SPOTLIGHT

Style Guide: Hermès Birkin

This time we're guiding you through everything related to the Birkin bag from Hermès. How did it come to be and why does it look like it does? How do you style it and what materials does it come in? Read all about it below.

The birth and rise of the Birkin

The now legendary Birkin bag was first introduced to the world in 1984, but how did it come to be and why is it named after the English actress and singer Jane Birkin?

Hermès

225 items
  • Black Leather Hermès Birkin

    Hermès

    Black Leather Hermès Birkin

    29121.82 EUR

  • Brown Leather Hermès Birkin

    Hermès

    Brown Leather Hermès Birkin

    13891.84 EUR

  • Grey Leather Hermès Birkin

    Hermès

    Grey Leather Hermès Birkin

    44268.32 EUR

  • Grey Leather Hermès Birkin

    Hermès

    Grey Leather Hermès Birkin

    31148.91 EUR

Jane Birkin met Hermès Chief Executive Jean-Louis Dimas in 1981. The actress was boarding a plane to London from Paris and was struggling to fit her straw bag in the overhead compartment. Birkin was a new mother and was therefor traveling with quite a few items. Because of this, the bag didn’t fit and the contents of Birkin’s bag all came tumbling down. Jean-Louis Dumas witnessed this as he was seated in the seat next to her and he was immediately struck with inspiration. He quickly drew up a sketch of a supple and spacious holdall with a flap, saddle stitching and even a dedicated space for a baby bottle – talk about accommodating! Dumas wanted to create a bag that would allow a woman to hold all of her belongings while still being fashionable.

It’s not easy getting your hands on a Birkin which is also one of the reasons why the bag is so popular. In order to buy a Birkin, customers must have a purchase history with the brand and the shops are also only allowed to order a limited amount of Birkins twice a year.

The bag is considered an investment piece because of the timeless design and the enduring popularity. When the bag was first produced in 1984 it was just $2,000 and today a standard leather Birkin retails for around $10,000. If you want a special one – crocodile or diamond-encrusted – you’ll need to pay around $200,000.

As seen on

As we’ve just gone over, Jane Birkin was of course the woman who put the Birkin bag on the map. The bag, however, hasn’t lost its touch – it’s still one of the most famous and coveted bags ever!

Some celebrities – like Mary-Kate Olsen – love their Birkin to be worn and look lived-in while other celebrities – like Kylie Jenner – want them to be in pristine condition. One thing’s for sure, no matter how you want your Birkin to look, it’ll never go out of style – it’s a classic!

The inspiration behind the icon

A fun fact about the Birkin: It takes approximately 48 hours of continuous work to complete a single bag! The Birkin is made by expert trained artisans and a single artisan will create and assemble the entire bag – nor assembly line manufacturing! The artisan responsible for the bags creation will also be mentioned in the unique code inside each bag.

The bag is square and features two rolled handles, a flap top and a lock closure. All Birkins have one interior pocket with the rest of the interior being a single compartment. This way, you decide what to pack and how to do it.

Measurements

You can get the Birkin bag in a variety of sizes, so let’s go through them. Because the bag was originally made as a weekend travel bag, the Birkin is larger than other Hermès bags. The original Birkin size measures  40 cm x 30 cm x 21 cm (width x height x depth). This is known as the ‘travel Birkin’.

Besides the 40 cm Birkin, the 35 cm Birkin is the most popular size. It measures 35 cm x 25 cm x 18 cm. The Birkin 30 measures 30 cm x 22 cm x 16 cm making it a good mid-size bag.

The smallest Birkin is often called the ‘mini Birkin’ and measures 25 cm x 20 cm x13 cm. This was first launched in 2004 and is especially rare and therefor also a great collector’s item. There is an even smaller size out there: The Birkin 20. This is currently only available as a limited edition called the Limited Edition Birkin Fauborg.

These different sizes are perfect for different occasions and means it’s definitely possible to find the perfect size just for you.

Photo: bagbirdy.com

Materials

TRADITIONAL LEATHERS

The first Birkin was made in calfbox leather. This is a heritage leather and the oldest leather used by Hermès. Calfbox leather has an extremely smooth finish which gives the Birkin bag that glamorous look. This kind of leather is however prone to both scratches and watermarks. Over time these marks can however blend into the bag and instead add a mirror-like texture to the bag.

