A Birkin Bag Is Hard to Buy

If you want to buy a Birkin bag, the pièce de résistance from the French luxury retailer Hermès, you should know that you probably can’t.

Vogue delivered this tough-love message to readers in a recent article that described the quest for an Hermès bag as “daunting.” The magazine cautioned that customers “might wait months or years for the right style to become available” and further dashed hopes by noting that “waiting lists at Hermès stores no longer exist.”

The exclusivity of the item is very much part of its appeal — but a pair of California residents who have struck out in their attempts to buy the bags have decided that enough is enough.

On Tuesday, the two shoppers in question, Tina Cavalleri and Mark Glinoga, filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Hermès in San Francisco. In the complaint, they accuse the company of holding back the coveted bag for all but the highest-spending customers, a practice that, the plaintiffs argue, violates antitrust law.

Hermès did not reply to requests for comment.

Ms. Cavalleri, who is identified in the lawsuit as a California resident, is already the owner of at least one Birkin bag, according to the legal complaint. But she was thwarted in her attempt to buy a second.

The lawsuit says that Ms. Cavalleri “has spent tens of thousands of dollars at Hermès, and had been coerced into purchasing” other Hermès items, described as “ancillary products,” before she was given a chance to buy a Birkin bag.

Mr. Glinoga, who is also identified as a California resident, had no luck when he tried to buy a Birkin bag, the suit says. An Hermès sales associate instructed him “to purchase other items and accessories” at the store before he would be considered as a potential customer for the much sought-after item, according to the suit.

Hermès introduced the bag in 1984. It is named after Jane Birkin, the late French film star, singer and muse, who supplied the idea of its general design to the Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas while seated beside him on an Air France flight. In the origin story, she is said to have sketched her idea on a paper emesis bag.

The process of creating a Birkin, as the handbag is known among connoisseurs, takes a reported 18 to 20 hours and is said to be completed by a single craftsperson. Hermès does not disclose how many it produces annually.

A new one retails for upward of $10,000; vintage examples have fetched as much as $450,000 at auction. Another popular Hermès bag, the Kelly, is named after the film star (and Princess of Monaco) Grace Kelly.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the practice of “tying” — that is, the selling of a certain item to customers on the condition that they buy another product from the same business.

“The law says it’s illegal,” Shaun Setareh, a lawyer involved in the suit on behalf of the two plaintiffs, said. “They’re preconditioning buying other products — scarves, belts, shoes, perfume, jewelry — before they give you the opportunity to buy a Birkin or a Kelly.”

Douglas Hand, a lawyer in New York who works with fashion brands including Stella McCartney and Rag & Bone, said in a phone interview that the definition of “tying” was somewhat amorphous, and that the law allowed some room for goods to be sold in a bundle.

A judge, he said, is also more likely to rule that a sales practice violates the law when the item in question can be deemed a necessity. An example might include a drug company that predicates access to lifesaving medication only to those who buy it along with other products.

“There’s not as many reasons for why every consumer needs access to a Birkin bag or any specific luxury item,” Mr. Hand continued. “What the consumer wants out of that is access to class, access to exclusivity and access to a club that you gain entry into.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the distinction between bundling and illegal tying could be tricky to parse.

“That’s why the outcome will be very, very important to Rolex, Porsche and every luxury brand that has predicated access to the most exclusive items on purchasing less exclusive, unrelated items,” Mr. Hand said.

After all, so much of the demand for luxury goods — whether it is a Ferrari SF90 or a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona — results from their being in short supply.

“It makes the shopping experience exciting and alluring,” said Jacek Kozubek, a luxury watch dealer, whose site, Tropical Watch, is devoted largely to vintage Rolexes.

During the pandemic, Mr. Kozubek decided that he wanted to get a Birkin for his wife.

“I spent $60,000 on stuff at Hermès before I could get one,” he said, listing purchases that included shoes, scarves and home goods.

Toward the end of his spree, Mr. Kozubek said he went into the Hermès store on Grant Avenue in San Francisco and heard his salesperson utter the magic words: “Would you like to see a Birkin?”

Moments later, he found himself in a private room, nodding approvingly at a midsize Birkin in classic black with gold hardware. He said that he had walked away from the store with the belief that his previous purchases had helped him obtain the grand prize.

Unlike the plaintiffs in the suit, Mr. Kozubek said that he believed there was nothing untoward about how the sale had come about, given that Birkins trade on the secondary market at far above their list prices.

“Hermès is keeping the prices low compared to the market value,” he said, “so when they allocate a bag, they want to give it to someone who loves it and supports them.”

“You don’t get the coolest things in the world right away,” Mr. Kozubek continued. “If a Birkin was super accessible, there would be no demand for them. If you could just buy it, it wouldn’t be fun. No one would care. No one would want them.”

So the thing that makes a Birkin a Birkin is the fact that most people can’t get one?

“Hell, yeah!” he said, inserting a coarser descriptive.