Handbag tips from the owner of Jane Birkin’s original Birkin bag

Handbag collector Catherine B. shares her collecting philosophy, her advice for first-time buyers of Hermès and Chanel, and the story of how she came to buy the original Birkin bag

Catherine B. with her prized possession, the original Hermes Birkin bag made for and owned by Jane Birkin

Catherine B. with her prized possession, the original Hermès Birkin bag made for and owned by Jane Birkin. Photographed at L’Hotel, Paris. Photos: Roberto Frankenberg

Paris native Catherine B. has had a passion for vintage from a young age. Her boutique, Les Trois Marches, on the Rue Guisarde in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood, is dedicated to vintage Hermès and Chanel and as such it overflows with the highest-quality handbags, jewellery and scarves from the two brands. Paris Hilton and Garance Doré are among its many clients.

In 1994, the same year in which she opened Les Trois Marches, Catherine B. achieved another distinction within the world of handbags when she became the owner of the Holy Grail for collectors: the original Hermès handbag made for Jane Birkin.

It was fitting, therefore, that we caught up with the collector and boutique owner at The Apartment at L’Hotel, Paris, where Jane Birkin once lived with Serge Gainsbourg — ‘Serge and I tried out all the rooms,’ Jane Birkin said — to talk about why she started collecting handbags, how she would advise first-time Hermès and Chanel buyers, and the story of that  bag.

Tell us about yourself. When did you become interested in vintage?

Catherine B: ‘I’m 100-per-cent Parisienne, born and raised in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I have always loved fashion but never wanted to work in  fashion, which is fundamentally about things being “in” or “out”. I’ve always loved old things: objects that have had a life, that tell a story.’

How did you come to open Les Trois Marches?

CB: ‘I spent 10 years out of Paris, and when I returned in the 1990s I knew I wanted to open a boutique in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One day I spotted a store for sale in the neighbourhood. It was just nine square meters, but I fell in love.

‘The next day I returned with my father, and he said, “This used to be a barbershop — your great-grandfather had his beard trimmed here every Sunday!” I don’t really believe in chance, so that was it. I bought the space and opened Les Trois Marches in 1994.

A Rouge Vif calf box leather Retourne Kelly 32 with gold hardware, Hermes

A Rouge Vif calf box leather Retourné Kelly 32 with gold hardware, Hermès. ‘In terms of bags, go for a Kelly, no matter what size,’ Catherine B. advises those new to collecting Hermès

‘The Saint-Germain-des-Prés location meant that I was quickly able to start acquiring incredible pieces through word of mouth. The boutique really pulls people in. Some clients have come regularly for 25 years, even if they have no desire to add to their collections.’

You specialise in Hermès and Chanel. Why these brands? For collectors looking to acquire their first piece from these houses, what would you suggest?

CB: ‘Hermès and Chanel are the only two houses whose manufacturing is truly “Made in France”. That’s key for me. I’ve always loved both equally: Hermès is classic, very “gentleman farmer”, while Chanel has an air of youth, the “happy few”.

‘Always prioritise leather quality, never what colour is trendy today’: a red calfskin leather Classic Flap bag with gold hardware, Chanel

A black aged calfskin leather Lucky Charms Casino 2.55 reissue medium flap bag with gold hardware, Chanel, Spring/Summer 2016

‘For a new Hermès collector, start with scarves. The quality is exceptional, and there’s always a good moment to wear one. In terms of bags, go for a Kelly, no matter what size. If you’re in the market for a Birkin, go for early 1990s editions in box leather. Both the Kelly and the Birkin are perennials. Hermès doesn’t make bags to buy today and forget tomorrow; they are meant to be passed from generation to generation. Always prioritise leather quality, never what colour is trendy today.

‘At Chanel, start with vintage Gripoix pâte de verre jewellery. In terms of bags, start with a flap bag in black lambskin — though really any colour will do!’

You famously acquired at auction the very first Birkin bag, created by Hermès for Jane Birkin in 1984. How did that come about?

CB: ‘In 2000, a friend at a Paris auction house said she had something I needed to see. When I went to visit, she brought out a bag from a safe. It was one I had seen a thousand times in photos on the arm of Jane Birkin. [It was the first-ever Birkin bag, released in 1984, created for the actress by Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas.] I said, “That can’t possibly be the  bag.” I had to have it.

The original Hermes Birkin bag made for Jane Birkin, acquired by Catherine B. in 2000

‘I never imagined it would come up for auction again’: the original Hermès Birkin bag made for Jane Birkin, acquired by Catherine B. in 2000

‘In 1994 — the same year I opened Les Trois Marches — Jane Birkin had donated the bag to a Paris auction to raise money for an AIDS charity. No one knew where it had gone since, and I never imagined it would come up for auction again.

‘When I won the bidding my first thought was, “How am I going to pay for this?”, but I had sold some other pieces in order to buy it. And no, I’m never selling!’

The Birkin has been exhibited at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Liberty’s in London, and the MoMA in New York. How did these collaborations come up, and where would you like it to go next?

CB: ‘Not long after I acquired the Birkin, I was contacted by the communications director of the Galeries Lafayette, which was looking to exhibit iconic pieces. I told him I owned the original Birkin, and he couldn’t believe it! Next came Liberty in 2014, followed in 2017 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which wanted the bag for its Is Fashion Modern?  exhibition.

‘I would love to show it in Asia — maybe Hong Kong or Tokyo. I’ve also been contacted by someone in haute couture in India, so that could be possible.’

What do you look for when acquiring for the store?

CB: ‘The fact that Les Trois Marches is tiny helps me to curate severely what I put in it — I reject mountains of things every day. My rule of thumb is I never buy anything for the store that I myself wouldn’t want to find there.

‘The first thing I look for is authenticity. Then I consider what is special about the piece: ideally, I want each object in my collection to mark a turning point in a brand’s history.’

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Any fun anecdotes from your time running Les Trois Marches?

CB: ‘One day a man visited the store, and I fell into a long discussion with him. I showed him all the varieties of Hermès crocodile, and explained their differences, and he listened politely — I thought I was about to sell him something.

‘When he left, another client told me it was the creator of the Birkin — Dumas himself! He’d spent an hour discussing Hermès bags with me, and I’d had no idea who he was.’

Is there another job you would have loved?

CB: ‘An auctioneer! But it’s good I didn’t become one — I would have bought even more handbags!’

With thanks to L’Hotel, 13 rue des Beaux-Arts, 75006, Paris

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