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. He spills the beans here...
That saga is hilarious - if, that is, you are amused by the foibles of the rich and those who cater to them. It is also tender --- if, that is, you can be touched by Tonello's burgeoning friendships with the women who became his best customers. And 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.
Now? No more waiting list. And now that anybody can buy a Birkin, anyone can sell one. Like Amazon, which sells the Hermès 30cm Togo Tri Color (Pink, Bougainvillea & Purple) Birkin Palladium for $6,500, plus shipping. (Or, if you like, a knockoff --- the London Office Tote Croc Finish, for just $59.99, with free shipping). As for Hermès, it offers Birkins --- at discount --- online. [UPDATE: Actually, Hermès does not. The sites that use the firm's logo and offer bargain prices are apparently resellers at best. More likely, they'll selling knockoffs. Caveat emptor.]
So much for "special."
What's special is this book.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler