Birkin Bag Blues
by Marc Charbonnet
I was having lunch in the 14th floor restaurant of the Decorator & Designer's building, chatting with a client named Leeza. We were eating salad, and once again discussing the design of her and her husband's new Fifth Avenue apartment, which was taking a zillion re-visits and mind-changes to finally come together. We would go see one apartment, then another; a new listing on Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, then we'd go to see another one on Fifth and 71st, then another one, and then a fourth. All of them were either too expensive, not right, the wrong building, not a terrace, not close enough to the shops, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...nothing was ever right for them. And they wouldn't move a brain cell or blink an eye without asking my opinion, exhausting my last nerve.
The fact that they were putting me through this much stress was surprising, because I had not yet officially been hired. It was just assumed that I would be, if the project finally got started and after they'd quizzed me to death. Their incessant indecisiveness and neediness ended up being our casual verbal contract. Later, when some key decisions had finally been made and it was finally time to sign the contract (after a year and a half), all of the sudden they wanted to see my work. The timing was weird, but I conceded and I showed them some. They were impressed with it, but it turned out I still wasn't exactly hired. Then the waffling intensified. They wanted this place, then soon they wanted that one again, they didn't want to see my work again, then they did, again. Meanwhile I had to lunch with this woman over and over after every meeting.
So here I was grinding my teeth in her company again, chewing arugula and radicchio with her, when we should have been chewing over invoices as I'd yet to see a dime. As I stared at her across the table under the bright light through exhausted, half-opened eyes, with everything running through my mind, I noticed that Leeza appeared to be more than the classic criminal boss's wife I'd pegged her for when we'd first met. Her appearance became surreal. I was already familiar with her vortex of over-dyed black hair, but now it seemed to hover almost behind her head. Her face was made of tanned skin that was pulled and lifted so stringently that when she spoke, she looked almost inhuman. But in my present state, she resembled something created by Jim Henson. She appeared as a talking wallet, or a handbag. Zipper teeth, black hair handle, and a leather surface oiled and polished into such a healthy glow! So I sat there listening to this penny pinching, handbag-headed client's flawless New Jersey accent motor out of those zipper teeth as she told me she thought the foyer tiles in her new home "…shoowd be impworted from Gweece."
"Yes, yes," I robotically agreed. That's when inspiration struck. My hallucination had been a cathexis of consumerism. It was trying to tell me I simply must own a black Birkin handbag.
I might have just been suffering from double vision, because Leeza actually did have a Birkin bag, a black one, sitting right there in front of me on the table that day. It was the first time I was able to hold one, as I moved her Birkin bag from the seat of a chair to the table for her. I felt its weight. At the time I assumed it was because of the contents (her brains perhaps?). But I would later learn that the actual weight of a Birkin bag is peculiar. It's not heavy, just unique—and unmistakable.
Despite my exhaustion that day at lunch, the inspiration stuck. Birkin bags (actually called Hermes Birkin bags) are much-vaunted, and "much vanted" by me—to quote Zsa Zsa Gabor in her thick accent. They run into the thousands. And that's for a standard Birkin bag: 35cm, which is the rage. They come in orange, blue, white, caramel and black, to name a few. Black is what I wanted. Of course, orange being my favorite color, that could have worked well too.
I've employed ascots, pocket square, shoes, belts, sandals, even a little bag, to accentuate my eloquently freaky outward appearance, which—despite everything—is decidedly male. But a Birkin bag? I'd always been a person that can carry a tote. My first good tote was Bottega Veneta, and I'm on my third one. And now own an orange Goyard. But I figured I can carry a Hermes Birkin bag now that I'm thinking about entering the realm of Middlescence. Do they even make them for men?
Well, my decision to own one would come from a souring relationship, as my bond with those indecisive clients began to seriously erode, and I began to get mad at just the thought of them. But many status items are secretly acquired out of spite, aren't they? Still, this wasn't vindictiveness as much as it was lust, which was quickly turning to love.
With my mind made up to own one, I ventured out into New York City's "shopping jungle" to hunt one down. A Birkin bag is not the kind of thing one just walks into a store and slaps one's money on the counter for. Obtaining one is a bit of a battle, which makes bag addicts like me crave them even more, especially after spying someone else who's obtained one, carrying it around proudly like a hard-won badge of honor.
