My interest in Hermès and their ability to create such sumptuous items, whether it be a scarf, a bracelet, or a bag, sparked my interest in these two books. So of course I promptly added them to my already significant book collection! One is the story of an ambitious entrepreneur who discovered the secret to buying the exquisite Hermès Birkin bag and then reselling it on ebay. Over and over and over again. The other is the story of how two perfumes came to the marketplace, one being a celebrity perfume by Sarah Jessica Parker and one from (but of course!) the famous French design house of Hermès. These books, while very different, were a great way to get an insider’s look at Hermès, and I enjoyed them quite a bit.
First, “Bringing Home the Birkin” by Michael Tonello
This was an easy, breezy read, perfect to take along on vacation and written in a lighthearted tone. Micheal, a native of New England, finds himself in Barcelona, Spain (lovingly referred to as “Barcy” throughout the book) with zero prospects for immediate employment. In desperation, he lists some of his belongings on ebay, and they sell almost immediately. After that, thinking it must have been a fluke, he does it again. One of his items happened to be an Hermès silk scarf. He went to the local store and bought out their entire inventory. He listed it on ebay, and again, they sold like hotcakes. At this point, Michael realizes he’s on to something. He goes all in and makes his living as an ebay reseller. His highest profit margins are from the coveted Birkin, so that becomes his specialty.
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So many Birkins…..
The big secret of this book is how he is able to obtain so many amazing Birkins. After all, if you simply go into a store and ask, they are not available. And yet celebrities and royalty and the very wealthy have them. This is what led to the belief that there must be some sort of waiting list for the rest of us. Alas, no. Hermès is just very, very good at creating demand for their exquisite luxury products.
So how did Michael, who is not royal, a celebrity, or wealthy, obtain these amazing bags? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but honestly, kudos to Michael to beating Hermès at their own game of snobbery and elitism. Michael is an openly gay man, with flair and style in spades, and while not himself wealthy, he had clearly moved in those circles during his life. I laughed aloud numerous times at his sarcastic observations about people, art, decor, and money. He has tremendous insight into people’s motivations. The funniest part of the book for me was his stunningly accurate portrayals of various Hermès employee types, and how to get them to give you what you want.
Michael learns a lot as he embarks on his reselling adventures, but I was saddened by the reason he finally gave up his Birkin Boy title. Again, I don’t want to spoil the book for you. But there’s a good lesson in the book for all of us.
My two cents: A lark of a book – a boy on an adventure in Europe, laugh-out-loud funny in parts, filled with larger than life characters, insider info about companies, crime (theft and bribery), and life among the wealthy elite. This book was a lot of fun!
Next, “The Perfect Scent” by Chandler Burr
This was not a quick read, and not very lighthearted. This is a scientist’s book on the inner working of the perfume industry, and how it interacts with fashion and marketing as a whole. It took me some time to get through, but overall, the book offers some incredibly fascinating insights. My hat is off to Chandler (I feel very close to him after reading this book, that’s why I can call him by his first name) for the incredible research and time he must have spent writing this book.
I came away from this book with two real messages:
1) Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) is unusual among celebrities because she was heavily involved in the making and marketing of her perfume, and
2) the marketing of perfume drives and in many ways, stifles the true creativity necessary for developing a new fragrance.
I learned lots of other things, including how Hermès cultivates and is fiercely protective of its brand, how most scents are synthetic, how long it takes from idea conception to market, and how few perfumes will have real staying power (which again, is market-driven). True confession: I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to perfume, and this book shattered lots of illusions for me. Although I might be sad now, but I’m at least more informed.
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I have always been suspect of celebrity perfumes, they never seemed as “pure” to me. I figured celebrities were trying to make a buck off their name recognition, and I wasn’t interested in participating. It looks like, in most cases, I’m correct. Chandler makes it a point to say frequently that it’s somehow different with SJP. I did find her quite likable throughout the book. In his portrayal, she comes across as hard-working and sincere. And her story, of the original perfume she had conceived of in her head, and how they all came to realize it simply would not work, was the more interesting story of the two.
Perfume inspired by the Nile
Although I found the Hermès story interesting with Jean-Claude Ellena and their trip to the Nile, it was more rote. Mr. Ellena (he’s French, they are so formal, I don’t feel like I’m on a first-name basis with him) was an individual doing his job. While it was interesting exploring his professional career, SJP was a more compelling character. She was doing something for the first time, and in a non-standard way. It made for a better story. With the Hermès perfume created by Jean-Claude Ellena, I found all the marketing and storytelling created by the company kind of off-putting. I’m in agreement with Chandler that perhaps all this mystery and illusion does a disservice to the product.
My two cents: Strips away all the illusion, both good and bad. Fascinating, with insider intel that will change how you see perfume.