Why you should care
Because snobs sometimes do get their just rewards.
Every morning, a line forms outside the Hermès store at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris’ eighth arrondissement. Hot or cold, rain or shine, by the time the store opens at 10:30 a.m., the queue stretches around the block. Taya Strzygowsky, 22, who is visiting from Kazakhstan, has been in line since 7:35. “Did you see the fight?” she asks me excitedly. Apparently, when a girl who had been in line since 5 a.m. invited four people to join her, a row broke out between those queuing and store security. “People were revolted,” Taya says.
Tensions run high in the Hermès line. All those waiting are after the same thing: an elusive Hermès Kelly or Birkin bag. And among the shoppers every morning are impostors — people hired by black marketeers on a Parisian Craigslist to pose as wealthy consumers. I should know; I used to be one.
Your average woman can’t just walk into an Hermès store and purchase [a bag]. You’d have to have a long-standing relationship with one of their sales associates.
Nick Gilmartin, editor, Luxury Lifestyle Magazine
Simply called “shoppers,” the fake customers are paid a commission of €300 to €800 ($343 to $895) if they can get their hands on one of the famed handbags, which they hand over to their black-market employers. Those black-market dealers then resell the merchandise for double to triple the retail price, according to a reseller who asked for anonymity. Investopedia claims that the Birkin has the highest resale value of any couture product, and Baghunter says a Birkin bag has outperformed the S&P 500 and gold over the past 35 years, rising in value 14 percent annually. So, it’s no surprise that black-market Hermès companies have sprouted in Paris in recent years.
Given the sketchy nature of the business, data is hard to come by, but according to Forbes, the reselling market has expanded from eBay’s virtual monopoly in 2008 to today’s swarm of luxury resale sites such as The RealReal, Poshmark and Vestiaire Collective. Recently, some of these online marketplaces have generated serious financial backing — a total of $450 million over the past five years. In fact, ThredUP’s 2017 annual report found that resale distributors are growing 20 times faster than the broader retail market. Online consignment as a whole, estimates SnobSwap, is a $34 billion industry, with a projected yearly growth rate of 10 percent.
Most people who apply to work for black-market companies are students or recent arrivals to Paris desperate for work and cash. I was a poor master’s student when I braved the Hermès line in a pair of borrowed, too-small Louboutins. Owing to a French tax law that prohibits citizens from paying more than €1,000 cash for any retail purchase, shoppers must possess a foreign passport. Mine was American. Yet, for as dodgy as it all sounds, buying posh handbags for resale isn’t illegal.
And it sounds like easy money, right? But the bags are notoriously hard to buy. While other designer brands have become more widely available, Hermès has been able to control access to its bags so well that they are now badges of wealth. “Your average woman can’t just walk into an Hermès store and purchase one,” says Nick Gilmartin, editor of Luxury Lifestyle Magazine. “You’d have to have a long-standing relationship with one of their sales associates.” Hermès didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In France, with prices starting at about €7,000, consumers pretty much have to be as wealthy as the bags’ namesakes, Grace Kelly and Jane Birkin, to afford one. And rich buyers, even A-list celebrities, who have been rejected by Hermès’ selective staff are willing to pay a premium, which makes the Kelly and Birkin black market extremely lucrative. In June 2017 Christie’s sold one of Hermès’ rarest bags, the Swarovski-encrusted albino crocodile Birkin, for a reported $379,261, making it the most expensive bag ever auctioned. If shoppers can get their hands on a Himalayan crocodile Birkin, they stand to make as much as $20,000 in commission.
But buying a normal Kelly or Birkin is difficult enough, and so black-market companies subject their shoppers to a rigorous vetting process. When I tried my hand at shopping, I had to sign a simple contract and hand over an ID and proof of address before setting off with an envelope containing €8,000 in cash. Acting nonchalant, dressing head-to-toe in designer gear (often borrowed) and accepting the vendor’s offer of Champagne are among the most important rules to remember. Most of the time, though, it all comes down to luck. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to groom a shopper, because getting a bag depends almost entirely on the sales associate’s opinion,” says a black-market reseller who prefers to remain anonymous. “The goal is to either have a good connection with your SA or at least convince him or her that you’re ‘deserving’ of the bag.”
Shoppers often have to go back three or four times before they are led to the luxurious VIP viewing salon, where clients sit on velvet couches, sip Champagne and try on their bags. Many of them are never offered the goods. According to black-market sellers, many factors can influence a sales associate’s opinion of a shopper — including race, gender and age.
Back at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, other queuers are beginning to eye me warily. When I ask Taya why she is devoting two and a half hours of her vacation to standing in line for a bag she may not be allowed to buy, she smiles and explains that a Birkin bag is like a right of passage. “It shows people you are successful without having to say it … like a sign language.” As I walk away, I wonder which people in line, including Taya, are real customers and which ones are shoppers. But it’s impossible to tell.