I soon discovered that Birkin bags were not available at the Hermes store, even though they should be. I was told there was no waiting list since the French make them by hand. I understood what that meant. The French are difficult as it is. You can imagine the road blocks one encounters when dealing with a sought-after product—no, a work of art—from a fussy and proud nation with fussy and proud craftspeople. Not only are they difficult themselves because they're French, they're difficult even to the French, and to Americans they're ten times so. On top of that, on the other side of the globe, the Americans who work at the Hermes store are difficult too. God, I wanted one so badly.
I remember going to the Hermes store once during a rainstorm, soaking wet, and entering the place only to have a security person block my entrance and ask if he could help me. I handed him my drenched Etro umbrella and said, “Yes. Do something with this,” and bumptiously dashed to the bow tie and pocket square area to purchase a few treats for a rainy afternoon. Now I was back, bloodthirsty for Birkin. I could just see my Chihuahua, Benny, taking a ride in it, while I gently pushed him aside, pulling soft leather gloves or my latest cell phone out of it. I know, a cliché—but just once, okay? Honestly, I really just pictured myself carrying it around, cashing in on its power. I thought that with a Birkin bag I could go shopping in sweat-clothes, and no one would dare stop me at the door: “A lazy means to an end."
So, refuted at all the proper channels, I went on EBay. I researched, analyzed and eliminated. I really felt I was being smart about searching through the many Birkins I found on the internet, new and used. I found an orange one in Australia, which was brand new. I thought the price was fair, and the seller seemed to know the lingo. Among other details, it was listed as an authentic 35cm Birkin. I didn't even think a Nigerian email scam artist would have the nerve to charge $2000 for a Birkin bag that wasn't real. I clicked the mouse, and it was mine.
When it did arrive, I got Benny ready, threw on my grossest sweatpants, and was set to hit Madison Avenue for the red carpet treatment. I opened the box, and yanked it right out. I immediately could tell something was wrong. It was the right shade of orange, and the wrong shade of bogus. It was pretty evident that it wasn't real, despite the fact that it had arrived with all of the accoutrements; the box, the bags, and the protective rain cover. It reminded me of a Kirby vacuum cleaner. Those things used to come with so many attachments, they needed their own closet. And if you moved it anywhere, it had its own luggage. I bought one from a friend for $36 (and that was in 1976) to clean a $30 Edwardian rug from the Flee market. It (the rug) is now on the dining room floor of the childhood home of Frances Gumm, The Judy Garland Birthplace Museum.
These are the kinds of things that run through one's mind while trying to distract themselves from the shame of thinking they've fallen victim to a handbag scam. I kept trying to imagine I hadn't, yet the more I inspected, the clearer it became. I'd been had, and I began to fume. When I calmed down, I decided perhaps it wasn't a total loss. Maybe it could pass as the real thing on the street. I ditched the sweatpants idea and thought that if I moved around really fast in public, people wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't Hermes. Maybe I could only take it out at night, or to nightclubs, or during an eclipse! As long as the people I wanted to impress were only sizing me up (which one does in a discrete, split second) and not inspecting me with a microscope, I might be able to get away with it. Besides, people who worship fashion spend too much time leafing through Italian Vogue and watching runway shows on cable television to allow for anything longer than an attention span of a few seconds. And even if I did get found out, perhaps counterfeit Birkin bags would become trendy the way Yves Saint Laurent knock-offs did in the 80's. Maybe I could be a trend setter. Of course this was total bullshit. It was a fake, a fraud, a bust. God, I was depressed.
I called my assistant to come into the office. I told her to take my new Birkin bag down to the Hermes store, and ask them if they could remove a small scratch on the interior pocket. She left, and returned an hour later furious and mortified, with a horror story. Within minutes of entering the store, she was escorted, literally, to the door with her counterfeit bag, dumbfounded and pissed. She informed me that her job wasn't worth a criminal record, not to mention the fact that she now didn't dare show her face within a mile of that shop. She thought that I'd sent her for my own amusement. I don't think I would be spending what it cost to pay this lady for an hour's worth of work to return a bag that's not real. I was already $2000 in the hole—I wasn't going to waste money intentionally just for kicks. If I was wasting money intentionally, it's because I was praying to the gods that the bag would be real after all, somehow. I admit I did use my assistant as a bit of a sacrificial lamb, but knowing she'd be unharmed. Now, I was twice as embarrassed.
