Monday, December 7, 2009

The Birkin as a Travel Bag

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mention my passion for a hand-stitched French leather bag that has my husband – and several other hundreds, if not thousands, of husbands around the world – gnashing his teeth over, except for the fact that they make such great travel bags.

When fully loaded with passport, tickets and paraphernalia, the regular-sized and extremely elusive Hermes Birkin bag -- named after the French actress Jane Birkin, more tedious to make than a luxury car and with a waiting list of up to three years, and reportedly designed by Hermes’ owner as he sat on an airplane listening to Jane Birkin complain about the difficulties of finding a decent handbag -- is as heavy as a pair of small weights.

It's also got another downside, as far as I'm concerned. When travelling with one, I’m constantly worried that my bag will be stolen from the hotel room, scratched on an airport security conveyor belt, or stained with red wine or some child’s ice cream. It's too big for the hotel safe, so if I'm not bringing it around town, I usually keep it locked inside my largest suitcase. Meanwhile, on the airplane, where stewardesses ask you to stow bags on top and I'm worried that my Birkin will get crushed under someone's heavy laptop bag, I quickly put it under my seat, spread out my blanker, and start reading the newspapers.

Yet, in spite of the inconveniences, I never leave home without one, and they’ve become such an integral part of my travel life that I’ve given away all my other bags and basically stopped buying other brands.

The Birkin is basically the high-end leather version of a sturdy bayong (shopping basket) so it’s incredibly useful for trips. And contrary to my security worries, the Birkin can actually be a safety blanket. When it's fully loaded, it can be as heavy as three encyclopedias so it’s great security for walking alone along a dark alley as you can probably knock an attacker out with it. I've strolled down many a deserted street in Rome and Florence after dinner at some trattoria confident that I could probably hit a stranger with my Birkin if needed.

Most owners keep theirs open with the lid tucked in so you can see the contents at a glance and easily pick out what you need. No need for rummaging! My mother is constantly admonishing me to keep my Birkins closed when we travel abroad, for fear of pickpockets – but you can’t really close a Birkin once you’ve experienced the ease of an open one. I just put a scarf or shawl on top to cover the contents and I'm ready to go.

And I dare anyone with sticky fingers to try getting their hands into one of my bags when they’re swinging from the crook of my arm (my favorite way of carrying a Birkin) or to even attempt to slash the thick leather. It’s practically impossible.

In major fashion cities, my bags have also been instrumental in securing hotel room upgrades, better service at airline counters, and even center tables at hard-to-book restaurants. I was at a trendy restaurant in London last July, walking with a friend to our designated side table just east of Siberia, when the maitre’d suddenly spotted my gold bag and, without missing a beat, re-directed us to the middle of the room. In New York recently, I walked into a very popular restaurant without a reservation – and my companions all agreed that the receptionist’s quick glance at my blue bag probably got us the table reserved for regulars.

Perks aside, the best part about my Birkins are the adventures they bring. My husband has constantly witnessed, with a mixture of amusement and shock, how complete strangers have struck up conversations at airports and hotels about color and leather, and couples have walked over at fancy restaurants just to inquire about the bag.

One woman in Tokyo, with an enthusiastic husband in tow, approached us as we were having dinner at the Tokyo American Club. I spotted them from afar as they walked towards us with big smiles -- and yet, for the life of me, I didn't know who they were. I assumed they were people we had met at some cocktail party who were now coming over to say hello. It turned out they were complete strangers, and the wife just wanted to feel a Birkin on her arm. Interestingly, the husband was even more conversant about Birkins than his wife. He knew everything about color, leathers and prices -- and even where in the world it's easiest to snare one (Tokyo used to be among the best places to buy a Birkin, and New York and London were among the hardest -- but that was before this awful global recession changed the economic face of the planet, of course).

Meanwhile a fashionable Parisian hotel owner, well-known for her Celine outfits and fabulous Hermes bags, even stopped me in the lobby of her hotel to compare notes on traditional Birkins vs. the newer Jean Paul Gaultier-designed shoulder version which was then dangling on my arm.

It was also a Birkin that led to a chance meeting with my good friend Alexa, a vivacious New Yorker with a bag collection to rival any Hermes store (40 bags at last count!), a wonderfully doting husband, and a family history that traces back to ancient Polish aristocracy and even a Pope. I’d just bought a beautiful calf leather bag in a serious shade of red called Rouge Garance at the Hermes George V store in Paris, and had posted information on it on an Hermes chat page. It turned out that Alexa was flying to Paris shortly, so she emailed to ask if I was interested in meeting up and comparing notes. Rouge Garance was very new then, and few people had seen the color in person.

I usually don’t agree to meet strangers, but Alexa had always been so witty and charming in her posts, that I had little reason to doubt she would be the same in person. She and her husband flew from New York straight to Paris and landed at 7 am, and after depositing their bags at their hotel, they walked over for coffee at mine. She was as different as I could possibly imagine, but we instantly clicked, discovering similar interests in art, history and finance. This has led to lots of correspondence and many very enjoyable dinners together – usually long evenings of nonstop chatter over dry aged steaks and lots of red wine in New York. Alexa and her husband are both strict vegetarians, but they thoughtfully take me to a great steak joint whenever I'm in New York. Dinners with them are always among the highlights of my visits to New York.

The most recent dinner was in November, when I caught up with Alexa after her return from Paris. We walked over to the midtown Smith & Wollensky near my hotel, the New York Palace. She and her husband had joined other Hermes VIPs for an amazing 24-hour party Hermes hosted to celebrate the renovation and re-opening of their flagship store along the Fabourg St. Honore, and entertained me the whole evening with amusing anecdotes from the party.

There are many more stories like this – and all because of a bag!

This originally appeared in a previous issue of Travelife Magazine.



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