Hermes & The Kelly & Birkin Bag – History

hermes logo

Hermes has risen to the top of the luxury because of its rich history, natural flair for design, and superb workmanship.

On January 10, 1801, in a little German village, Thierry Hermès entered the world. Thierry was the youngest of many brothers.  Tragically, Thierry would lose most of his relatives in wars and epidemics.

Thierry Hermes
Thierry Hermes – Source –

As the Napoleonic empire included Krefeld, he was automatically considered a French citizen.

Thierry and his family eventually found refuge in Paris, where Thierry pursued training as a leatherworker. In 1837, he opened a saddle and harness store in the Grands Boulevards district of Paris, where he specialised in making finely crafted bridles, harnesses, and saddles.

His wares were so popular that Napolean III and other European nobility, princes, and affluent Parisians bought them. His stitching, which could only be done by hand with two needles, marked him apart from other harness producers. The ensuing exceptional quality of the stitching and leatherwork earned him the First Class Medal of the Exhibition of Paris and at both the 1855 and 1867 Expositions Universelles in Paris.

Hermes Freres
Source – Bags of Luxury

Thierry died in 1887, and his son Charles-Emile took over the family company. He moved the shop to 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and it still operates there. Charles-Emile expanded the Hermès name and brand internationally, focusing on elite consumers.

In 1900, Hermes debuted the Haut à Courroies bag as its first retail item, and the company also quickly found success with its range of high-quality stitched leather horse riding gear.

hermes box

Charles-Emile eventually passed the business on to his sons Adolphe and Emile-Maurice, 25 years after he joined the company. They changed the company’s name to Hermes Freres at that time.

As the business flourished, Emile-Maurice eventually bought out his brother’s stake. By 1914, the workshop had 80 workers, and Emile-Maurice had recruited his son-in-law to assist expand the company’s name recognition.

In 1923, Emile-Maurice developed a new kind of zip after realising that the need for harnesses and saddles would fall with the advent of the motor era.

Hermes received a two-year patent on the zip, which they dubbed the Hermes Fastener, and immediately began expanding into other areas of the fashion industry.

The business started to diversify in that period. In 1922, when Emile’s wife Maurice was unable to locate a purse she liked, the company began producing leather purses. This was a compact variant of the saddlebags already in production.

The first ready-to-wear item they released was a golf jacket for men in 1925. In 1927, they expanded their offerings to include shoes, jewellery, and watches. While the first preview of a women’s couture collection was shown in 1929, the company didn’t take off until 1938, when they introduced their now-iconic silk scarves and other accessories like ties and fragrances.

Kelly Bag

Kelly Bag
Source: Etoile Luxury Vintage

In 1935, Hermès introduced the Sac a Dépeche bag, which would eventually be renamed the Kelly bag due to its popularity. In 1956, actress-turned-Princess Grace of Monaco used the bag by Hermès to conceal her pregnancy, launching the brand’s international reputation. Life magazine’s cover featured her clutching this purse, and soon after, other major publications followed suit.


Hermès used the now-iconic caliche emblem in the early 1950s. Hermes also debuted its now-iconic orange packaging during this period.

The history of Hermès is reflected in the design of the brand’s logo. According to legend, the logo was modelled on the painting “Le Duke Attele, Groom a L’Attente” by French artist Alfred de Dreux. The parallels between the two works have been the subject of much recent examination.

After Emile-Maurice died in 1951, his son-in-law Robert Dumas took over the business. Dumas created some of Hermès’ most recognizable designs, such as the Kelly bag.

Where Did the Jane Birkin Bag Come From?

Actress, singer, and model Jane Birkin was born in England but raised in France. Her natural beauty and outspoken sensuality made her a real fashion icon from the 1960s through the 1980s. Birkin’s 10-year relationship with French singer, writer, filmmaker, and poet Serge Gainsbourg, who is widely seen as one of the most important people in French popular culture, also helped her become famous. 

A late-night journey from Paris to London sparked a revolution in the world of fashion. Several versions of the story exist, each with somewhat different specifics. Legend has it that in 1983, Jane Birkin was upgraded to first class and seated close to Hermès’s creative director and CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas. She had her trademark wicker basket on her shoulder.

All the contents including her Hermès journal fell out of the straw bag onto Dumas’s lap as she tossed it into the overhead bin. When she frantically gathered her belongings, Dumas was there to provide a hand. She needed a purse with many compartments, Dumas joked. The actress responded that she would trade in her distinctive large basket for a sizable Hermès daily bag that could hold everything a busy mother needed. The actress went on to say how hard it was for her to find a purse that fit her needs for storage, safety, and looks.

Birkin bag

Dumas drew the first designs for the Birkin bag on an aeroplane sick bag, taking Birkin’s suggestions into account. The Birkin bag, the ultimate status accessory, started so modestly.

The first Birkin handbag debuted a year later, in 1984. Its spacious inside was perfect for jet setters, and the lock made it convenient to keep closed on the go. The simple silhouette, sleek materials, and laid-back attitude were all spot-on for Birkin’s taste. She was given a 40-centimetre Birkin, which she decorated with her collection of stickers. Priced at almost $2,000 at the register. The original, worn-in Jane Birkin bag raised almost $162,000 in 2011 for Japan earthquake relief.

Yet, the Birkin bag first failed to excite consumers. The Jane Birkin bag didn’t dethrone Chanel as the industry standard in the 1980s. The famed quality of Hermès and the adorable backstory of its creation fell flat. Not until the 1990s did the bag made famous by It Girl Jane Birkin become the It Bag.

Birkin bags’ meteoric rise to fame at the turn of the century is documented in the brand’s earliest records. It was a well-known sign of affluence. In August of 2001, Birkin’s popularity skyrocketed when she appeared in an episode of Sex and the City. Samantha’s now-famous declaration, “It’s not a bag—it’s Birkin!” caused an immediate surge in interest in the high-end handbag.


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