Nevertheless, now it was confirmed. I should have known something was afoul when I had a difficult time paying for this piece of garbage electronically on EBay. I contacted the seller, letting them know that I knew that the bag they'd sold me was a fake. I was surprised they even wrote back. They asked if I would I please return the bag to them for another one, a real one. And as soon as they received it, they would put the proper authorities in touch with the seller she had acquired it from. Thou doth protest too much? They agreed to return my money if I returned the bag. Well, $170 for my quick exchange of that pumpkin-colored imposter only put me $170 in the hole.
I was burned and wiser, but still a glutton. I ventured deeper and found another one online. This one was blue. It had a certificate of authenticity and micro-lens photographs of the bag's details. The price was also right, as was its condition. Boy, was I asking for it. When my friend Susan saw it on my computer screen, she said "It's magnificent…except for the color." She believed that it would be impossible for me to walk down the street with a robin's egg blue Birkin bag, imagining it was the kind of stunt reserved for Candid Camera. But it was such the right size; it was like a doctor's bag. Honestly, I've never been able to figure out how the precise tools of my trade as a designer differ from those of a brain surgeon.
I may need a brain exam myself, because when I received the second bag, I apprehensively pulled it out of the box and gasped, seeing that it was indeed absolutely perfect. Then I looked closer and exhaled with consternation, because apparently it wasn't perfect. It was stitched in blue. They had obviously used different detail photographs to advertise it online. All of the blue leather objects at Hermes are, I believe, stitched in white only.
This time I braved the Hermes store myself, deciding to bring it in with the intention of having it cleaned. If it was a fake, well at least I'd be prepared this time to be booted out the front door by security. I decided against wearing a disguise.
First I learned that they don't authenticate anything in Hermes except Hermes. But finding them at least accommodating about it, they told me they were not able to tell me whether my bag was legit or not, but if I signed it up for an $80 cleaning, they would tell me. It was a Catch-22 for Hermes, because they wouldn't do any cleaning or repairs on anything but Hermes merchandise. But, $80 for a vetted bag was cheap. The person in charge took one look at it, and it was immediately declared a fake. Shame on me!
I became so angry that, instead of turning red, I turned white like molten metal. I suddenly wondered if Hermes sold mail bombs, as I'd have bought one at any price right there on the spot. I stomped back to the office and emailed this "person" who sold me the bag and told them that it had been declared a fake by the best of the best. I almost broke the keys on my keyboard trying to scream through an email. I told them that sending false items through the internet and mailing them through the postal service is mail fraud, and wire fraud, which are both felonies. But prison was too good for these evil crooks. Preying on people's serious addiction to high-status fashion accessories deserved no less than Abu Ghraib-style torture, war crimes, Medieval dungeons…burning at the stake! If I had my way, they'd be skinned alive and have their hide made into wallets and purses, to be sold and haggled over off downtown city sidewalks, at low, counterfeit prices. I'd buy a whole set of luggage made from those con-monsters and keep it unused in the back of a my dark warehouse in Long Island City forever, as my macabre prisoner. I'd obviously crossed over to the dark side.
Why go to all that trouble to make a fake bag and sell it online under false pretenses? Because people will fall for it, that's why. What a profound disappointment, not to mention a humiliation. Especially considering I never got my money back for that one.
