The Hermès Birkin bag is the stuff of fashion legend. While its price starts in the high four figures, its appeal lies in its expert craftsmanship and its trend-proof classic status. Studies have shown it’s a better investment than gold (one fetched a record $380,000 at auction in 2017), and they’re meant to last. A Birkin is not a bag you buy to wear once and then hoard in your closet, even if you’re, say, the noted clotheshorse Kim Kardashian West.
So the media’s reaction to Kardashian West’s decision to put one of her particularly infamous custom Birkin bags back in rotation has been a bit of a shock. Following her husband’s Yeezy show during Paris Fashion Week, Kardashian West was spotted with a Birkin that hadn’t been seen in public in six years. Almost immediately, the paparazzi documented its return, and the media took note. “Kim Kardashian reuses intense hand-painted Hermès Birkin bag,” Metro rejoiced, noting that Kanye West gave her the bag “seven whole years ago.” Hailing its return from the dead, Vogue called it “refreshing” to see Kardashian West “revive” the caryall.
But no one seems to have been as astonished by Kardashian West’s choice of handbag as the Daily Mail, which went with a headline that began “Kim Kardashian recycles.” To be fair, the fact that Kardashian West has more than 30 different versions of the coveted bag does seem to suggest that they’re single use to her. But covering someone using the same classic bag twice as a novel news story doesn’t exactly promote healthy attitudes about sustainable fashion. It’s akin to pointing out that someone was spotted driving the same car twice.
Still, the Birkin that West gave Kardashian for Christmas in 2013 stands apart. It was customized and hand-painted by the acclaimed artist George Condo, as Kardashian West took care to inform her followers the day after the holiday. Naturally, the hashtag-laden post—“#HandPaintedGeorgeCondo #HermesBirkin #OneofOne #ChristmasPresentFromYeezy”—prompted a response. Comments ranged from “a true original and work of art by a modern master” to “I guess her mother never told her about the starving children in Africa…truly unbelievable waste.”
In an interview with W in 2014, Condo recalled getting a phone call from West: “ ‘I really want to give Kim something for Christmas. She has a huge collection of Birkin bags. Maybe you can paint one,’ ” Condo said West had told him. The commission came in the same month as Christmas, but the short notice clearly wasn’t an issue for Condo; it took him all of 15 minutes to paint the bag, which he covered with four naked figures, one of which resembled a very angry green monster.
As far as celebrity Birkins go, it’s actually relatively low-key; Paris Hilton proudly owns a custom pink version covered in tens of thousands of Swarovski crystals—“it blings so hardcore,” she once boasted to W—and Mohamed Hadid has a python one emblazoned with a painting of Bella’s “magical eye.” Still, Condo was certain that his would cause a stir. “Kanye and I both knew immediately that people who knew our collaboration would think it was fun, but that Kim’s fan base would go berserk,” he said. “The whole point was to take an icon of consumerism and change it, which is like blasphemy. ‘You can’t do this!’ It short-circuits people’s concept of what’s untouchable, which is why it was fun to do.”
Kardashian West, Condo continued, was key to the bag’s impact. “If I had just done it and put it in my closet, it wouldn’t mean a thing,” he said. “But when you stick that bag in the hands of Kim Kardashian, well, then you create a whole different atmosphere. It’s about context.”
Still, in the context of the fashion industry’s mounting obsession with sustainability, it’s maybe not the best idea to paint someone using the same priceless bag twice as “recycling.”