Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Birkin Bliss

by Stefanie Fagerberg

The Maison Hermes was founded in 1837 as a small harness workshop in Paris. Thierry Hermes, its founder had previously lived in Normandy, France’s horse country and the brand thus has a strong equestrian heritage. The company boomed in the 1860s and at the turn of the century began to expand its offering to couture, trunks and belts.

Hermes has recently received extensive media coverage concerning a threatening interest from multi- group LVMH interest to buy out the company. However a part of what Hermes represents has to do with its choice to remain true to its small merchant roots and focus on quality rather than quantity. This is a strategy that has shown itself very successful for Hermes, which now offers a wide variety of goods.

One of the Maison’s iconic pieces is its Birkin Bag. The Birkin was first created as a black leather supple bag in 1984 after, rumour has it, Dumas and English-born singer and songwriter Jane Birkin shared a flight and a conversation from Paris to London. The bag is usually made to order based on different customer choices concerning leather, color and hardware. There is a wide array of leather options ranging from ostrich to crocodile to lizard. Birkins require an extensive amount of time and skill to be made. They are hand-made in France by expert artisans and take several days to finish. It takes approximately 15-16 hours to make average size Birkins and can take up to 25-30 hours for the bigger sizes. The Birkins retail price starts at $7000 and escalates with customization options. The high price is justified by the meticulous craftsmanship needed and scarcity of the materials used.

There are 12 leather ateliers in France that produce about 130,000 handbags per year. The entire bag is hand sewn with the classic saddle stitch using two needles and one single long piece of thread. The thread is made from French linen and is break resistant so that it does not burn when pulled through the leather. Moreover, the thread is waxed with beeswax to strengthen and smooth it and ensure its waterproof aspect. The thread always matches the leather. Everything is stitched by hand with the exception of the zipper and inside pocket. The handles are constructed from six pieces of leather which are shaped on the artisan’s thighs and take about three hours to make.

When the bag is sewn together it consists of eight layers – the outer skin, the piece of cowhide which is placed between the outer skin and the lining to give the bag strength and rigidity, 2 edges of piping made by wrapping a piece of leather cord with the skin held together with glue. The flap is sewn on and is not a continuation of the bag, as is the case with the Kelly bag. The seams are retourner, meaning on the inside of the bag and the beginning and end of the seam has three double stitches so that it doesn’t fall apart.

When the bag is finished and the hardware has been attached with a technique called pearling the bag is turned inside out and ironed.The bag is also stamped with the year, artisan and workshop in which it was made.

Thursday Friday

Thursday Friday is an L.A.-based accessories label that launched its ‘together’ bag in 2010. Founders commented that this bag works as an anti-status status symbol.

Ironically a waiting-list for this 100% cotton canvas bag was also instated after the bags were selling out quicker than possibly imagined. The Birkin is printed on the five sides of the bag. The brand was recently sued by Hermes.

Jelly Kelly

Jelly Kelly bags were first made in Italy out of translucent and waterproof rubber. These bags were copies of the Kelly and Birkin bags but made of much cheaper and less fragile material. It was New York based designer Steven Stolman who first imported them to the U.S.A. to sell them at high-end retailers and started a huge fad in the early 2000s, seen everywhere in the streets – even in hit sitcom Sex and the City. However, the brand faced cease-and-desist letters from Hermes, have since stopped being sold and are extremely hard to come across.

Banane Bag

Banane is a Taipei-based handbag company which very recently released a PETA-approved version of a canvas bag with the Birkin bag printed onto it. It is sold for $125 in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It bears a striking similarity to the ThursdayFriday design.

Nexus VII x Porter

Another interesting take on the Birkin and travel. Travel company Nexus Vii partnered with Porter to design a high-end luggage which they stress ‘unites (a) well-engineered bag with the Birkin’. The bag features a rectangular base which extends upwards and becomes more narrow with an outer fabric created in quilted fashion. The luggage also includes a clip-style closure.

Brunello Cicunelli For Men

Italian designer Cucinelli designed a travel tote which is aimed at men who appreciate the design of the Birkin but do not wish to be overly extravagant or draw attention to themselves. The brown canvas bag with leather detailing retails for about $1800, which is definitely a cheaper alternative to the Birkin-esque messenger bag that Hermes released in order to target men with their bags.

284 and Thelure and LAX store

Several Brasilian brands have also recently been selling alternatives to “Birkin” bags made of different materials. Basically it is the design of the Birkin but made out of cheaper materials. These materials include jeans, transparent plastic, straw, sweatshirt material and neoprene (a type of synthetic rubber). 284 was founded by the third generation of the founders of Brasilian luxury department store Daslu. These new brands with strong connections to Daslu, the biggest reference for fashion and style in Brazil, attempt to fill the niche in the market of Brazil’s rising young middle class, which want fashion that unites design, quality, and accessible prices.

In 2010 284 launched its ‘I’m not the Original’ collection which was a collection based on iconic designs but made of different materials. Thelure and LAX store soon came out with their own copies of iconic bags.

A huge part of what makes the Birkin bag so luxurious is the buying experience which in itself is a authentic experience of luxury and the fact that once you own one, you are ensured that it will be taken care of by the brand. As Thomas states, the Birkin is the ‘antithesis of the ‘it’ bag” because although it does not scream logos it is one of the most recognized and desired bags in the fashion industry. This bag is so iconic not because it is fashion but because it will never go out of fashion. In this sense it has this ‘quintessence’ described by writer Michael Beitut.

Fashion File: Making Birkin Bag : http://mysinfulindulgence.multiply.com/video/item/1

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