New York City
"We went to Paris on a wintry day," begins Barbara Taylor Bradford. This is not a story about one of her romantic heroines but about a love of her own: her first Hermès bag.
Some people collect stamps, rocks, fountain pens or antique cars. Mrs. Bradford, a bestselling novelist, has 24 Hermès handbags in her closet.
All bought by her husband of 48 years, the bags represent significant events and intimate celebrations. Her oldest is a black leather Kelly dating from her 1964 honeymoon in Paris. The most recent is an orange Kelly purchased for Christmas 2010 in New York by that same husband, film producer Bob Bradford. "All of my handbags tell the story of my marriage," she says.
If there is just one sour note in the tale, it is the fact that there is one Hermès bag that the Bradfords haven't managed to obtain: a Birkin.
For many collectors, the difficulties of obtaining some Hermès bags have only added to their mystique. Hermès bags are a particularly feminine obsession, but purchasing one offers the sense of achievement and excellence sought by many other connoisseurs. A simple Kelly bag in fine broad-grain leather can cost $8,300, and prices can easily rise to five or even six figures, depending on the design, size and materials.
Kelly and Birkin bags, produced in limited quantities by artisans in France, have their own mythology. The Kelly is the most complex Hermès bag to make, and one can take several days to produce, the company says.
Shoppers can't get Birkins just by walking into a store. The company says a shopper might get a Birkin by requesting it, giving contact information, and waiting until one is available. (There is not a formal waiting list, as is popularly believed.) Some people, however, spend years waiting, while others seem to get Birkins quickly.
The company is aware that it has many "passionate" clients, says spokesman Peter Malachi. Hermès doesn't track its collectors, though individual Hermès boutiques may offer good clients an inside track on the latest bag or another item.
The company's scarves, made in Lyons, France, in constantly renewed patterns, may be one of fashion's most collected products. Scarves, which start at around $325, are more affordable than bags. But Hermès says it doesn't manufacture products specifically for collectors.
Mrs. Bradford's collection began because she loved actress Grace Kelly, who carried a bag that was designed by Hermès in the 1930s and became known as the Kelly bag in the 1950s. "I always thought Grace Kelly was so beautiful and so elegant," says Mrs. Bradford, who carries her bags with an Hermès scarf tied on the handle, "the French way."
Her husband bought each bag (often with her collaboration) to celebrate something, such as the completion of a novel (an Evelyne) or a birthday (a green crocodile bag purchased in Cannes). "She's a very classy dame," Mr. Bradford says. "I love her to be elegant."
Some people have several dozen Hermès bags. But Mrs. Bradford's collection stands out because she has been acquiring them for so long. Collections dating from before the 1980s "are few and far between," says Tina Craig, co-founder of the BagSnob blog.
Mrs. Bradford's closet is just off her mauve-and-pale-blue bedroom, whose walls are covered in silk. On the bed, a pillow wishes, "Sweet Dreams" under a sweep of silk drapery. Her 16-year-old Bichon Frisé, Chammi, pads around the bedroom.
Mrs. Bradford has four honorary doctorates, and in 2007 was appointed to the Order of the British Empire. That earned her an audience with Queen Elizabeth as well as her own family crest, which is displayed in her robin-egg-blue sitting room. Her 27 books have sold more than 85 million copies globally.
But none of that helped when she hoped to celebrate submitting her 2009 novel "Breaking the Rules" with a Birkin. An Hermès salesperson said she would have to put her name on a waiting list, says Mr. Bradford, who was upset about it. "After all these years?" he asks.
The Bradfords failed to snare a Birkin again last year in Paris, when they spied a blue one in the window of the Ave. Georges Cinq store. "The woman came back and said it's not for sale," says Mrs. Bradford. Her husband bought her a scarf and bracelet instead.
Hermès says that the bag was part of a window decoration made with items that were never for sale.
Mrs. Bradford doesn't want to put down her name for a bag. "That's so shallow to put yourself on a list for a bag," she says, adding that it isn't in her character to become so obsessed with a handbag.
She does own a fake Birkin, given to her by a friend. "I never use it, but I can't get rid of it because she's in my house all the time," she says. "I feel like it's stealing intellectual property."
It isn't clear what Mrs. Bradford would need to do to obtain a Birkin. Michael Tonello, whose memoir "Bringing Home the Birkin" detailed his methods for buying and reselling the bags, says Hermès doles out Birkins based on how much people spend in their stores. "There's plenty of bags in the back room," he says.
Hermès says the bag shortage is real, adding that it can't make enough to meet the demand. "I'm aware that you've read that book," Mr. Malachi said when asked.
Last month, Mrs. Bradford submitted the manuscript for her 28th novel, "Secrets From the Past." The book will be published early next year, but she says that for now, she has lost interest in getting a Birkin.
Her husband agrees. "I'm not going to go on that list. I'm too good a customer," he says.
Write to Christina Binkley at email@example.com