Togo leather is another very popular leather for Birkin bags. This leather was first introduced by Hermès in 1997 and it’s named after the Togolese Republic in Africa. The material is the result of an intensive drumming process that brings out the natural features of the leather, so it's supple and matte but becomes shinier and softer with time. The grain is round and irregular and has pronounced veins and wrinkles. In contrast to calfbox leather, Togo leather is scratch resistant! This might just be why this particular leather is a fan favorite when it comes to Hermès lovers.

Photos: madisonavenuecouture.com

Clemence leather is made from cowhide and is another standard Birkin leather. Clemence is softer, heavier and therefor less durable than Togo leather. This leather has a shallow grainy texture that creates a nice matte effect. Birkins made from Clemence will have a naturally casual feel and because of the softness of the leather, Birkins made from Clemence will often loose their shape with time. All in all, if you want your Birkin to look lived in – like Mary-Kate Olsen – this might just be the material for you.

Photo: madisonavenuecouture.com

If you’re not looking for a casual Birkin, you might be more into Epsom leather. Epsom is the direct opposite of Clemence and is instead a very rigid leather that’ll hold its shape. It’s an embossed leather which means it has no natural grain. It’s also both water and scratch resistant making it really easy to clean. Epsom leather is one of the most durable and therefor also one of the most practical materials to go for if you plan to use your Birkin a lot.

Fjord leather is another highly durable material. It’s waterproof like the Epsom leather and is soft, matte and heavy. Evercolor leather is another leather used by Hermès that coincidentally comes in an array of colors. The leather made its first appearance in 2012 and has a small, regular grain from printing as well as a satiny finish.

A new heritage leather option is the Barenia Fauborg calfskin leather which Hermès began using in 2016. This leather has a tiny printed grain and feels waxy to the touch. This particular leather will inevitably darken wherever it’s handled.

Photos: madisonavenuecouture.com, bragmybag.com & collecting luxury.com

EXOTIC LEATHERS

Birkin bags made from exotic leathers have a higher price point than ones made in regular leather because they’re deemed more unique.

The most expensive exotic leather is crocodile and this comes in two different variations: The Niloticus crocodile and Porosus crocodile. The Birkin is, as previously mentioned, named after the English singer and actress Jane Birkin. But Birkin actually wanted Hermès to stop using her name on the Birkins made from crocodile skin. This happened in 2015 when Birkin learned of the “cruel practices” used against crocodiles in the production of their skin. Jane Birkin had seen a video of the reptiles being skinned and sawed open on a farm that supplies luxury brands with exotic leathers. Birkin and Hermès have however come to an agreement as the French brand after they said they’d “identified an isolated irregularity” at a slaughter farm in Texas and had resolved the issue.

Photos: madisonavenuecouture.com

The most expensive Birkin is the Himalya Birkin made from Niloticus crocodile skin which has been dyed in a white and gray gradient to resemble the white snow on the Himalayan mountains.

Besides crocodile, the brand also makes Birkin bags in alligator skins which is the second most expensive exotic skin after crocodile. Lizard is also a popular leather and is available in two versions, just like crocodile. These are Niloticus lizard and Varanus Salvator lizard. Lizard skin is primarily used for the smaller Hermès bags which means you can find it on the Birkin 25. Ostrich is the least expensive exotic skin from the house and is actually also the most durable.

Photos: madisoncouture.com

You can read a thorough run-through of all the exotic skins from Hermès in our Style Guide: Hermès Kelly as well.

Hardware

Birkins are typically made with one of two types of hardware: 18-karat gold plated or palladium. The hardware on a Birkin includes the front facing lock closure, the zipper, the metal feet – clou – and a lock and a matching set of keys.

The classic 18-karat gold plated hardware is also called GHW and has a bright shine to it which makes it stand out. Classic palladium is also called PHW and is the silver equivalent to gold plated hardware. Gold will give your Birkin a nice warm look and the palladium a nice cool look.

You might find other types of hardware on limited and special edition Birkins like 24-karat gold, rose-gold, permabrass, brushed palladium, brushed gold, guilloché and ruthenium.

The rarest kind of hardware is the 18-karat white gold-plated diamond-encrusted hardware – quite a mouthful! – which ca be found on the super glamorous ‘Diamond Birkins’. Hermès only release a few of these a year.

