ARCHIVE: Bringing the Birkin to the Burke

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By DIANA MOORE  (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 27, 2008)

It is the Holy Grail of fashion accessories — a handbag so exclusive, so sought after, that you can’t have one at any price. Not now, anyway. Not even if you’re a famous person.

Custom-created by Hermes in 1984 for the British actress-singer Jane Birkin (who’s also the mom of French popstar Charlotte Gainsbourg), the Birkin bag is the stuff of legend; the kind of object they could famously build a whole episode of Sex and the City around. Brooke Shields had to wait years to get hers, and let the world know all about it in magazine interviews. Martha Stewart carried one into court for her stock fraud trial.

It does take money to obtain a Birkin — a budget-priced version goes for about $7,000, and you could shell out in the mid- to upper 30s for a bag made of farm-raised Australian Porosus crocodile, the rarest and priciest of materials used (there’s also American alligator, Zimbabwean croc, ostrich, and leather). But it was the unspoken wisdom for years that you needed something else to join the club; that there existed some sort of secret code.

Enter Michael Tonello, Boston-born buyer and seller of luxury goods, a globe-trotting hunter and tracker of high-end fashion items whose tenacity and expertise are comparable to the considerably less debonair Indiana Jones. It was Tonello who, with a world-class display of shopping savvy and a little luck, finally broke the code that had frustrated a generation of shoppers.

A resident of Barcelona, where he lives with his partner and two cats (both of whom are due to star in a children’s book project), Tonello is also a regular blogger forThe Huffington Post and the man behind the very entertaining and illuminating nonfiction Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag. Published last spring by Harper Collins, the true-life adventure has garnered rave reviews and made its dapper raconteur author as sought after (on the personal-appearance circuit) as you-know-what.

Michael Tonello brings the Birkin home to the Jersey Shore Tuesday evening when he visits David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson for a special book-signing presented by BookIt! Events and benefiting the Monmouth County Arts CouncilChef Burke, who’s opened up the entire restaurant to this event after registrations were booked to their original capacity, has a special menu of hors d’oeuvres and desserts prepared for the occasion — and there’s even a chance to enjoy a Birkintini, courtesy of Exclusiv Vodka.

Red Bank oRBit had an advance opportunity to speak to Tonello about his quest for the prized game, and what it is about the Birkin that makes the “it” moment last forever.

RED BANK ORBIT: Your story is really intriguing, but has the book sort of served to demystify the Birkin and its standing as the “It” bag? Is it still as sought after, as big a deal in a marketplace that it shares with Vuitton, Balenciaga, Fendi?

MICHAEL TONELLO: It’s still the celebrity “It” bag; still a big deal — and the reasons for that are twofold. First of all, the general public has come to see and know it because of its connection to celebrities.

When they do a story on a celebrity in People, they’ll say something like, “here’s Julia Roberts in St. Tropez with a $32,000 crocodile Birkin” — it’s the only bag to my knowledge that they’ll state by name. Then when the public visits the Hermes store they’ll be asking for it by name. It’s almost as if Hermes didn’t have to do anything to build demand for it.

But then here’s the thing, the second reason for its popularity. Business is built on supply and demand — but when the public asks for the Birkin, Hermes tells them no. There’s a two-to-three year waiting list. They have the demand, but not the supply.

So does it really take two to three years to fill an order?

If you read the book, you’ll find out that that there’s no such thing as The List. It’s all a big scam!

How did you find this out?

I had built a lucrative business buying and reselling Hermes scarves, and whenever I went to one of the Hermes stores — I’ve been to half of the 260 stores worldwide — I would ask about a Birkin. I was convinced that if I got my client a Birkin I could get a nice chunk of change for myself. But everywhere I went, I was told that there was a two to three year waiting list.

I was in the Madrid store; I spent a lot of money on scarves, and as I walked to the register, almost as an afterthought I asked the salesperson if they had a Birkin for sale in the store. Instead of the line about the waiting list, she said that she’d look in the back— and she comes back with a big box about the size of a portable TV set. She puts on a pair of white cotton gloves and pulls a Birkin out of the box; she proceeds to describe all of its features, while I desperately wanted to buy it without another word.

Well, I bought it and I left — and later on my mom asked me how it was I was able to do it so easily. I thought about it, and it occurred to me that this was the first time I had walked into Hermes and committed to buying a bunch of stuff, and didn’t get the waiting list story. I had spent a lot of money on other things, and that allowed me to purchase a Birkin right then.

You cracked the code!

Well, I had to make sure this wasn’t an isolated incident. I went to Hermes in Paris to test my hypothesis. I bought a bunch of scarves once again; the exact same scarves I had bought in Madrid — just in case one of those scarves was the “secret handshake” in the equation! And again, I asked to see a Birkin bag, they brought one out and I was able to buy it. I realized, as I walked out the door, that I was the Houdini of Hermes!

So it’s as simple as spending enough money in the store…

When you think about it, Hermes makes a lot more than the handbags and the scarves. They make porcelain items, crystal, men’s stuff — they want to sell all of the other things they have in their store. They’ve had 25 years of people coming in, asking for a Birkin, and  walking out when they’re told they can’t get one right now. But if those people could turn themselves into clients of the store — could buy other items, they would have a chance.

Even if someone like, say, Sharon Stone — if she goes to Gucci and Prada and then comes into Hermes wanting a Birkin, they’re not going to sell it to her. I’ve had clients who were on that waiting list, and who never received a call from Hermes. I was able to bring them back a Birkin same-day. In 2005 alone, I spent one and a half million dollars buying Birkins for my clients.

Now on the other hand, Hermes is happy to sell to someone like Posh Spice or Lindsay Lohan; celebrities who are on the cover of every magazine. They know that it’s guaranteed publicity. And the rapper Pharrell Williams was able to custom design a Birkin for himself in purple crocodile — an oversize bag; almost like a weekend bag. That bag was seen in a Madonna video.

Do a lot of buyers submit their own custom designs?

I’ve seen clients in back rooms, back before they figured out who I was, designing whatever they can imagine — although you have to be careful to some degree; you still want it to look like a Birkin.

So are you not welcome at a lot of these stores now? Is there some ill will on the part of Hermes toward having their secrets exposed?

Oh no, they’re happy — ecstatic — about the amount of publicity the Birkin has received. Outside one of the stores, the manager asked me if I was Michael Tonello, and if I could please step inside — I was sure that they would pull a black hood over my head and drag me into the back. But they all wanted to meet me; they actually love me and love the book. And I love Hermes; I’ll say nothing disparaging about them.

Your story has a true life adventure quality to it; something like the great hunter or the jet-setting secret agent…

There’s a little bit of Catch Me If You Can, I think; although there’s certainly nothing illegal about it. I should say that there is an option on the book for a movie screenplay — you could probably tell from my accent that I’m from Boston, and if I had my pick of who would play me in a movie, I’m thinking of another native Bostonian, Matt Damon. What do you think?

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