A happy accident? The story behind the Birkin Bag

A employee holds a 129,000 USD crocodile Hermes Birkin Bag for the press to see during a private opening for the new Hermes store on Wall Street in New York 21 June 2007.
A employee holds a 129,000 USD crocodile Hermes Birkin Bag for the press to see during a private opening for the new Hermes store on Wall Street in New York 21 June 2007. Copyright AFP
By Jonny Walfisz
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As the world mourns the loss of British-French actor and singer Jane Birkin, we take a look at the legendary fashion accessory she inspired.


This week, Franco-British actor and singer Jane Birkin died aged 76 in Paris. As France’s President Emmanuel Macron said, she leaves behind a “legacy of songs and images that will never leave us”. But that’s not all to Birkin’s legacy. She’s also the name behind the world’s most iconic handbag.

A short history of the Birkin Bag

By 1981, Jane Birkin was already immortalised in the annals of British-French culture. Born in London in 1946, she moved to France in the 60s and rose to prominence as an actor and sex-symbol for her appearances in films like 1966’s Blow Up.

A relationship with Serge Gainsbourg followed, releasing an album together featuring their duet ‘Je t'aime moi non plus’. Together, they became the quintessential French power couple. Their style and media appearances putting them front and centre in the national zeitgeist.

While their tumultuous relationship came to an end in 1980, Birkin’s influence on fashion was only starting. A year later, on a flight from Paris to London, the actor’s trademark Portuguese wicker basket’s lid came off when she was stuffing it in an overhead locker.

All of Birkin’s possessions went flying about the cabin. Luckily the person sat beside her helped collect her things. Luckier still, that person was Jean-Louis Dumas, executive chairman of Hermès.

Over the rest of the flight, the pair discussed the ideal bag. One that could actually hold all the things Birkin needed in her day to day as a young mother. She sketched out a vague design for Dumas on a sickbag, who went back to Hermès’ headquarters and crafted a prototype.

French director Bertrand Tavernier and French actress and singer Jane BirkinGILLES LEIMDORFER/AFP or licensors

Based on an earlier design used by the company in 1900, the rectangular leather Birkin bag was launched in 1984.

Although named after Birkin herself, she reportedly didn’t love the final design, claiming it was too large and, once full, was “bloody heavy”. The rest of the public also didn’t take to it immediately either.

How the Birkin Bag became essential

It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that the Birkin Bag would begin to gain its legendary status as a fashion accessory. Slowly, the world’s most glamorous celebrities, from Kate Moss to Victoria Beckham started accessorising with them.

One moment in particular stands out. In a 2001 episode of HBO’s style-icon show ‘Sex and the City’, Samantha is placed on a five-year waitlist for one of the bags. Unwilling to be patient, she pretends her celebrity client Lucy Liu is actually the one waiting for the bag. She jumps to the front of the line but loses Liu and the bag in the process.

Featuring as the object of desire in a show that defined the mode for the late ‘90s and early ‘00s put the Birkin Bag’s popularity into the stratosphere.

It has since featured as a plot point in shows like ‘Gossip Girls’ and ‘Gilmore Girls’. Kim Kardashian frequently gifts them to friends, and Beckham’s collection extends into three figures.

A modern style icon

Over 70,000 bags are made every year by Hermès with customers in waiting lists of up to six years.

The exclusivity of the bag and its media status has made them incredibly desired by those in the know. With a starting cost around $10,000 (€8,900) for a basic model up to $300,000 (€267,000) for diamond-encrusted special editions, they’re also seen as a nifty investment, regularly reselling for higher than their original price.

An Hermes Extraordinary Collection 25 cm (9.8 inches) shiny black Nilo crocodile Birkin bag with 18 karat white gold hardware and diamonds, is displayed at Heritage AuctionsAFP

In recent years, the hip-hop world has embraced the bag as a status-signifier with it being namechecked by rappers including Jay-Z, ASAP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Migos and Future. Cardi B has also taken a liking to the bags, referencing them in two songs: ‘She Bad’ and ‘Up’.

It’s a testament to Birkin’s lasting status as an It-girl that a bag she hastily scrawled on the bag of an aeroplane sick bag is still an essential 40 years later.

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