Hermès and the Birkin Bag
The Art of Giving was a fundraising event created to raise money for Tomchei Shabbos, a Los Angeles based organization that provides food and clothing for those in need within the community. The event took place at The Real Real, an upscale consignment shop on Melrose Avenue. During cocktails, an associate was explaining to a small group of women, myself included, how consigning worked for their store.
“So, what type of designer labels do you sell?” Lexi asked an employee.
“We have every designer,” he replied with confidence.
“You don’t carry Hermès, do you?” she asked with skepticism.
Lexi pressed further, “Yes, but do you sell the Birkin bag?”
“Why, yes, in fact, we do. Several,” he replied, coyly.
When she asked about the purchase price of the purse, we were all shocked to hear that they are actually more expensive at The Real Real than at the Hermès store itself. Some sold for north of $450,000.
Curious, I interjected, “I’m not sure I understand—why do they cost more at a second-hand store than at the Hermès store on Rodeo? Wouldn’t most buyers rather own a new handbag? Are they pre-owned by celebrities?”
At this point, the associate said something which floored me. “A person can’t just go into a Hermès store and buy a Birkin bag.”
“Why not?” I asked, confused. “Is it only available online?”
He patiently responded, “No, it can’t be ordered, either. Acquiring a Birkin bag is a…process.”
At that, I was even more unclear than when we started.
“Getting your hands on a Birkin bag is not so simple. First, potential consumers are waitlisted immediately, after which they go through a qualification process. The interested buyer would need to have first had a certain monetary amount of purchases from Hermès on their consumer resume. Furthermore, once a person reaches the status that enables the client to purchase the bag, Hermès will not guarantee you will receive the color of your choice. For example, if the customer requests a black bag, the most desirable color due to its versatility, Hermès may decide to send you orange or hot pink instead. The purchaser has no choice, only preference.”
To me, this all sounded insane. “How many people are actually in this elite group and are even able to enter into this rat race?” I asked.
“Well, I was speaking to an associate from Hermès the other day, and she mentioned that 1300 people were in the store last Saturday.”
I turned to Lexi, trying to gauge if the associate was joking. My friend agreed that it was ridiculous, but true. She even knew someone on the waitlist who was attempting to befriend certain employees in order to request a specific color.
The Real Real associate continued, “The Birkin is more expensive here because of its accessibility both in color and availability. In fact, many have sold their authentic Hermès purses and made tremendous profit from them.”
The Hermès sales plan utilizes “wait-list psychology” to an exponential degree. It is a genius marketing technique designed to make a product even more desirable to consumers. One of my editors, Christina McDowell, writes in her memoir, After Perfect, about a scene from her life that is reminiscent of the Birkin craze. When I read about it, it struck a chord with me, and I related it to a Torah concept.
Growing up, Christina’s family had everything. They lived in a beautiful mansion, set back upon acres of manicured land around the corner from the old Kennedy estate, Hickory Hill, and surrounded by other politicians, royalty, and billionaires who threw weekend yacht barbecues on a whim. Christina’s family traveled via private jets to their various homes and exotic vacation spots. Wearing designer clothing and diamond-studded jewelry was an understood expectation. Her family was glamorous, truly picture-perfect. Life was perfect.
Then, within moments, everything changed.
Her father, Tom Prousalis, was an associate of Jordan Belfort, otherwise known as The Wolf of Wall Street, which director Martin Scorcese later turned into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort.
In After Perfect, Christina recalls with sadness and shock, the infamous day the FBI came storming into her home to arrest her father when she was 18 years old. She later discovered that her father stole her social security number, leaving her in an enormous amount of personal credit card debt. Her family lost everything. She went, in a matter of months, from being her father’s princess to homeless.
At one point in the book, she describes how her father returned from prison and gifted her the famed Hermès Birkin bag. Believing in its value, and all the hype, and the symbol she thought it represented as a comeback for her father and her family, she guarded the bag with her life.
A few months later, Christina realized how silly it was that she owned this bag but could hardly afford to pay her rent, so she reluctantly decided to sell the purse. She brought it to a well-known consignment shop that confirmed the bag was authentic. They listed the bag for nearly $20,000 online. A few weeks later, the consignment shop received a phone call from the Hermes legal infringement team, threatening to sue for fraud, as the bag, was in fact, a knock-off. Albeit, the best one they’d ever seen! They immediately took the bag down and returned it to Christina, sharing the unfortunate news.
The moment could not have been more symbolic and heartbreaking for Christina. It reframed how she felt about her childhood, for she had been fooled over and over again by her father, and the Birkin bag was proof. Her whole life had been a mirage, but also serves a cautionary tale about what we prize here on earth.
Before descending onto Earth, our souls are waiting in the heavenly spheres. We are offered a task and the tools to fulfill our purpose before descending into an earthly body. Our neshamot promise wholeheartedly to remain focused and undistracted by the externals. We hope to reach our G-d-given potential in the lifespan we are provided. But then, we descend to Earth, and sometimes the desires of the physical world are too strong. Our bodies take precedence and cause the soul to change gears. Unfortunately, sometimes we miss the mark entirely.
This world is described by the Sages as Olam HaSheker, the world of falsehood, while the next world is called Olam HaEmet, the world of truth. Gemara Bava Basra discusses the following story: Rav Yosef, the son of Rav Yehoshua, became ill and fell unconscious. Upon awakening, his father asked him what he saw.
Rav Yosef said, “Olam hafuch ra’isi elyonim l’mata v’tachtonim l’mata—I saw an upside-down world.” The people who are esteemed on earth were lowly in the next world. And those who were considered lowly on earth were held in high regard in shamayim.
His father responded, “You did not see a world turned upside down, but rather the world as it truly is. The world we live in is the upside-down world.”
Perhaps we need to reconsider what we believe to be valuable on earth. Society chases the bags, jewelry, accessories, and other “necessities” of life. Yet ultimately, these items stay behind. You can’t bring anything with you into the next world beyond your own mitzvot and tzedakah.
One of my favorite quotes states, “The only money you really have is the money you give away.”
Here in Los Angeles, a woman who moved to a nursing home I visited recently relayed that her children are selling her home on the East Coast. “I have so many belongings that now have to be sold, given away, or disposed of. Every time we traveled, I would bring back souvenirs.” She sighed with regret and said, “And what for? Now, it’s all simply a burden on my family.”
We will all one day approach shamayim and realize the years we spent working for certain material items don’t have value in the next world. The purses and other souvenirs of life are a currency that can’t be transferred; they simply become useless baggage.
People spend years attempting to acquire items like the Birkin bag, but is the financial strain and effort worth it? Perhaps such energy could be spent elsewhere by creating, inventing, improving oneself, or being of service to the world at large.
After 120 years, we may also have a realization like Christina’s. We may wonder, This is what I held so dear when I could have given importance to eternal pursuits? It was all just a mirage.
A fake purse, if you will.
The beauty of Judaism is that anything in the physical world can be utilized for spiritual growth. If having nice possessions creates positivity, such as pleasing one’s spouse or creating a beautiful home for hosting others, then the pursuit becomes infinite in its spiritual gain. Answering such questions of ourselves, however, requires a scrupulous examination of our actions and our values.
Elevating the physical for spiritual gain is ultimately the purpose of the soul, as well as the purpose of that Tomchei Shabbos fundraising event. Perhaps one day soon people will chase possessions for the sake of mitzvot; but until then, we can all focus on inner-work, moving closer to our personal and spiritual goals.
 All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
 All facts have been verified
 Bava Basra, 10b