On an Air France flight from Paris to London, in 1983, the actress and singer Jane Birkin was by chance seated next to Jean-Louis Dumas, who had recently taken the helm at Hermès, the luxury fashion company founded by his great-grandfather.
At some point during the flight Birkin spilled the contents of her hand luggage on the floor, and in the process grumbled that handbags were never both practical and stylish.
Dumas promised to resolve the matter, and – after listening carefully to Birkin’s requirements – the following year Hermès launched a bag in her honour.
Now, more than 30 years later, the Birkin bag is a fashion icon, and is one of the most enduring status symbols of the modern era.
Birkin bags retail from a minimum of £5,000 – usually much higher – with rare editions regularly reaching six-figures at auction. They are consistently the most expensive bags in the world.
What makes this interesting is that while Birkin bags are obviously well crafted, and sometimes use rare fabrics, they are not superior in design or material to many other bags of their ilk.
But they are perceived that way. And that is why people will pay such staggering sums for them.
That Birkin bags occupy this hallowed ground can be explained by a masterclass in branding, marketing and psychology.
Every aspect of the Birkin bag is carefully controlled by Hermès, from the (quite probably) apocryphal origin story at the beginning of this article to the availability of the bags.
Go to a Hermès store, and ask to see a Birkin, and you will almost certainly be told they are out of stock.
The only way to make a purchase is to become a regular high value Hermès customer, build a relationship with the store staff, and in the process join an informal waiting list that can be several years long. Only then might you be granted the opportunity to spend thousands on a new bag.
Birkin bags retain their desirability through their exclusivity, because Hermès know there is nothing people want more than something they cannot have.