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

Michael Tonello

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 16, 2016
Category: Memoir

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. Like this, from the New York Post, Christmas 2010:

Beyoncé 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.

Michael Tonello is a delightful writer, and “Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag” is drop-dead funny and enjoyable. (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.

In 5 years, Tonello spent about $1.5 million on Birkins. He made much more.

How Tonello cracked the code and was able to buy Birkins from Hermès is the centerpiece of the book — but there’s much more going on here than a retail story. He’s a hilarious writer, if, that is, you are amused by the foibles of the rich and those who cater to them. And he is unexpectedly 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.

You’ll give this book for fashion-minded friends. With a smirk.

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 $10,000 — 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 $99. 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 $69. But now, alas, unavailable. Wait for it?