I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know enough. This was insider knowledge I would have to earn.
Naturally, just about everyone else knew, including a dear friend, Joan Kron, who owns a Birkin, and my wife, who would dearly love to. Birkins are made by Hermes and they cost between $6000 to $75,000. They were named for an English singer, Jane Birkin (pictured), who took French popular music by storm in 1968 with ‘Je t’aime moi non plus," a song that drew the censure from the Vatican. Jane Birkin won still more notoriety by appearing naked in bed with Bridget Bardot. This plus her "I’ve been idea-free for a decade" beauty endeared her mightily to the French (who have been idea-free for much longer) and prepared her to leave her mark not just on music but on handbags.
According to the origin myth, as reported to the New York Times by Andrew Litvak, here’s what happened.
[Jane] was on an airplane one day, and the guy next to her was the president of Hermès. He looked at the bag that she was carrying, which was a form of the Birkin bag but was in canvas or something, and he said to her, ‘Hey, how would you like it if we designed a bag like yours?’ It would be the first bag since Grace Kelly that we’ve given an actress’s name to. And Jane said, ‘Sure, that would be great.’ So she drew up a sketch."
All brands should be born this way, from contact, between a mortal and a goddess, as they pass in the heavens. The mortal pleads for inspiration from his muse and in her majestic way, she consents ("Sure, that would be great.") And the rest, as they say, is fashion history. The Birkin went on to become perhaps the single most coveted item in women’s fashion.
But now the bad news, and here’s where it gets interesting for marketers. According to the Scotsman, my first source for fashion news, Jane Birkin recently repudiated the Birkin and now carries a sporran she bought for £10 in Edinburgh. Disavowed, dissed and dumped. Dommage!
Now, if we were the Birkin brand manager, we might say, "Je m’en fiche." What do we care if we are abandoned by a celebrity endorser? Most women who covet the Birkin have never heard of Jane Birkin. The brand has moved on. Jane and the sporran are well matched. We wish them well.
But there is another way of thinking about this. When Hermes reached out to Jane Birkin, she was still a creature of great exoticism, and certainly the only Hermes partner who had been photographed naked with Bridget Bardo. (There are photos of certain senior managers, but that’s another story.) We can assume that Hermes was displaced, as many great brands were, by the cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s. Connecting with a young bohemian beauty was a very good idea, and an opportunity to renew currency and altitude.
Now to lose Ms. Birkin, this might well put the brand in jeopardy. Now the brand is simply about the upper reaches, the glory, that is the fashion world. It has lost that connection to the great counter culture that arose at mid-20th century.
We were noting yesterday that the winner of American Idol will combine contradictory elements. So it is, perhaps, with fashion brands. A little grist, type working against type, all of this is sometimes the essential ingredient in meanng manufacture and the very secret of brand meaning managment.
Marketers are like any culture bearers. They are sometimes lucky enough to have brands of such standing and power that they obliterate the very idea of their diminishment. But this can happen. And to lose an essential piece of the brand portfolio, this is the way it happens.
Smith, Aidan. 2006. Jane Birkin ditches Hermes bag for sporra. The Scotsman. March 19, 2006. here.
Wadler, Joyce with Paula Schwartz. 2004. Can You Even Left It? New York Times. September 7, 2004. here.
To The Agenda, with a hat tip for the head’s up here.