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Birkin bag: from status symbol to badge of shame

Birkin bag

British singer-actress Jane Birkin asked Hermes to rename the Hermes crocodile bag series bearing her name.

(Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images)

The ne plus ultra of luxury fashion status symbols is the target of a take-down by its celebrity namesake.

The crocodile Hermès Birkin bag, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, has spawned waiting lists of lore and is carried like a trophy by celebs from Oprah to Lady Gaga, is at the center of a controversy that has the power to affect the future of luxury fashion.

In case you missed it, British model/singer Jane Birkin is demanding that the bag be renamed, after she learned about the cruelty to crocodiles used to make the bags. 

“Having been alerted to the cruel practices endured by crocodiles during their slaughter for the production of Hermès bags carrying my name....I have asked Hermès Group to rename the Birkin until better practices responding to international norms can be implemented for the production of this bag,” Birkin said in a statement published at Peta.org

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Her response came after she viewed the animal rights organization’s stomach-turning expose “Belly of the Beast,” which looks at the farming and slaughter of reptiles in undercover videos from Texas and Zimbabwe farms, including a scene where a crocodile is sawed open alive. The skins are not only used for bags, but also shoes and watch bands.

Hermès has denied that the farms in the video are theirs, and issued a statement saying, “Hermes respects and shares her emotions and was also shocked by the images recently broadcast.” The bag was created by former Hermès executive Jean-Louis Dumas ‎in 1984. 

But that hasn’t quieted the outrage, which PETA has been stoking for several weeks by organizing protests around luxury shopping districts, promoting thehashtag #killedforhermes on social media and teaming up with the group Freedom of Animals to create a mockcroc, vegan “Virkin” bag, selling for $400, with 20% of sales of the style to be donated to PETA. (PETA gifted the bag to at least one celeb and Birkin collector, Victoria Beckham, in hopes of getting her to turn on the brand, according to the Daily Mail in London.) 

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Social media’s court of public opinion ‎has mostly applauded Birkin’s high-profile diss, with some Twitter users calling her a “fashion hero." 

The controversy is interesting for a few reasons. Animal rights protesters used to be a mainstay at fashion weeks in New York and Europe, storming the runways with predictable regularity at high-profile shows by Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and others. But in recent years, they have been largely silent as PETA shifted its message online to social media. This controversy is a victory for the group, which has half a million Twitter followers, and further proof of how celebrity shaming can be a tactic to promote outrage and activism.

It could also signal a tipping point in the trend of ethical consumerism, and how it will define the future of luxury. So far, the discussion has centered around sustainability, with images of the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, and the recent film “The True Cost” increasing shoppers’ awareness of the human and environmental toll of consumption.  The Hermes Birkin controversy is expanding the discussion to include fashion’s toll on the animal kingdom in the most high-profile way, by targeting the very symbol of luxury, the vaunted Hermes brand.

Whether all of this influences the Hermes bottom line is another story.

Forty-five percent of the French luxury goods firm’s sales come from leather goods, including crocodile, ostrich and calf, and the Birkin is the brand’s most famous design. Waiting lists for the bags, which are made by hand, are legendary, with shoppers waiting months to pay six figures for the coveted carry-alls. Several books have been published about the phenomenon, including “Bringing Home The Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag,” in 2009.

In recent years, though, the ostentatious style has been so overexposed in paparazzi photos and on reality TV that it’s almost become outre. Last year, many pop culture observers gagged when Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian an Hermes Birkin bag for her 34th birthday that had been hand painted by their 1-year-old daughter, North. And in 2010, Lady Gaga made headlines for defacing her white Birkin with a Sharpie.

Meanwhile, Hermes has been downplaying flash in favor of a more stealth-wealth look. And when Hermes’ newly appointed design director Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski (who came from The Row) showed her first collection for the brand at Paris Fashion Week in March, there wasn’t a Birkin to be seen on the runway. Instead, the collection was quiet and minimal, right down to the new, structured Octogone handbag.

Will this be the beginning of a true movement away from trophy bags in exotic skins or a momentary social media blip? Will the Birkin bag go from status symbol to badge of shame? Only time will tell.

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booth.moore@latimes.com

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