The Kelly and the Birkin: two classic Hermès bags, named for two timeless beauties. Both inspired by an equestrian predecessor at the house, the Haut à Courroies (first conceived in 1892 and designed for carrying riding equipment), the silhouettes have become status symbols in accessory form. The Kelly got its new name in 1977, after it was catapulted to fame by movie star Grace Kelly when she was photographed clutching the bag—which she was introduced to on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief—for an outing in 1956.
Arguably the better known of the two, the Birkin shares its name with the inimitable film star Jane Birkin. The story of its origin was recounted by the muse during a 2012 interview, in which she told how she found herself sitting next to Jean-Louis Dumas, CEO of Hermès at the time, on an Air France flight from Paris to London in the ’80s. When the contents of her bag spilled in Dumas’s view, he reportedly remarked, “You should have one with pockets,” to which she replied: “The day Hermès makes one with pockets I will have that.” Dumas replied simply, “But I am Hermès, and I will put pockets in for you.” Birkin is said to have sketched a prototype on a plane sick bag—a cross between the Kelly and her partner Serge Gainsbourg’s suitcase—and lent her surname in exchange for an early 1984 model of the now iconic handbag.
A staple for modern A-listers, the Birkin has overtaken the Kelly in popularity (some stars, including Victoria Beckham and Beyoncé, own various versions of both). It’s available to mere mortals too, assuming they aren’t daunted by the price tag—which can start from £7,000 for the most basic, smallest size, or £9,500 for the larger. That’s before taking into account the myriad colourways, artist collaborations and exotic skin finishes that make an exclusive bag more exclusive still. The current top Birkin listing on Vestiaire Collective is a black leather style, in its original box, with “extremely rare rose gold hardware”. Yours for £20,000 plus authentication fees.
There’s a reason the bags are so expensive. Hermès is a house that prides itself on craftsmanship and artisanal practice, so much so that any worker must complete two years of training before making a Birkin. The laborious, solo process takes 12 to 18 hours in a workshop, using the combination of traditional hand and refined needle work that has been perfected since the bag’s inception.
“Hermès represents the highest level of craftsmanship, the Birkin and the Kelly represent the most desirable bags from their collection. Although the Birkin has perhaps enjoyed more recent notoriety due to its appearance on Sex and the City and its many celebrity fans, the Kelly has remained an enduring symbol of understated luxury,” Sophie Hersan, co-founder and fashion director of Vestiaire Collective, tells British Vogue. “Hermès has ensured both bags remain relevant today due to slightly reinventing them over time, introducing new leathers, sizes, colours and hardware.”
Hersan cites the smaller versions of both bags—the Birkin 25 or mini Kelly—among the most popular, with some styles snapped up within 24 hours of going live on the platform. “Both bags continue to retain value, making them an enduring good investment,” she adds.
The Birkin has acting as an achingly glamorous “mum” bag for the likes of Kate Moss, who carried a pristine white style on one arm in the early ’00s, her then baby daughter Lila Grace in the other. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian utilised the Birkin’s capacious interior following the birth of her first daughter North West. Later, little North smattered her painted handprints all over an Hermès Herbag—a “more accessible” spin-off of the Kelly sometimes referred to as the “Kelly country”, though it’s certainly not cheap—that Kanye West gifted Kim with on her birthday.
Kim isn’t the only star to customise her Hermès goods. Paris Hilton owns a bespoke hot-pink Birkin adorned with glistening Swarovski crystals, and Cardi B gifted her “WAP” collaborator Megan Thee Stallion a hand-painted version to celebrate their song’s astronomical success. Cardi herself is an avid collector— a bandana-print style painted by Jay Ahr designer Jonathan Riss is among the most recent additions to her collection.
A new Gen-Z audience—used to associating scarcity with desirability—has been won over by the bags’ limited production runs. Exclusivity has been key to the success of these bags from the start—none of them are easy to get hold of, but the opportunity to snag a one-off iteration that no one else has adds another level of appeal.
Those who consider themselves shepherds rather than sheep should buy into the allure of the Kelly. Original fans include none other than Audrey Hepburn, who was the proud owner of a glossy black alligator Kelly 32 (the number refers to its 32cm size). And while a glimpse into the area of make-up mogul Kylie Jenner’s expansive closet that she’s dedicated to her bags revealed plenty of Birkins, the pièce de résistance is a Niloticus crocodile Retourné Himalaya Kelly Bag. Not only is it a mouthful to say, its rarity means it would be pretty impossible to replace, too. “This one… is really special,” Jenner said of her heirloom, adding that it’s the one bag she’d rescue if her house was on fire.