The History of the Hermès Birkin Bag
The history of the Birkin bag is one filled with legend and happenstance. Before the Birkin bag, Hermes was already well-established as a house of luxury leather goods, catering to their elite clients’ needs. Today, of course, with the preeminence of the Birkin, Hermès has become the preeminent luxury handbag design house — the maker of the most coveted handbags on earth.
This story begins in 1983, with the chance encounter between It-Girl Jane Birkin and Jean-Louis Dumas, the artistic director and CEO of Hermes. The Jane Birkin bag began in the clouds and eventually went stratospheric, still showing no signs of slowing. Keep reading to learn more about the remarkable Birkin bag history.
See: A Brief History of the Kelly Bag
Who is Jane Birkin?
Birkin and Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin is an English-French actress, singer, and model. A true fashion icon from the 1960s through the 1980s, she combined a natural beauty with a playful, androgynous style and a frank sexuality. In addition to own popularity, Birkin gained fame for her 10-year relationship with Serge Gainsbourg, a French singer/writer/director/poet regarded as one of the most popular French figures in pop culture. The two have a daughter, actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The Origin of the Jane Birkin Bag
Fashion history changed on a late-night flight from Paris to London. The details differ in the many tellings of the tale. Handbag legend says that in 1983, a serendipitous upgrade placed Jane Birkin in first class, next to Jean-Louis Dumas, then the artistic director and CEO of Hermès. She was carrying her signature wicker basket to hold her personal essentials.
As she placed her straw bag in the overhead compartment, all the contents spilled in front of Dumas, including her Hermès diary. Dumas assisted as she scrambled to collect her things. Dumas joked that she needed a handbag with pockets. The actress replied that the day Hermès made a large everyday bag that could hold all the items a busy mother carried, she would give up her signature oversized basket in its favor. The actress then explained how hard it was to find a spacious, secure, and stylish bag she liked.
Dumas, incorporating feedback from Birkin, drew the very first sketches of the Birkin bag on an airplane sickness bag. Such a humble beginning to Birkin bag history, the luxury handbag that would one day rule the world!
One year later, in 1984, the first Birkin bag was released. Its roomy interior made it an ideal jet-set option, and the lock meant it could be securely carried closed during travel. The clean lines, minimalist style, and casual flair perfectly captured Birkin’s personal style. She was gifted a 40cm Birkin, which she individualized with stickers. It retailed for about $2,000. In 2011, Jane Birkin sold her original, well-worn bag at auction for more than $162,000 to support earthquake relief efforts in Japan.
Today, the Birkin bag comes in sizes 25cm, 30cm, 35cm, and 40cm and in a variety of leathers and exotic skins. Over the years, many limited edition styles like the Cargo Birkin and the Hermès picnic bags crafted of woven wicker with leather trim seem inspired by Birkin.
The Early History of the Birkin Bag
It’s difficult to believe now, but the public’s early response to the Birkin bag was underwhelming. Chanel bags dominated the market in the 80s, and the Jane Birkin bag didn’t change that. Hermès’ legendary quality and the meet-cute origin story didn't break through. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the bag inspired by It Girl Jane Birkin became the It Bag.
The early history of the Birkin bag shows that by the turn of the century, the bag was soaring in popularity. It was an established status symbol. It was in August 2001 when an episode of Sex and the City sent the Birkin’s profile to the stratosphere. When Samantha uttered the immortal words, “It’s not a bag — it's a Birkin!” demand for the luxury bag skyrocketed.
Special Edition Birkin Bag History
Since its introduction, the Jane Birkin bag has been rendered in a wide range of sumptuous leathers and colors. Brand VIPs frequently choose the Birkin as the bag they customize, often incorporating multiple colors and leathers. These Hermès Special Order (HSS) bags are also frequently crafted from exotic skins like shiny alligator, ostrich, or crocodile. All are highly sought-after.
But the most coveted models in Birkin bag history are the limited edition styles. These designs are released in severely limited quantities, part of the Hermès strategic scarcity that drives both demand and price.
2009 Shadow Birkin
The Shadow Birkin, introduced in 2009, was the first limited edition for this model. Crafted by famed French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, it is an open tote bag fashioned to look like the Birkin. It does not have the signature structure and hardware the iconic bag is known for. Instead, in a clever trompe-l’œil effect, the illusion of the top flap and loose sangles are raised on the bag’s leather front, with an impression of the clochette on the back. Originally issued in a 35cm size, the Shadow Birkin was reissued in a 25cm version in 2020.
