Paper or plastic? Somehow we manage that decision quickly, almost reflexively. But Kelly or Birkin? That is a far more serious matter, and not just because it involves three or four zeroes. Choosing between these two iconic bags is far more complicated.
While both styles exude money (old, new, discreet, flashy), each signals to the world, or at least to an international pack of fashion hounds, a very different aesthetic and vibe.
"The Kelly is a touch more formal, a little more appropriate for an evening out, a business dinner, as a more refined look. The Birkin is more sporty, more casual. Often people use it as a briefcase, throw in a change of shoes," says Trina Sams-Manning, manager of the Hermes shop in Fairfax Square, which recently reopened after a major facelift.
Inga Guen, who sells gently used Kellys and Birkins at Inga's Once Is Not Enough, a high-end consignment shop in Northwest Washington, is even more emphatic about the difference. "A woman who is going to wear the Kelly is of very erect stature, she comes from money, very good background, is extraordinarily educated, and life to her is one where she will be very inconspicuous," says Guen, an avid Kelly carrier. She cuts a bit of slack for the Birkin femme, who "wears Manolo mules, a pair of jeans, a little Chanel jacket. She is the younger woman."
Both bags have made their marks on the cultural landscape. In "Le Divorce," a red crocodile Kelly was a sure sign that young Isabel was having having an affair with someone rich enough to buy her this five-figure confection.
The Birkin became an intense object of desire on "Sex and the City," when Kim Cattrall's Samantha told Hermes she needed one instantly for a client. Yes, it was a big fat lie, but morally defensible in social circles where owning a bag that can cost as much as a car is, like, truly, seriously important.
Conversely, a Birkin may have worked against Martha Stewart, who schlepped her well-worn Hermes to court during her 2004 insider trading trial, to the derision of critics who thought the super-expensive bag might not play well with a middle-class jury.
For the uninitiated, these bags, which start at about $7,000 and can top $25,000 depending on hide and hue, are named for a duo of beautiful actresses.
Philadelphia-born Grace Kelly -- so blonde, so patrician -- had been wed less than a year to Prince Rainier of Monaco when she deftly obscured her royal pregnancy with a structured, crocodile Hermes purse on a 1956 Life magazine cover. Created in 1892 as a large saddle carrier -- the French fashion house started out as a saddlemaker -- the bag was downsized for daywear in the 1930s. But after its moment in Life, it was dedicated to Her Serene Highness, and, as legends often do, lives on after her.
By contrast, it was during a 1981 airplane flight that the effluvia in British-born actress-singer Jane Birkin's overstuffed purse spilled in the vicinity of Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes. Three years later, the venerable firm introduced a bag for Birkin's more bohemian lifestyle based on an 1892 design. In a splendid bit of irony, Birkin recently confessed she barely used hers because it had proved hazardous to her health.
"I told Hermes they were mad to make it. My one was always full, and it ended up giving me tendinitis," she told the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in March.
Like the Kelly, the Birkin is crafted entirely by hand by a single artisan from start to finish, and embellished with a petite padlock, keys and gleaming hardware made of white or yellow gold.
Why, exactly, are they so expensive, so obsessively coveted?
For starters, they are beautifully made. ... The bottom is built of three layers of leather. A single artisan can spend up to 25 hours painstakingly constructing a Kelly or Birkin.
And oh, the hides: silky smooth or pebbly textured calfskin; exotic lizard, crocodile and ostrich, in colors that span the spectrum. The immutable laws of supply, demand and merchandising are also at work here. Make something fabulous, in fabulously limited quantities, and people will clamor to own it. At Hermes in Fairfax -- where just a handful of objects cost under $150, such as those itty-bitty leather holders for Post-it notes -- 200 people fervently await the arrival 60 Birkins in any given season, said manager Sams-Manning. Their names are entered onto what she calls "a wish list."
Such controlled scarcity explains why the resale market is so strong.
Two years ago, an anonymous Midwesterner put 11 Hermes bags on the auction block at Doyle New York, including a 2002 black crocodile Birkin she had customized with 484 small diamonds set in the white-gold hardware. The presale estimate was $25,000 to $35,000, but when the hammer fell, the winning bidder ponied up $64,250.
"It was bought ostensibly by a gentleman for his wife," said Clare Watson, Doyle's director of couture, noting that the victor outbid another deep-pocketed chap.
In April, Inga Guen sold one consignment client a taupe ostrich Kelly for $6,000 and told another that the Birkin she'd just bought on eBay was a fake. Taped to the top of the desk in her cluttered office is the small tipsheet Guen penned to help patrons avoid getting scammed: The stitching "is diagonal /////// not horizontal -------." Or as she later explained, "the stitching goes always uphill."
So, apparently, does the satisfaction level among chic women who may save for years to buy one. "I treated myself to a Birkin when I was still working, before my first child was born," said one fashionista, seeking anonymity "because my husband has no idea how much it cost."
The very luckiest women get them the old-fashioned way; well, actually, the second-oldest old-fashioned way -- as a family legacy.
"I think I have about six or seven," said Veronique Danforth, public information service coordinator at the World Bank. "I am French, so I have been raised with those bags around me. I got my first one when I was 17. Some are 40 years old and look as if they were bought yesterday."