Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bringing Home the Birkin: NY Times Book Review

The end of the world just inched a little nearer: an eBay seller has written a memoir. About handbags.

Not just any handbag. For those not familiar with the Birkin bag — made by Hermès, the French luxury leather goods company, for the singer Jane Birkin in the early ’80s, after its chief executive saw the chanteuse struggling with her vagabond-verging-on-cat-lady straw purse on a plane — it doesn’t matter, because you can’t get one anyway. Any other Jane who walks in off the street and asks for a Birkin is politely told there is a two-to-three-year waiting list. Oh, and the entry-level leather model costs about $7,500, with a crocodile-and-diamond version topping out at $150,000.

These days, Americans versed in pop culture — “Sex and the City,” Oprah being turned away at the Paris Hermès store — know about Birkins. And for a woman of a certain class anywhere in the world, carrying one is the quickest way to telegraph to other women, “I win.” And so some of them will do or pay just about anything to get one.

At the start of “Bringing Home the Birkin,” the author, Michael Tonello, is a party boy in Provincetown, Mass., who doesn’t know a Birkin from Burkina Faso. Weary of traveling the world as a hair and makeup artist for commercials, he decides to move to Barcelona after working on an I.B.M. shoot in the city. A job magically materializes, then vanishes, and Tonello is stuck in Spain with a five-year lease, no work visa and expensive custom closets he had built to fit his designer clothes. He was up a particular creek “without a paleta,” he writes. But his father reminds him of his American entrepreneurial pluck, recalling how, as a teenager, Michael made money for his French class trip by selling sandwiches at their country club out of a golf cart. Lightning soon strikes, as I suppose it sometimes does, in the form of cashmere: rearranging his sweaters for the “800th time,” he realizes it’s not actually that cold in Spain. He lists a Ralph Lauren scarf on eBay, bought at an outlet for $99, which sells for $430. Paleta found.

Suddenly, everything in his apartment has eBay appeal. Even his “friends,” his first-edition Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote books, are put on the virtual block. Tonello breezes through a paragraph of advice for potential sellers, then barrels toward his fateful sale, a silk Hermès scarf that draws aggressive bidding, as well as e-mail messages from desperate collectors imploring him to help them complete their scarf “wish lists.” “I intimated that this was ‘only the tip of the iceberg,’” he writes in his exhaustingly chatty, girlfriend-à-girlfriend tone. (Tonello has never met a cliché he didn’t love, and is addicted to alliteration. Sample: “I didn’t mind the calculus of currency conversion or the etymology of exotic entrees.”) Click here to read the entire review.

1 comment:

Pigtown-Design said...

I forwarded this to a friend. I had made one of those mini-kelly bags and gave it to her, which started a whoooole long conversation about Hermes and then this book...