If you want to learn more about brushed gold and brushed palladium as well as permabrass, rose-gold, ruthenium and guilloché, you can also read more about this in our Style Guide on the Hermès Kelly. 

Photos: madisonavenue.com

Alternative versions of the Birkin

The Birkin Fray Fray is a lighter version of the original Birkin bag. This is made from Twill H cotton canvas and the edges have mini-fringing. This gives the bag the frayed effect that the bag is named after. The Birkin Cargo is another more practical version of the Birkin bag as it has five outer pockets. The bag is inspired by the military and its uniform meaning it’s both soft and lightweight because of its canvas assembly and leather inlay. The bag’s also very robust because of this mix of materials and it even has space for a cup.

The Shadow Birkin is a fun take on the otherwise very classy bag. It was first introduced in 2009 and it plays on trompe-l’œil: An optical illusion. Hermès describes the bag as a “a Birkin bag of mischief, but a real bag, in case you were wondering” on the website and we agree – it’s definitely mischievous! Instead of the flap and hardware on the front, you simply have the outlines of them. Some might even call it a stroke of genius.

The last untraditional Birkin we’re going to mention is the Birkin Sellier. This isn’t a new take on the Birkin as the three above as the difference between the original Birkin and the Sellier is the stitching. Just like with the Hermès Kelly, a Sellier version of a Birkin is sown on the outside instead of the inside. This gives the bag more structure and makes it more rigid. The Birkin Sellier was first introduced in 2010 as a limited edition piece and was later reintroduced in 2020. The price of a Sellier is only slightly higher than an original Birkin, but sells for higher amounts on the resale market because of the exclusivity of the make.

Photos: sothebys.com

What can you use it for?

The Birkin 25 is large enough to carry your daily necessities but not much else. This makes the bag great for short trips out for lunch with the girls or for late-night dinners. Depending on the color and material you choose for your Birkin, this size can work for both day and night as the shape is such a classic.

The Birkin 30 on the other hand has space for your necessities as well as a makeup bag or a tablet. This means that this bag is good for longer days away from home. It’s still not big enough to work as a work bag, but you’ll be able to carry whatever you need for a day out. This size is – for some – too big to work for nights out but it of course depends on the look.

The Birkin 35 has enough room for a small laptop meaning you can actually use it for work if you’re so inclined. This bag is, like the smaller sizes, a classic bag but the size is more appropriate for day outings than formal dinners. The original Birkin – the Birkin 40 – is frequently used as a weekend travel bag given its large and spacious interior.

Care

This is what we say every time we talk about caring for luxury handbags: No loose items and always empty out your bag when you’re not wearing it. Keeping loose items at the bottom of the bag – like makeup or pens – can be a recipe for disaster as this can easily stain the inside of your bag. Instead, keep a pouch in your bag where you can store loose items.

The bottom base of the Birkin bag is very sturdy and will hold its shape even after years of wear. Do however refrain from carrying large and heavy items if you want your bag to be kept in pristine condition. Heavy water bottles or other irregular items can with time result in the bag loosing its shape.

As mentioned above, we always advice that you empty your bag whenever you’re not using it. Instead stuff if with paper – or a rolled up sweater if you want – to help it keep the shape that Hermès intended for it to have. This is more of a thing to remember if you have a Birkin in soft leathers like the Clemence leather. It’s also vital that you store your bag in room temperature and out of direct sunlight. Excessive heat and light can damage the leather over time and and change its color.

Photo: The Vintage Bar

As mentioned under materials, some Hermès leathers deal better with water. It it however important to note that none of them love it. Water can cause the leather to swell and blister and can leave undesirable stains. Keep in mind – if it rains, leave the Birkin at home. If an accident happens, you can try and buff out any imperfections with a dry cloth to instead make them blend into the leather.

You should also take care of the handles! All leather, and especially ostrich skin, will darken over time as it absorbs oil wherever it’s handled. Beware of not putting on moisturizer or anything else oily right before picking up your Birkin. Hermès also has twills to wrap around the handles which both looks nice and will help you avoid excess oil on the handles.

It’s worth noting that a quick wipe down will go a long way. When you come home from having worn your Hermès Birkin, empty it out and then give it a quick wipe with a clean and dry cloth. This will remove dust, debris and oil from the day!

Written by Alberte Gram
Alberte Gram is a fashion writer based in London.
The people pictured are not associated with The Archive
or The Vintage Bar, and do not endorse the products shown.