask him if he had more. He went to Hermès in Barcelona, bought two dozen and sold them for a “sizable” profit. He discovered that these scarves cost $30 less at the Hermès store in Andorra, so he made the two-hour drive and bought the first of a thousand scarves he’d purchase there.

Soon he was selling 30 scarves a week.

All because he saw a niche in the market.

All because Hermès didn’t yet have a web site.

Inevitably, one of his customers — who just happened to be songwriter Carole Bayer Sager — asked if he could get her a Birkin. He had no idea what that was, but once he found out, he was a bag-seeking missile.

How Michael Tonello cracked the code and was able to buy Birkins from Hermès is the centerpiece of the book. It is hilarious – if, that is, you are amused by the foibles of the rich and those who cater to them. It is tender — if, that is, you can be touched by Tonello’s burgeoning friendships with the women who became his best customers. It is even thrilling — if, that is, your heart rate jumps when a French colleague tries to rip Tonello off and Tonello must Take Steps.

“Bring Home the Birkin” is so much fun you will wonder: where’s the movie? [Suggested title: “The Hero Sold Hermès.”]

Bonus Video: Michael Tonello shares his "secret"