You might not want something that was designed on a sick bag, but some women out there are willing to pay a quarter of a million euro for a handbag that started out as a sketch on one of those.
It happened like this. British actor Jane Birkin was upgraded on a flight and found herself sitting beside the chief executive of luxury brand Hermes.
She then proved you can take the girl out of economy class, but you can’t turn her into a natural first-class traveller. She spilled half the contents of her straw tote all over the Hermes man, who suggested she needed a bag with pockets.
She mildly suggested right back, having learned about his day job, that when Hermes created a bag with pockets, big enough to hold the essentials for a weekend away, she’d scrap the straw tote.
He pulled the sick bag out of the seat pocket in front of him and started to sketch out possibilities. She made suggestions, and he named the resultant bag for her.
Birkin is now more famous for inspiring a handbag than for acting, which may not go down well with her, but she should look at Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s now more famous for peddling vagina steamers than for any film in which she starred.
You could say win some, lose some, although you’d have to prefer being synonymous with a handbag than being synonymous with that other thing.
Being synonymous with a handbag can actually put you on the high moral ground. Jane Birkin got Hermes to stop using her name on crocodile bags because of the cruelty apparently involved in their production. That takes some doing, crocodiles not being up there with koalas as adorable.
What’s important about the Birkin handbag, although it did take a few years for this to kick in, is that it is the perfect example of what economists call a Veblen good.
A Veblen good is named after an American economist named Thorstein Veblen, who paid a lot of attention to what he called “conspicuous consumption”.
Showing off by purchasing, in other words. Keeping up with the Jones, ditto.
But you can do conspicuous consumption in Penneys or Lidl and it doesn’t mean you’re buying Veblen goods. In fact, your chances of finding one of those yokes in Penneys or Lidl are small, because these goods are typically distinguished by being well made and enviable. But they’re distinguished, also, by the price on the label.
The more expensive the purchase price, the more valued it is. A Veblen good can’t afford to become cheaper because once it does, it becomes unwanted ordinary.
Now, a handbag is something I have always dreamed of doing without, and I have succeeded in this endeavour from my wedding day until two weeks ago, which is yay these many decades.
I have been the national despiser of handbags, and even made a career-building point out of them, telling women wanting to get to the top in their organisations that they should abandon the handbag.
Women should never be seen carrying something that is a mark of familial servitude, filled with tampons, plasters, ibuprofen, and items to distract toddlers from whatever toxic thing they’re getting attached to. Briefcases, I have always claimed, are the way to go.
But here’s the thing I’ve just discovered. Second-hand briefcases have no value. Second-hand handbags do. A whole sub-economy revolves around this.
I discovered this quite by accident when I was filling in time between meetings in Wicklow Street. I started to enter a shop and failed. Because I had keys in my hand that rattled against the glass of the door, someone inside heard my arrival and unlocked the door. Unlock the door? Of a shop that is neither a jeweller nor a pharmacy?
The door opening woman was Wicklow Street’s answer to Christine Lagarde, all charm and expensive seaming. She used my name and ostentatiously left me to browse.
As I began to do just that, I discovered two things. I was in a handbag shop. That was one. I was in a second-hand handbag shop. That was the other. The only handbag I liked cost €4,700. Second-hand.
I got out of there as quickly as I decently could, propelled by the leftover Catholic conviction that God will strike you dead if you even think about spending that much on an item of clothing.
A few days later, while buying a gift for a friend’s new baby, I found two shop assistants discussing investing in handbags. Best thing you could buy these days, they told me.
The banks don’t want to be storing your money and if you buy a car, it depreciates immediately, whereas a good handbag appreciates in value.
Look at Victoria Beckham, they said. The baby shop girls told me Victoria has at least two Birkin handbags, although they fair-mindedly accepted she might have bought them new. That said, they shrugged and suggested that, since her design business is making such losses, maybe she’s ensuring against future poverty.
I began to ask businesswomen I encountered about handbags as an investment and was stunned to find myself so behind this curve. They could tell me the second-hand shops (including the locked one I had inadvertently visited), the best websites, the current values.
I, who had been impressed when the TK Maxx bag I had recently bought came with its own cloth bag for safe storage, felt like a rube.
The most amazingly successful women — women you’d think wouldn’t waste time carrying or buying a handbag — turned out to have private collections. Sizable collections.
When you casually ask a woman who’s a household name in a key professional area how many handbags she has, it can be a jolt when the return text reads “Counting”. COUNTING?
Twenty minutes later, the answer is “80+ including boots.” Well, of course, you’d have to include boots. She somewhat defensively adds that she always buys good leather and figures on getting 10 years out of them. (Me, I buy brightly coloured plastic — vegan leather, to you.)
And handbags? Well, she opined, when she’s on holiday in Italy and buys a smashing pair of shoes, she has to purchase their handbag friend. “I think having discussed with clothes-loving friends, women have two approaches to shoes and handbags,” she said.
“Some buy a few, often beautiful, wear them to death, then bin. The rest of us buy a few ‘everyday’ bags and ‘collect’ a hoard of beautiful items to own, to admire, and use occasionally, for many years.”
The third way, of course, is exemplified by the two girls in the baby shop planning to invest this year in pre-loved Choo or Gina handbags as a form of pension.