2010 So Black Birkin and Kelly Bags
Jean Paul Gaultier released the stunning So Black collection of Birkin and Kelly bags in 2010. The Ruthenium metal hardware is darkened nearly to black with a coating of PVD, giving the bags an intriguing and edgy appearance. The So Black Birkin and Kelly bags were packed in a unique black box and accompanied by black dustbags and tissue paper. They were made in box calf leather and matte alligator in Birkin sizes 30cm and 35cm and in Kelly sizes 32cm and 35cm. There was also a Kelly Cut version. The So Black is still one of the hottest styles in Birkin bag history.
2010 The Himalaya Birkin
Initially, the ombre-effect Himalaya bags were constructed and released in secret only to the most valuable brand VIPs. In 2010, the Himalaya Birkin was released, crafted from Niloticus Crocodile skin hand-dyed to mimic the line of the eponymous Himalaya mountain range. The most extravagant is the Himalaya Diamond bag with diamond-encrusted white gold hardware.
2012 Club Birkin
The sporty Club Birkin features three vertical stripes of contrasting leather up the front of the bag. In some bags, the center stripes may feature exotic skins.
2012 The Ghillies Birkin
The Ghillies Birkin features added leather trim that frames the top and bottom of the bag, front and back in a coordinating color. Named after a Scottish men’s dress shoe style, the trim of the Ghillies includes tiny perforations known as “broguing.”
2017 The Touch Birkin
Released in 2017, the Touch Birkin incorporates an exotic skin on the bag’s flap, handles, and sangles. The balance of the bag is typically crafted in a smooth leather like Togo, though occasionally in ostrich. Originally intended to offer a “touch” of the exotics at a more accessible price point, these limited edition bags soon came to rival the price of exotic Birkins on the secondary market.
2018 Tressage Birkin
The Tressage Birkin features a central panel of interwoven multicolored leather on the front of the bag.
2019 The Faubourg Birkin
Based on the more structured Birkin Sellier (more on this below) the Faubourg Birkin is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and one of the most spectacular styles in Birkin bag history. It reproduces the iconic architecture of the Hermès flagship store at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The arched windows, awnings, brickwork, and roof are each rendered in a different leather. The Faubourg Birkin has now been produced in four color stories, depicting day, evening, morning, and midnight. At 20cm, it is the smallest Birkin produced. (A micro birkin was introduced in 2011 as an accessory, not a handbag.)
2020 The Sunrise Rainbow Birkin
This limited edition Birkin, too, is fashioned using the Seller Birkin. It features slightly arched color blocking in four cheery colors, evoking a rainbow.
2020 Cargo Birkin
The 2020 Cargo Birkin, initially introduced in the 35cm size, is crafted of lightweight canvas, trimmed out in leather. The five spacious exterior pockets and removable cup holder seem directly inspired by the original mission of the first Birkin Bag. A petite 25cm version was introduced in the following year.
2021 Picnic Birkin
Ten years after introducing the Picnic Kelly, the woven wicker Birkin was produced. This highly collectible limited edition, too, seems directly inspired by the origin of the Birkin bag history.
2021 The Birkin 3EN1
This fun iteration of the classic Birkin includes a removable canvas pochette that takes the iconic front flap with it. When you take the pochette, you're set for a quick errand or have an evening clutch. With the pochette removed, the main bag becomes an open tote. Replace the pochette, and you have a classic Birkin. The three-in-one sensibility is a clear nod to the bag’s original emphasis on practicality.
We’ll continue to update the special edition Birkin bag history as new styles are released.
The Birkin Sellier
From its creation, the Birkin bag has been constructed in the Retourne style, with a far more casual flair than the highly structured Sellier style reserved for the Kelly bag. The laid-back vibe seemed essential to the bag’s appeal.
In 2014, the history of the Birkin bag was rocked by the introduction of the Birkin Sellier. It introduced a more formal style to Birkin lovers, with the smaller bags ideal for evening. The structured nature was integral to the limited edition Faubourg Birkin. The response to the Sellier Birkin has been enormous. But it is still too soon to say whether this style will become a permanent feature in the Birkin bag history.
Shopping for a Birkin
The Jane Birkin bag is a part of fashion history and remains a “status” bag, its popularity greater than ever. Hermes only makes a limited amount of Birkin bags per year (and they’re tight-lipped about the specific number!) as part of their scarcity marketing strategy. This is why buying a Birkin from a boutique involves hoop-jumping for all but their most exclusive VIP customers.
Madison Avenue Couture has built its business on eliminating the struggle and frustration of trying to purchase a bag directly from Hermès. We are America’s largest, most trusted dealer of authentic Hermès bags. Every bag we offer, except a select few vintage models, is store fresh and thrice authenticated. Each is in stock, and available for immediate delivery. If you don’t see the specific size, color, or limited edition style you want, our concierge department will be happy to source it for you.