Are Birkin Bags The Root Of Evil?

In "Deluxe," Dana Thomas, Newsweek's culture and fashion writer in Paris, writes about how the luxury market went mass market. In this little excerpt, she looks at the swelling and obsessive handbag market—and takes a trip to an Hermes workshop. (By the way, the book is blurbed by both Fareed Zakaria and Richard Johnson! Crazy.) "Deluxe," published by The Penguin Press, arrives August 16th.

Handbags are the engine that drives luxury brands today. According to annual consumer surveys conducted by Coach each year, the average American woman purchased two new handbags a year in 2000; by 2004, that number was more than four. At Louis Vuitton's immense four-floor global store in Tokyo, 40 percent of all sales are made in the first room, which sells only monogram handbags, wallets, and other small leather goods.

"With the bag... there are no leftovers because there are no sizes, unlike shoes or clothes," Miuccia Prada told me. "It's easier to choose a bag than a dress because you don't have to face the age, the weight, all the problems. And there is a kind of an obsession with bags. It's so easy to make money. The bag is the miracle of the company.

In 2004, luxury brands collectively sold $11.7 billion worth of handbags and other leather accessories, and the segment is only getting stronger. While the luxury market grew by 1.2 percent each year from 2001 and 2004, leather goods sales increased by 7.5 percent each year. A large share of those sales are "It" bags: the latest hot designs that—thanks to luxury brand campaigns and fashion magazine articles—become the must-have of the season.

[...]

And women got hooked, some disturbingly so. As I noted in the Introduction, there are Japanese girls who work as prostitutes to buy Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Hermes bags. I read about a woman who played backgammon for Hermes bags. In September 2005, victims of Hurricane Katrina used their Red Cross cards to buy $800 bags at the Louis Vuitton boutique in Atlanta. (Once the story hit the papers, Louis Vuitton executives instructed their salespeople to stop accepting Red Cross cards for payment and reimbursed the Red Cross for purchases already made.) Web sites such as BagBorroworSteal.com have cropped up for women to rent luxury and designer handbags for a fashionably short period of time instead of buying them—that way they can change their bags more often.

[...]

To see how an Hermes bag is made is to understand what luxury once was and what it is no longer. On a cool spring morning in March 2005, I visited the Hermes special orders workshop in Pantin, a seedy suburb north of Paris, to get a glimpse.

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The artisans in the Pantin workshop dress in aprons and white coats. Some wear earphones to listen to music on their iPods while they work. The workshop is perfectly silent except for the occasional tapping of a hammer or the short burst of stitching on a sewing machine. No one speaks. They just build bags. Even with a lot of practice, making an Hermes bag goes slowly. It takes fifteen to sixteen hours to make an average-size Birkin or Kelly. The bigger bags take twenty-five to thirty hours. In 2005, Hermes twelve leather ateliers in France produced 130,000 handbags. Thanks to the waiting lists, Hermes didn't suffer losses after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which caused one of the worst retail years in recent memory. In fact, sales went up. "After September 11, a lot of people came in to buy that one special scarf or tie or bag," Robert Chavez, CEO of Hermes's American subsidiary in New York, told me. "They'd say, 'I just want to have one special thing.'"