The Birkin, like the celebrities who carry it, is not impervious to scandal. Just last week, singer-actress Jane Birkin, whose name has allowed Hermès to produce the world’s most famous bag and, according to Forbes, become a USD40-billion luxury business, made a very public request: un-name the crocodile version of the namesake bag. Is this similar to un-friending on social media, and just as easy?
Apparently, the 68-year-old chanteuse-as-muse was “alerted” to how crocs were slaughtered to make Hermès bags, and she wasn’t terribly thrilled. It seems that her call to “de-baptise the Birkin croco” came after the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) published a video on how these animals are handled on the slaughter table. These not-to-be-Birkins, however, would only remain nameless until “better practices in line with international norms can be put in place”, as spelled out in Ms Birkin’s statement.
The Jane Birkin request (note: this isn’t a demand) has caused a media frenzy, encouraging even serious news outlets such as Forbes and The New York Times to weigh in on the controversy. The old discord about the haves and have-nots, ethics and aesthetics, conspicuous consumption and discreet displays, resurfaced. The Birkin, even in not-so-glowing media glare, generates attention.
Closer to home, a scandal associated with the Birkin went viral not too long ago. Across the causeway, Rosmah Mansor, the high-profile and polarising wife of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, was photographed carrying a Birkin that uncannily resembled one sold in June by the auction house Christie’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, that fuchsia crocodile Birkin with diamonds on its white-gold hardware was picked up by an anonymous buyer in Hong Kong for HKD1.72 million (or about SGD 306,000). The winning bid turned out to be the most expensive second-hand Birkin ever sold.
Social media went wild with reports that Mdm Mansor was the undisclosed purchaser. There were the usual denials; even an aide came forward to refute the accusation. The Prime Minister’s wife carrying a luxury bag is, perhaps, no big deal, but this glaring display of big-ticket consumption came at a time when the Malaysian PM was (and still is) embroiled in a financial scandal related to millions of dollars allegedly deposited into his personal bank account. All this bubbling amid the falling of the Malaysian ringgit against the USD and SGD adds to social-media posts already rife with disdain for certain members of the ruling party. The Birkin instantly became a stark reminder of economic divides and a symbol of the privilege class.
On our very own shores, the Birkin, too, is linked to scandal, scorn and spite. On top of the usual reports of society women carrying their Birkins to gala dinners (a no-no for those in the know since the Birkin is a day bag and must never be seen with an evening gown) and those whose collections of Birkins are housed in glass cabinets (put on view even at home smacks of showing off), there was the display of cold, hard cash stored in a capacious crocodile Birkin, so injudiciously posted on Instagram last year by David Gan. Mr Gan, hairdresser to the stars, has never been known to be a discreet consumer, but the cash, contained for all to see, has raised the bar. Flasks of bird’s nest he’s known to prepare for celebrity clients such as Zhang Zhiyi pale by comparison.
Despite the contempt expressed through social media for his lack of discretion, Mr Gan was not at all ruffled. He was quick to point out that the bag and its pecuniary content—“only $40,000”, as he told The New Paper—belonged to his employer Yuan Yuan, a wealthy, rotund individual reported to be in the “property business”. Of their initial meeting at his salon in Palais Renaissance, where she was introduced by the St Regis hotel to have her hair done, Mr Gan said in a 2009 blog entry, “She paid me so much that I could buy 2 Birkin bags.”
The Birkin’s appeal does not lie in how gorgeous it looks. Sure, it’s a handsome bag, but it’s simple and not attention-grabbing. It’s evocative of a time when no bag needs to be ‘It’ to be beautiful and useful. It is a functional receptacle. Yet, first time carriers of the Birkin are surprised by how heavy the bag is, and the strength required in its haulage lies almost entirely in the whole arm. The average weight of a 35cm (a popular size) Birkin in the more commonly used Togo leather is 4.5kg or the equivalent of the mass of a watermelon. Women will complain about carrying home the grocery bag, but they happily carry a laden Birkin!
What’s in a name then? How the Birkin came about is the stuff of legend and corporate spin. By Jane Birkin’s own account, the story is humbler. Still, the crux of the story is rather romantic and myth-worthy. Through the kind intervention of fate, she met a man on a business-class flight (as luck would have it, she was upgraded), and as she was piling her stuff into the overhead bin, the contents of her bag spilled out. The man said to her that she should have bags with pockets. And she replied, “The day Hermès make one with pockets I will have that.” As it turned out, that man was Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès. And he rejoined, “But I am Hermès and I will put pockets in for you.”
Mr Dumas was a man of his word. When the bag with pockets was made, Ms Birkin went to the Hermès atelier to purchase it. As we see it now, it was an article that could be the world’s first collaboration. Mr Dumas suggested that he accepted no money from her if she would allow her surname to be used in the christening of the bag. We know the reaction to that. Hermès has, however, always underscored that the company annually donates (around £30,000, as reported by the British press) to Ms Birkin’s preferred charities as a form of royalty for the use of the Birkin name.
It really would be interesting to consider the name choice here. Hermès picked Birkin instead of Jane. Would a Jane bag have the same ring or distinction as a Birkin bag? Clearly not. Jane is rather common and often associated with ‘plain’, never mind its link to one of English literature’s best-known writers. Birkin, on the other hand, is exceptional. It’s English, which, to a French company, must have been exotic, and it has impressive lineage. It can be traced to a county in West Yorkshire, as well as to the Birkin Baronetcy, attributed to a businessman Thomas Isaac Birkin, who was in the manufacture of lace, a cloth associated in its early use with royalty and the clergy.
A grand name for a grand bag. But are the owners just as grand, considering the Kardashians? Or Jamie Chua?