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Hermès Birkin to the Gucci Jackie: Iconic bags and the stories that shaped them

Business Today logo Business Today 15-03-2023 Smita Tripathi
Hermès Birkin to the Gucci Jackie: Iconic bags and the stories that shaped them © Provided by Business Today Hermès Birkin to the Gucci Jackie: Iconic bags and the stories that shaped them

A chance encounter in 1983 between actress Jane Birkin and Jean Louis Dumas, then Creative Director of French luxury brand Hermès, resulted in the ultimate luxury bag, the Birkin. The story goes that the two were seated next to each other on an international flight, when Dumas asked why Birkin travelled with a simple straw tote. She explained that most leather bags were too structured for her taste and she wanted something much more boho. That led to the two of them designing the bag on the back of an airsickness bag. Little did anyone know that fashion history was being doodled that day. The Birkin has changed little in style or function since its inception. But what has changed is the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it commands at auctions, depending on the exotic skins and diamond-encrusted hardware. Last year, Sotheby’s sold one for $440,000. The year before, Christie’s sold one for £237,000. Most recently, a Hong Kong billionaire sold 76 Birkin bags from his private collection for $3.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

“The Birkin is an iconic bag. It is made in such a way that it will stand the test of time. It is handmade by very trained craftsmen in the same way that Hermès makes saddles. It’s an iconic model that will not go out of style,” Rachel Koffsky, SVP and International Head of Department for Handbags & Accessories at Christie’s, told Business Today recently. It takes a single expert craftsman up to 40 hours to produce a Birkin bag. The stitch on which the brand’s reputation is based—the saddle—cannot be replicated by a machine; it takes two needles simultaneously passing through the same seam to produce a Birkin correctly, she explains. Production is limited and the waitlist is so long that most people end up buying it on the secondary market.

In 2020, the investment po tential of handbags outpaced rare artwork, cars and whisky, according to a report by Art Market Research. Per the report, while the price of an artwork by Banksy increased 23 per cent in a year, the appreciation in the price of the Birkin was 42 per cent. As per data from market research firm Euromonitor International, the market for luxury handbags is expected to reach $100 billion by 2027, compared to $72 billion in 2022. Of course, the largest markets for these bags, like nearly all luxury accessories, are the US and China. While the Birkin is considered the ultimate ‘it’ bag by fashionistas and investors alike, it’s not the only one. Its sister bag, the Kelly, also ends up commanding exceptional prices at auctions. The matte white Himalaya Crocodile Diamond Retourné Kelly 35 with 18k white gold and diamond hardware is considered the most collectible bag in the world. “We have sold it for up to $500,000. We hold the record for the most expensive Himalayan Kelly sold at an auction,” said Koffsky.

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It takes a single expert craftsman up to 40 hours to produce the Holy Grail of luxury bags, the Birkin

The Kelly started off life as ‘Sac à dépêches’ in 1935. It was only 20 years later that it went on to achieve worldwide recognition when in 1956 movie-star-turned-princess Grace Kelly used the bag to shield her baby bump from the press. The pictures went viral and Hermès received so many requests for the ‘Kelly Bag’ as it became known that the company renamed it in her honour. Today, the bag has year-long waitlists all over the world, making it one of the most desirable bags, and also one of the hardest to come by. 

So, what makes a bag special? Timelessness is definitely an important factor when it comes to selecting an iconic bag. Most of these bags have not only not lost their momentum since they were created decades ago, but they also seem to get better with age. Take, for instance, the Chanel 2.55, named after its launch date (February 1955), one of the world’s most coveted bags. It continues to be popular even after seven decades. Currently priced at over $8,500, the bag created fashion history as it was the first one that allowed its wearer to have the hands free while carrying the bag on one’s shoulder. In 2005, the bag was famously re-issued by the late designer Karl Lagerfeld. Recently, a study from Credit Suisse Group showed that Chanel bags rose in value 24.5 per cent from the previous year. Those by Lagerfeld are especially coveted.

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The Gucci Jackie was renamed in 1961 after US First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who loved the bag

Another iconic bag is the Louis Vuitton Speedy. Launched in 1930 as a luxurious-yet-practical travel bag, it became a hugely popular purse when in 1959, Audrey Hepburn asked Louis Vuitton to make it slightly smaller. The width was reduced from 30 cm to 25 cm and it became Hepburn’s go-to bag. It’s available in different sizes from 25 cm to 40 cm. Over the years the bag hasn’t changed much, except for minor tweaks introduced periodically. It’s priced in stores at around $1,600.

Often, iconic bags get named after the most famous celebrities carrying it. Take, for instance, the Gucci Jackie that was launched in 1950 as the ‘Constance’ but was renamed in 1961 after US First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who loved the bag. Over the decades, the bag has been reintroduced by the maison several times and has changed from a hobo style to one with more structure. Popular with celebrities like Kate Moss and Harry Styles, the bag is priced between $2,400 and $4,500 depending upon size and material. Vintage Gucci bags have a high resale value on secondary sites such as Rebag. Another bag with an interesting history is the Lady Dior. The story goes that in 1995, Bernadette Chirac, wife of then French president Jacques Chirac, called up the House of Dior and requested for a bag to be gifted to Princess Diana on her visit to Paris. The rectangular-shaped bag with gold hardware and demi-arched handles and stitching details inspired by Napoleon III rattan-style chairs, was initially called ‘Chouchou’ which loosely translates to favourite. An apt name as it quickly became one of Princess Diana’s favourite bags and when she was seen often with it, Dior decided to name it Lady Dior in her honour. Priced upwards of $4,000, the Lady Dior is one of the most iconic bags out there.


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