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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Before You Buy That Birkin Bag

The French luxury goods store Hermès has just opened a new boutique in CityCenterDC. This is the manufacturer of, among other things, the Birkin Bag, which can set your bank account back on the order of six figures.

Yes, savvy reader. It is a purse. And you decoded that sentence correctly: six figures.
Here’s a photo from the Washington Post of the dinner party that launched the luxury retailer.
The Washington Post
Heads in the clouds, that’s right. I won’t even go there, because it’s just too easy.
At first glance, paying $100,000.00 for a purse seems… let’s call it questionable. One might feel that by handing over that kind of money to obtain a handbag in which to tote your stuff, Birkin Bag retailers and consumers mock those who struggle to put enough food on the table, or who can’t educate their children because the family needs another breadwinner to keep them afloat, or who flee homes and belongings to subsist in resource-deficient tent cities in the hopes of evading martyrdom for their religion and/or ethnicity.
Incidentally—not that this has anything at all to do with Hermès or the Birkin Bag—one can, for $35.00 per month, sponsor an impoverished child through Food for the Hungry International, "providing education, clean water, stable food, and access to medical help.” A single, mid-line Birkin Bag equals about 1,428 months of such care. It would sustain three at-risk (of illness, of being sold or kidnapped into work or sex slavery, of death) children for nine years each.
But maybe I’m being short-sighted. Shallow. An unsophisticated thinker.
Perhaps the Birkin Bag really does deserve its eye-popping price tag.
So let’s take a look at it.
It comes in calf leather (because full-grown cattle are just too gristly?), ostrich, crocodile, or lizard. The most expensive Birkin Bags sport salt water crocodile skin which, according to the Koorana Crocodile Farm in Central Queensland, Australia,  “makes the best and most durable leather in the world.” Koorana sells their own saltwater crocodile handbags, ranging in price from $850.00 to $2,990.00. Bargain!
The low-end Koorana bag only represents two years of sustenance for a child whose parents can’t care for him. But isn’t that what orphanages are for, anyway? After all, as many as 85% of children living in orphanages worldwide are there, not because they have no families, but because their families can’t afford to keep them. So we first-worlders needn’t concern ourselves; the third-world infrastructure clearly has adequate accommodations for these children. They don’t need love or bonding or individualized care. Rice and beans and a cot in a room with fifty other kids is more than enough until they turn 18 and get turned out into the world to make it on their own with no families, little education, and a million others just like them.
But back to the Birken Bag.
Unless the animal Hermès peeled was the last representative of a species of sacred cows whose lineage can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent, or was fed pure gold flake and Elysian ambrosia for the duration of its life, or was the lovechild of a unicorn/Pegasus union, it seems unlikely that the Birkin Bag’s fiber content justifies its cost.
The Birkin Bag’s metallic hardware comes in gold or palladium, with an optional diamond encrustation, and sports a lock with keys.
You would want that lock, I think, because there’s nothing like a spray of diamonds across your handbag to tell a would-be purse-snatcher that you’ve probably got more than $40.00 and a Capital One card in your wallet. And with the handy locking system, the thief would be utterly unable to penetrate the bag—because saltwater crocodile skin is impervious to machetes, rifles, and flamethrowers—and would be reduced to popping off the diamonds to hawk at a pawn shop.
At this writing gold and palladium are priced at about $1,190.00 and $771.00 per ounce, respectively, so unless the Birkin Bag's hardware is weighing in at several pounds, its precious metal components don’t seem poised to drive the price up to its whopping retail value.
Photo by Brian Harrington Spier
Diamonds, on the other hand, are a girl’s best friend, as they say, and their trade frequently funds the labyrinthine complex of wars, conflicts, and genocides in Africa and South America, where the bulk of diamonds are mined. Google "Does Kay Jewelers use ethically sourced diamonds?" and one of the top returns links to the retailer's conflict-free diamond policy, as with the same question posed of Zales and De Beers. Inserting the Hermès name into that search phrase brought back the equivalent of a googlenope: not one page in the top 50 made any reference to any Hermès diamond policy.
Finally, we must consider the craftsmanship that goes into the Hermès Birkin Bag. According to Wikipedia, “each bag is hand-sewn, buffed, painted, and polished, taking several days to finish. An average bag is created in 48 hours. Leathers are obtained from different tanners in France, resulting in varying smells and textures. The company justifies the cost of the Birkin Bag, compared to other bags, based on the meticulous craftsmanship and scarcity.”
If we’re generous, and assume that the materials for the Birkin Bag cost, say, $20,000.00, then we can conservatively appraise the craftsmen’s work around $40,000, at least. So that’s $20,000 per day, for a two-day job, at 24 hours in a day…
$833.00 an hour.
Holy handbags, Batman! I can wield a needle and pedal a sewing machine. I want a job making stuff for Hermès!
But let’s be honest. We all knew from the get-go that the price tag on Birkin Bags has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of materials, labor, or utility. It’s about luxury. Indulgence. Hubris, on a scale that makes President Snow’s Capitol look like a Spartan convent of self-abnegation.
Brands consultant Amy Shea says of Hermès that “‘luxury’ has been redefined — in Hermès’ favor — and it has nothing to do with price. ‘Expensive doesn’t equal luxury,’ Shea says. ‘Luxury equals rarity’.”
I disagree. In this case luxury equals excess: An excess of self-importance, arrogance, and hauteur; an excess of myopia, willful ignorance, and intentional egomania; an excess of the kind of affluence that says I deserve to be pampered and spoiled and envied, because my wealth-fueled whimsies are more important than the needs of an impoverished mother weeping helplessly as she watches her child starve to death.
Here’s that photo again.
One might justifiably claim that anyone willing to spend on a purse the equivalent of thirty years worth of food, clothing, and education for a child has his or her head stuck up in the clouds.
I disagree about that, too.
I’d say they have their heads stuck up a different place altogether.

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