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A Birkin bag is difficult to buy

If you wish to purchase a Birkin bagthe piece de resistance from French luxury retailer Hermès, be warned that you probably won't be able to make it.

Vogue delivered this message of tough love to readers in a recent article who described the quest for an Hermès bag as “intimidating”. The magazine warns that customers “could wait months, even years, for the right model to become available” and further dashed hopes by noting that “waiting lists in Hermès stores no longer exist.”

The item's exclusivity is much of its appeal, but two California residents who attempted to purchase the bags decided that was enough.

On Tuesday, the two buyers in question, Tina Cavalleri and Mark Glinoga, filed a proposed class action against Hermes in San Francisco. In the complaint, they accuse the company of withholding the coveted bag from all but the highest-spending customers, a practice that the plaintiffs say violates antitrust law.

Hermès did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Cavalleri, who is identified in the lawsuit as a California resident, already owns at least one Birkin bag, according to the court complaint. But his attempt to buy a second one was thwarted.

The lawsuit says Ms. Cavalleri “spent tens of thousands of dollars at Hermès and was forced to purchase” other Hermès items, described as “ancillary products,” before having the chance to purchase a bag Birkin.

Mr. Glinoga, who is also identified as a California resident, had no luck when he tried to buy a Birkin bag, according to the suit. An Hermès salesperson asked him to “purchase other items and accessories” in the store before he was considered a potential customer for the highly sought-after item, according to the complaint.

Hermès presented the bag in 1984. It bears the name Jane Birkinthe late French film star, singer and muse, who provided the idea for her overall design to the CEO of Hermès Jean-Louis Dumas while sitting next to him on an Air France flight. In the original story, she would have drawn her idea on a paper vomit bag.

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

A new one sells for more than $10,000; vintage examples have fetched up to $450,000 at auction. Another popular Hermès bag, the Kelly, is named after movie star (and Princess of Monaco) Grace Kelly.

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

“The law says it’s illegal,” said Shaun Setareh, a lawyer involved in the lawsuit on behalf of the two plaintiffs. “They condition the purchase of other products – scarves, belts, shoes, perfumes, jewelry – before giving you the option of buying a Birkin or a Kelly.”

Douglas Hand, a New York lawyer who works with fashion brands such as Stella McCartney and Rag & Bone, said in a telephone interview that the definition of “tying” was somewhat amorphous and that the law left a certain margin for the goods to be sold in a package.

A judge, he added, is also more likely to rule that a sales practice violates the law when the item in question can be considered a necessity. An example might include a pharmaceutical company that grants access to life-saving medications only to those who purchase them along with other products.

“There are not as many reasons why every consumer needs access to a Birkin bag or any specific luxury item,” Mr. Hand continued. “What the consumer wants from this is access to class, access to exclusivity and access to a club that you can get into.”

He nevertheless recognized that the distinction between bundling and illegal tied sales could be difficult to analyze.

“That's why the outcome will be very, very important for Rolex, Porsche and all the luxury brands that have based access to the most exclusive items on the purchase of less exclusive and unrelated items,” Ms. .Hand.

After all, much of the demand for luxury goods – whether it's a Ferrari SF90 or a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona – results from their shortage.

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

During the pandemic, Mr. Kozubek decided he wanted to give his wife a Birkin.

“I spent $60,000 on items at Hermès before I was able to buy one,” he said, listing his purchases that included shoes, scarves and home goods.

Near the end of his madness, Mr. Kozubek said he walked into the Hermès store on Grant Avenue in San Francisco and heard his salesman say the magic words: “Would you like to see a Birkin?”

Moments later, he found himself in a private room, nodding approvingly at a medium-sized Birkin in classic black with gold detailing. He said he left the store with the belief that his previous purchases had helped him secure the grand prize.

Unlike the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Mr. Kozubek said he believed there was nothing untoward about the way the sale took place, given that Birkins were trading on the secondary market at prices well above their list prices.

“Hermès keeps prices low relative to market value,” he said, “so when they award 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 it. If you could just buy it, wouldn't it be fun. No one would care. Nobody would want that.

So what makes a Birkin a Birkin is the fact that most people can't get one?

“Hell, yeah!” he said, inserting a cruder description.

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