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HANDS ON

Birkin fatigue? Nope, they're bagging it

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Stocks may tumble and recession may loom but le Birkin holds strong. Proud owners will tell you how they pulled strings to jump the six-month queue. An entire geography of power is mapped for a purse.

Jay-Z (w)rapped up the lure of the Birkin aptly in 30 Something: "Ya chick shop at the mall/ My chick burnin’ down Bergdorf’s / Comin’ back with Birkin bags/ Ya chick is like, ‘What type of purse is that?’... ". In other words, you ain’t arrived if you don’t have it hanging on your (or in Jay-Z’s case, his chick Beyonce’s ) arm. And the Birkin isn’t even 30-something yet. It was born in 1984, which makes it 28, usually a dangerous age in the perennially young fashion world. Unless you’re a classic, of course; then age is irrelevant . Birkin - the Hermès handbag, not the actress-singer it was named after - is definitely in that ageless, Anna Wintour league and many here are willing to sway it and be swayed by it.

The sight of the soignée Pakistani foreign minister toting a Birkin in New Delhi last year didn’t put off patriotic Indian fashionistas from Bhatinda to Bellary. Nita Ambani has more of them anyway, so why should our ladies deprive themselves of the iconic French bag? Besides, even Shane Warne doesn’t mind carrying Liz’s classic tan one around for her.

In fact, as Hermès has seen a 27 per cent rise in second quarter sales in South East Asia, it’s hard to believe the region is heading for Birkin fatigue as some fashion watchers there aver. If anything, flash-sale sites and stores offering brand-new ‘secondhand’ Birkins (bought from official outlets then sold unused ) at a 50 per cent to 100 per cent mark-up scream covetability!

No such stores have popped up in India so far, but Birkins are not familiar enough to breed contempt in this corner of Asia just yet. Not that familiarity is a bad thing, as luxury brands eventually must reach out to attract clientele beyond those who are already habitués of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, Manhattan’s 57th Street or London’s Bond Street.

Indeed, recent comments that famous-for-being-famous Kim Kardashian’s closet-load of Birkins in every shade has decreased the bag’s covetability gloss over an important fact: imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery. And even if luxury brands will not admit to it, at a certain level they benefit from it even if they are supposedly snobbish about buyers.

For every celeb that carries a conspicuous Birkin - the Kardashian sisters or Katie Holmes or Victoria Beckham, Deepika Padukone or Kangna Ranaut - millions of fans aspire to imitate them. Some eventually achieve their goal. That certainly keeps Hermès’ tills ringing as they don’t operate on the basis of face recognition. Luckily.

A straw poll this week in India’s Birkinsvilles - Lutyens’ & south Delhi, SoBo etc - elicited countless denials of any preference for it by those who should have been collectors. One lady said she was "put off" because Birkins were "everywhere". "People," sniffed another, "are carrying them around like schoolbags" . That means Birkins are selling here.
A lot. QED. There are Birkin waiting lists in the three Hermès stores here too. But despite the six-month wait (and seven-figure price tag) to have that dream bag dangling on their arms, mothers and daughters are ‘investing’ in Birkin heirlooms-to-be with as much eagerness as grandmas used to buy gold jewellery. So, waiting times can only get longer, as awareness increases and democratises. Within a month of Hermès opening its Mumbai store in 2011 with Bollywood’s brightest all toting Birkins, its smaller (single-handled ) sibling Kelly debuted as ‘Bagwati’ in Farhan Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The more voluptuous Birkin is bound to be offered more than an item number or two. That’s because Birkins always manage to hog the headlines, more than any of the other classic stars that transcend the everchanging ‘It Bag’ tag. They are coveted, collected , flaunted, hawked, burgled and gossiped about.

It is not surprising that the World Luxury Index has listed it as the most searched handbag model on the internet. Birkins obviously boost confidence : Wendi Deng was spotted carrying an ostrich skin one when she accompanied her husband Rupert Murdoch to the phone hacking hearings earlier this year. Even disgraced domestic diva Martha Stewart carried a Birkin to her 2004 trial for fraud, as did rapper Li’l Kim who faced perjury charges in the same court. Birkins also tempt. This May, Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca and her boyfriend battered and burnt a $100,000 red croc-skin Birkin for two minutes of fame. Last year, a similar Birkin was auctioned in Dallas for $203,150.

The US site of eBay features hundreds of second hand Birkins priced from $3,500 to over $25,000; India’s eBay has none. Yet. Talking of eBay, in 2008 Michael Tonello got a new career as a columnist after the site inspired his bestseller Bringing Home the Birkin. Chic woman-about-Manhattan Plum Sykes also featured the bag in Bergdorf Blondes. And, a conwoman used Birkins to gain access to high society in the Philippines. What better proof of its cachet? India’s Birkin tales await…

Another kind of imitation finds less favour but that can be beneficial too. Luxury brands are quick to crack down on fakes if they have a bonafide presence in a country. Recently 34 websites selling faux Hermès were ordered by a US court to give $100 million in compensation to the company. But knock-offs also create awareness and whet appetites.

Indians knew all about brown bags with LV logos long before Louis Vuitton opened in India, thanks to fakes, if not at home then in tourist spots like Bangkok. When the market matures, fakes give way to genuine demand. As incomes rise, Indians will go for authentic items - including Birkins - not cheap knock-offs .

By the time South East Asia actually tires of Birkins, a few million more Indians would have just discovered them.

HANDS ON
MOST SEARCHED FOR HANDBAGS

HERMES BIRKIN
The Hermès Birkin is the most searched for handbag across all markets. In the US, UK and France, crocodile is the most searched for material.

CHANEL 2.55
Coco Chanel designed this revolutionary handbag and it is named after the date of creation in 1955. Most searched for colour is the original caviar.

LOUIS VUITTON SPEEDY
The Speedy was introduced in the 1930s and skyrocketed to fame during the 1960s after being redesigned for superstar Audrey Hepburn. Damier canvas in Azur and Monogram canvas are most popular Source: World Luxury Index.

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