How one man conquered the intimidating two-year Hermès Birkin bag waiting list.
By Jennifer Seligman
“The thing with the Birkin is that it’s a great investment,” explains Tonello. “…If you bought a Birkin five years ago and sold it now, people would still be willing to pay you more than you originally paid for it.”
Save the Birkins! These rare, endangered species are being held captive in backrooms, basements, and warehouses. Beautiful, exotic bags should not have to suffer any longer; you can adopt your very own Birkin for only $7,500 (to upwards of $40,000, depending on color and rarity), carefully wrapped and shipped personally by Michael Tonello.
But who, may you ask, is Michael Tonello, liberator of the Birkin bag? None other than the author of Bringing Home the Birkin (published by William Morrow, released April 22), a witty chronicle of Tonello’s globetrotting tales as an Hermès Birkin bag reseller. Tonello recounts his true-to-life success at cracking the code of the legendary Hermès two-year waiting list in order to get his hands on the world’s most exclusive and highly coveted handbag. For more than 20 years, the Hermès Birkin bag has been an iconic symbol of fashion, luxury, and wealth. “The Birkin bag was made specially for Jane Birkin,” explains Tonello. “She wore it everywhere and many people began to request the bag, and hence, the two-year waiting list.” Though the Birkin bag is routinely seen dangling from the wrists of oft-photographed celebrities, regular folks have a better chance of climbing Mount Everest in Prada pumps than having the privilege of purchasing one of these coveted carryalls.
Prior to his Birkin stint, Tonello was a beautician based in Massachusetts who specialized in makeup and hair for commercial photo shoots. When a business trip took him to Barcelona, it was love at first sight. The cold, gray winter of Cape Cod was becoming too much to bear. Tonello made the move to Spain, signed a five-year apartment lease, and set out to find an easy working gig-preferably one that didn’t require working papers.
“When I needed to pay my rent and I didn’t have enough money to do so, I started to sell items on eBay in little tiny dribs and drabs,” explains Tonello. “It was 50 degrees in November and December; I had all of these cashmere sweaters, but I didn’t need any in Spain. I sold a $99 scarf for $430. It sort of self-perpetuated itself-it was so easy, and so lucrative.”
Tonello parlayed the sale of one Hermès scarf into a five-year-long lucrative career as an Hermès reseller, selling Hermès wares via eBay to obsessed collectors with insatiable desires. In the process, Tonello uncovered more than a few secrets about the luxury handbag industry, each of which is recounted with witty repertoire in Tonello’s memoir. Though each and every one of Tonello’s transactions was perfectly legal, Hermès does not look fondly upon resellers and goes to great lengths to maintain the exclusivity of their brand and preserve the difficulty of buying a Birkin.
Tonello developed a “formula” that ensured he’d be able to buy a Birkin on each and every visit to an Hermès flagship store. In fact, his Oscar-worthy performances allowed him to snag even the supposedly “reserved” bags, kept aside for unnamed Hermès-worthy customers. In one year alone, he dropped $1.6 million at Hermès and was immensely successful in reselling these items on eBay and to his impressive roster of international clients.
But how does one profit off an already ludicrously overpriced bag? “The thing with the Birkin is that it’s a great investment,” explains Tonello. “On February 1, there was a 10 to 15 percent price increase. If you bought a Birkin five years ago and sold it now, people would still be willing to pay you more than you originally paid for it. In 1999, I paid 4,200 euros when the dollar was about even to the euro. Now the same bags are worth $9,000.”
But despite the inevitable periodical price jumps at Hermès, many customers are willing to pay over retail if it means they can get a handbag in a rare color or skin, or if they are guaranteed to have it in their hands by the end of the week instead of having to endure the two-year wait. “For rare and unusual colors-for example, pale pink, very pale cream, off-white crocodile-I paid around $34,000 and sold them in the early- to mid-$40,000 range,” says Tonello, earning him around $10,000 profit for a single bag.
So is Hermès worth the hype? “Hermès makes very, very fine products.
The majority of the bags are handmade,” says Tonello. “I bought two or three Hermès bags for myself in the past few years. I had the Hermès Haut á Courroie (50 cm), but I ended up selling it on eBay.
“To me, a Birkin is a tote bag,” he continues. “It’s great to carry on a flight, but it’s not a handbag that you can carry around every day. Jane Birkin got tendinitis from carrying it around and she designed it!”
With all of Tonello’s gallivanting throughout the world in search of Hermès, one would think he would be drowning in leather and crocodile wares, or at the very least, drowning in cash thanks to his markup. But Tonello divulges that he has sold almost every last piece of his covetable Hermès stash, only holding onto personal favorites such as a belt and the chino trousers. “They are easy to wear; I have them on right this second,” he says. “And I keep my Chaine d’Ancre bracelet as a keepsake.”
The lessons one can take from Tonello’s tales is that you can make a good living as a Birkin reseller…if you really work at it. “In a four-month span, I sold more than 130 Birkins,” he explains, “although I did spend tens of thousands of dollars at FedEx and my cell phone bills were always in the thousands. There are a lot of expenses. I’ve been to well over 100 Hermès stores around the world and had to pay for transportation, meals, hotels, and taxis. And of course, when you’re in a city, you want to experience it and eat great food and stay in the best hotels.”
Tonello’s business is nothing if not unique. He feels that his experience selling Birkin bags and Hermès merchandise has acted as Business 101 for him, while simultaneously bringing many unique and well-connected individuals into his life. “I think what’s really interesting is that I could never have done this 15 years ago because of [the lack of] eBay,” says Tonello. “I think what I did can act as a business model for any luxury brand. But I always recommend selling something you have interest in, because then you will be able to talk about it from your heart.”
If nothing else, the idea of hunting for Birkins in the world’s most posh locales is the ideal job opportunity for those who want to move to a new country without having to worry about visas, papers, and citizenship. In fact, a banker in Barcelona informed Tonello that Spain was thrilled to be the base for his business, as he was bringing international money into the country, albeit while still paying taxes in the U.S.
Tonello still resides in Barcelona with his three soul mates: his partner, Juan, and his two cats, Gala and Dali. “Since the Birkin bags, I have written children’s books about my two cats. There is also an option for a screenplay for Bringing Home the Birkin in the works; it’s three-quarters of the way completed, although Hollywood is so difficult to predict. Ideally, in a perfect world, Matt Damon or Johnny Depp would play me, and Diane Keaton or Kathy Bates would play my mom.”
So if you’d like to sponsor a beloved Birkin bag and bring one home today, you’ll have to master Tonello’s formula (hint: it involves Hermès employee profiling and a whole lot of coin). For a crash course, be sure to pick up his tome and learn the secrets to liberating the sought-after Birkin.