SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - The elusive Birkin bag made by Hermes is so sought after as a status symbol by women worldwide that the French fashion house has a two year waiting list for potential owners -- or does it?
Michael Tonello, a beautician turned fashion buyer, says he devised a system to bypass the much-talked about list and spent five years traveling between different Hermes stores to snap up Birkin bags to meet -- and profit from -- this pent-up demand.
Initially he sold them online but then began selling them at a handsome mark-up to wealthy private clients who didn't want to wait two years, with people aware that Hermes handbags are one of the few brands that hold or increase in value over time.
Tonello said cracking the code let him to buy hundreds of Birkin bags and he is now adamant that the waiting list is just a fantastic marketing ploy. So what was his trick?
"I would go into a store with a list in my Hermes Ulysse notebook and pile up scarves, shawls, bracelets, worth about $2,000. This made me seem a regular Hermes client," Tonello told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Once I had that pile ready to buy at the last moment I'd ask for a Birkin and they would usually produce one of the back room. In 2005 I bought 130 Birkins in a three-month period -- and you tell me there is a waiting list?"
Tonello, who wrote the book "Bringing Home the Birkin," released this month, about his Birkin adventures, said he has receipts to back his story.
A spokeswoman for Hermes in Australia, Nicole Morgan, said the company was making no official comment on Tonello's book.
She said managing requests for handbags, all of which are handmade in Paris, was part of their customer service.
DEALING BAGS LIKE DRUGS
Tonello said there was no other bag with the same allure as the Birkin so it made sense that Hermes would want to retain the mystery of its list and sense of the bag's scarcity.
"The bag has become the iconic 'it' bag, the symbol of ultimate luxury, because of its inaccessibility to the general public. People really want what they can't have," said Tonello, an American who lives in Barcelona.
"But I'd travel to different countries, walk into Hermes, use my formula, and get a bag, and return home with six or seven Birkins several times a month. It's odd to say there is a list when I could walk in and out of nine out 10 stores with a bag."
The elusiveness of the Birkin has ensured it has remained one of the world's most coveted bags since Hermes named it after British actress Jane Birkin in 1984, with prices starting at about $9,000 and rising to about $34,000 for a crocodile skin bag.
Birkins are regularly spotted on the wrists of glamorous celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham, Katie Holmes, and "Desperate Housewives" actress Eva Longoria.
But Tonello said he began to feel like a drug dealer after a while spent Birkin trading.
"I kept notes on which stores I went in, when and what I bought, and I wouldn't repeat a store for six months," he said.
"In the store in Paris I went in maybe once too often and they checked the computer and discovered how many bags I had bought. They sent me a fax saying essentially they would no longer sell me any bags."
He has now given up trading bags -- and doesn't miss it.
"I don't like the bag. In all honesty I don't think it is very practical as it's time-consuming to get in and out of and the bag is rather heavy, even empty," he said.
(Editing by Sophie Hardach)