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26 November 2014

The Birkin isn’t just a handbag: it’s a Pandora’s box, stuffed with primal desire

Ed Smith’s weekly Left Field column. 

By Ed Smith

As a younger and more foolish man, celebrating a successful cricket season, I bought an Hermès watch. Ten years later, the strap had finally worn out. So I returned to the store, in its über-prime extravagance on New Bond Street, to buy a replacement leather band. What I witnessed inside – amid the polished gold, plumed orange silks, buffed leather and achingly soft cashmere casual wear – was an extra­ordinary scene of elemental desire.

As I asked a shop assistant where I might find the watch department, an older woman charged towards us, demanding that I be dropped immediately. “No, you must finish with me first,” she railed at the assistant. “Can’t you see? I’m in hurry. Very busy.”

The customer was in middle age, portly and jowly, expensively but inelegantly dressed, as though she had been poured into her overtight trousers from above, then wedged into her shoes. Speaking slowly but aggressively in a kind of pidgin English, she behaved as if an employee, any employee, was an employee of hers. She may have been Russian. “I want bag. Birkin bag. Correct Birkin bag. You find it for me.”

The Hermès Birkin bag, named after the English actress Jane Birkin, is a pre-eminent status symbol among fashionistas and their devotees. The cheapest version costs about £6,700. Hermès has discovered – with a logic that has so far eluded those who schedule international cricket matches – that to sustain demand, it is necessary to limit supply. So a Birkin bag can be ordered but there is a waiting list of around six months. Alternatively, hopeful buyers can pop into a Hermès store on the off chance – a game in which the chances are not very high.

Six months, to this particular shopper, felt an awfully long way away. So she had taken the direct approach of a personal visit. “Need bag,” she continued, assuming that the problem was one of comprehension rather than availability. “Where is bag?”

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The assistant had produced one handbag – a different one, though still appropriately expensive – while elegantly trying to explain that there were no Birkin bags in stock. “This is wrong bag. Want Birkin bag. Need right bag. When can I have it?”

Meanwhile, at the front of the queue at the watch counter, I hoped they didn’t find the right strap too quickly. Where else could I hope to see such extraordinary sport on a sunny, midweek afternoon? Thankfully, the first strap they brought was too small; I was gifted more time in my ringside seat.

By now, a few feet away, the bag hunter-gatherer is beginning to show signs of primal distress. Her eyes have narrowed with a frightening degree of urgent clarity. She is leaning on the counter, her upper body jutting out towards the various brightly illuminated handbags locked away in glass cabinets on the wall. Her voice is becoming tremulous and wobbly. It’s not clear how much more she can take of this ordeal.

“You will call me!” she pronounces after collecting herself. “First bag arrives, then you call me immediately.” Once more, the assistant gently explains that this will not be possible. Hermès does not make public the arrival of Birkin bags in its stores. There could be stampedes: bag-starved shoppers, hearing news of freshly stocked shelves, might charge en masse through the gold-embossed doors.

The assistant, well trained in dealing with this kind of severe social meltdown, now faces the difficult task of explaining that if the situation is urgent – and that has now been established beyond doubt – the shopper may have to keep dropping in at the store, on the off chance.

“But is risk! Is risk!” comes the furious reply. “Today, I have come all way from . . . from . . . over there!” She is waving towards Brook Street, a few yards away on the other side of the street. “Is risk! Over there!” she continues, suggesting this time that her epic voyage may have begun as far away as Bruton Place, perhaps 300 yards away.

One of the other shop assistants, sensing my fascination, leans in close. “Every day,” he whispers conspiratorially but discreetly. “Six or seven times, every day. Usually it’s the Birkin. The same story – hysterics, despair, tears.”

By now the conversation by the bag counter has ended. But the shopper has not left. She is staring, disbelieving. She has been denied. Might they blink yet and give her the bag? If she stands and glares and holds her ground, yes, they will blink. Perhaps that’s what she does at home. Then she gets what she wants. Or someone gets sacked.

Not today. Even the silent glowering will not work. Like a stud horse whinnying and frothing but held back from the mare, or a prizefighter primed for a bout that is abandoned without a punch thrown, she must retreat outside, her desire unconsummated, her credit cards untouched.

I’ve experienced Andrew Flintoff hurling a cricket ball at my head at 90 miles per hour from 20 yards away. At a few feet’s distance, I watched Novak Djokovic rip off his shirt, thump his chest and make primal grunts when he finally overcame Rafael Nadal after almost six gruelling hours in the stifling Melbourne heat. In terms of hunger and desperation, ranked according to total mono-focus and tunnel vision, gauged by the ability to ignore or block out all other human needs and delicacies, this Hermès shopper kept exalted company.

She started to leave the store in deep gloom and high dudgeon, humphing down the stairs. But wait! An idea arrived just in time. “Tell me,” she asked, “where is Victoria’s Secret?” Thwarted by the handbag, she sought instant absolution in lingerie.

They didn’t have the right watch strap and I walked towards Oxford Street without a purchase. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)