Well, believe it or not I actually fell for the scam once again—a decidedly uncharming strike three. This one was black. When I got it and found it was also fake, it was remarkable how blasé my horrified reaction had become; ho-hum, foiled again. I was getting used to it. I was able to wrangle most of my money back from the third criminal, but I still get emails from them occasionally with the promise that the remainder of my refund will be sent as soon as the myriad of woes in the seller’s life are resolved. Suddenly I'm their analyst. The whole situation was so depressing. I decided I had the Birkin bag blues:
I've got the Birkin bag blues
Oh yes I’m sad as I could ever be
I've got the Birkin bag blues
Eyes was greedy and now I lose
I've got the Birkin bag blues
Oh these blues are so bad, need to take a snooze
I've got the Birkin bag blues
And I'm as blue as can be
Perhaps I should have taken a hint from fate when the woman I'd had lunch with that led me to my desire for all things Birkin—the clients buying the 5th Avenue apartment—abruptly fell out of the picture. The couple dropped out after I'd done much work for her and her husband for free. The entire transaction and client relation situation became a huge hemorrhoid. Her husband let me know too late that he wasn't paying expenses, he wasn't paying for drafting and he certainly wasn't paying the re-imbursable charges for the trucking of objects. Which all means he wasn't going to pay. Meanwhile handbag head kept her zipper shut about how much I'd helped. So I had to fire them. Good riddance. Still, that one moment at lunch when I'd caressed her Birkin, it was bliss. Perhaps it would be the last time. I'd have to live the rest of my life Birkin-less.
About three months later, I'd really worked through my grief. It was my birthday, and I got my Birkin-less ass to an estate sale auction to cheer myself up. Sometimes you can find the best things at these junky sales, and this was a real trash dump bonanza. A storage company was selling the remains of items not retrieved from the site that had been sold to make way for a huge condo. The storage facility had gotten everything out to the owners except this auction’s pieces. I had not attended the preview the day before so I was not familiar with what was being sold; I had just popped in to see how the sale was going. I was chatting with some friends I met there and the auctioneer caught my attention. I turned and saw a dreadfully beat up you pair of mirrored bedside night cabinets. One was missing its front foot. I threw my hand up and bought the pair for $185.00. One of my friends asked why I bought them, I told him that the one was in good shape could be cleaned up and sold for a couple of thousand. He asked, “What about the other one?” I couldn’t answer, as I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Days later, when my battered furniture was due to arrive, I was talking to Mike, the handy man who runs the elevator in the building where my office is located. When the cabinets came, I sent the “good one” to be cleaned and repaired. Mike was in the office, and he asked what I would do with the other one. I didn't know, the trash? Maybe not. I did have a procrastination-spawned mountain (in the warehouse previously mentioned) of “almost good pieces that all need a littlie something to make them perfect" that was growing bigger every year, but I really didn't want to feed this piece to that monstrous blob. I asked Mike if he’d like to have it. He said thanks, and carried it out of the office. Five minutes later he'd returned carrying something. I was so busy that I didn’t notice that it was my favorite color, orange—an orange felt bag. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly spied the logo on the bag.
"Mr. Charbonnet, this was in the cabinet. The lock was jammed but I jimmied it open and this was inside."
Then I watched as he lifted something out of the orange felt sack.
It was a black Birkin bag.
He calmly asked “Is it yours?” as I lunged at him like a cougar, screaming “YESSS!!!” I grabbed it from his hands in midair, as he almost threw it at me, possibly to deflect a full body blow. I cradled it in my arms like a newborn baby, kissing its forehead lovingly. Oh my sweet baby, you're finally home. Mike was speechless. My staff just stared. It was a touching moment.
I was speechless myself, as I was praying. What gods had rumbled the Earth and rattled the heavens to make this impossible coincidence occur? There are moments when you realize that maybe there is an order to the universe, and everything happens for a reason, and there are greater forces than us moving time and space, perhaps even lovingly watching after us. Sometimes those reminders are fashion accessories.
I hated to do it, but didn't want to tempt fate again. I called the auction company to report my inexplicable find. When I did, a cranky woman on the other end of the line thought I was complaining about my purchase and interrupted me, growling, "All lots were sold as is." When I tried to explain, she said louder “I said that all lots are sold as is,” and hung up. That sealed it.
I lifted my beautiful Birkin bag up to look at it again. I don't know how I ever fell for those other impostors. I must have been blinded by desire. Now, with the true object of my affection together with me at last, we were a family. I ran home, and while I slipped into some sweats, Benny slipped into the bag.