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Unboxing magic: designer handbag purchases transformed into performance art

The YouTube video begins with a pleasant story about going on holiday to Madrid. The narrator, a woman with a lilting British accent, does not whet listeners’ appetite with her memories of plates heaped with paella or paint a verbal picture of the city’s geography. Instead, the only thing filling the screen is an oversize white Prada shopping bag with its matching rope handles tied together with a silky white ribbon printed with the luxury brand’s moniker. All of these details are important because this is a video that is all about the details. Tedious. Precious. Beloved. The video, practically pornographic in its extreme close-up voyeurism, is produced by a Londoner named Eleasha Ajadi. It is a celebration of fashion, a paean to consumerism, a dream come true. Here, in the cultural swamp of YouTube, the experience of buying a $2,600 handbag is lovingly celebrated in six minutes and two seconds.

This is an unboxing video. And it is precisely what it sounds like. A much anticipated purchase is removed from its packaging. It is inspected, admired and discussed in a lengthy Consumer Reports sort of monologue. Born within the ranks of geeked out techies ripping open the latest Apple devices and soon embraced by sneakerheads and toy aficionados, unboxing videos have also become an enthusiasm among the devoted consumers of Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

Youtube users record themselves unboxing designer bags. This year, 316,000 unboxing videos on Youtube racked up 2.6 billion views. (Video: The Washington Post)

They have become a mainstay of YouTube. And during the holiday season, their popularity spikes and the thrill of the reveal ripples through the heart of millions of fashion’s most enthusiastic, aspiring consumers.

The genre is “a monster,” says Dave Rosner, senior vice-president of marketing of ZEFR, a technology firm that analyzes YouTube content. This year, 316,000 unboxing videos on Youtube racked up 2.6 billion views. (In comparison, the ALS ice bucket challenge sparked 245,000 videos that attracted 1.4 billion views.)

To date, more than 8.3 million people have turned in to the 1,600 or so videos featuring premium merchandise, according to ZEFR. The brands featured most often are international, and the trend appears to be too.

Emilie Clarke unboxed a Chanel jumbo flap handbag in beige caviar leather. Viewers do not see Clarke’s face in the video; folks only hear her voice. Occasionally, one hears her husband’s, too — sweet soul that he is — who is serving as her cameraman.

The eyes follow her fingers, with their berry-colored manicure, as they dance across the surface of the box. She discusses its significant heft, the beauty of the white artificial camellia that adorned the top and the fact that the tape holding the tissue paper lining together was printed with the Chanel name.

The camera zooms in as Clarke pulls out the little white envelope containing her receipt – an unboxing ritual to verify that this was indeed an authentic purchase from an actual Chanel counter and not a used bag from eBay.

The dust cover is described. The virtues of the double-flap style over the single flap are assessed. Clarke shares that the bag’s chain shoulder strap might damage the leather if stored improperly. And then, the bag is admired like a piece of sculpture handcrafted by Degas.

This seems like a good moment to pause and address the question. The obvious question:  Why? Why would anyone bother to create and upload a video of herself unpacking a handbag and more importantly why would anyone spend time watching it? The reasons are both practical and existential. They speak to a desire to brag, a need to know and an enduring belief in the power of fashion’s magic.

“I like to be someone’s source,” explains Clarke, 27. “Before I buy anything, I see if there’s a video on YouTube. I love watching that stuff.”

She began contributing to the YouTube information pot a couple years ago after purchasing a Louis Vuitton Speedy handbag. Clarke does not rehearse what she is going to say, but she is adept at extemporaneous commentary because she is, by trade, a disc jockey for a local radio station in Vancouver, where she was born. “I try to keep [the video] so that it is what it is. If you’re going to fumble pulling the box out of the bag, you should show that. I remember watching girls [in other videos] struggle to open that double flap and I did too.” Dear shopper, this is important information for Chanel consumer.

Authenticity is the key to any successful video, Clarke believes, and even more so for unboxing ones.

As with all things online, there are unboxing videos populated by characters whose flamboyant charade is a thinly veiled audition for their own reality show. The comments under those videos read like verbal hand grenades launched to do maximum psychic damage. But there are other videos in which the enthusiasm is palpable. Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday all rolled into one happy dance. “Enjoy!” “God bless,” read the comments.

There is a community of unboxers. Having gotten the handbag they have coveted, they share it with a duly appreciative audience. They exchange money-saving tips. Meet-up to go shopping. “It’s nice to get feedback from people who have a genuine passion about [designer handbags]. My friends don’t really care about designer goods. They just think I’m high maintenance,” says Ajadi, 28, with a laugh.

Ajadi was born and raised in London where she still lives. She works in digital marketing and blogs as Duchess of Fashion. Her first unboxing video was of her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 handbag during which she mused to viewers, “Can you believe I don’t own a Louis Vuitton bag?” No, her subscribers could not. (Louis Vuitton declined to comment on its bags being the subject of such loving analysis.)

Ajadi purchased her Prada Saffiano tote in Terminal Five at London’s Heathrow Airport in order to save on the VAT — a tip she picked up from someone else’s unboxing video. She explains the British Airways sticker, “I couldn’t check it in because it’s a delicate piece. I took it with me as hand luggage.” The acquisition of the bag reaches its denouement when it is finally pulled from its dust cover without a drum roll but with the equivalent of a breathless “ta-da.”

Luxury brands typically package their products with such reverence that opening them practically demands an audience. The boxes are so substantial they could serve as small tuffets. They are not the sort that unfold and require the insertion of tab A into slot B. The handbags are slipped inside thick, cotton dust jackets, which are swaddled in sheaths of tissue paper. The accompanying literature, with artful photography detailing the mythology of the bag’s construction, is printed on heavy stock. The box itself is be-ribboned even when it is not a gift. And the shopping bag is embossed with the brand’s name. The packaging is part of the luxury experience, the equivalent of the amuse-bouche before a gourmet meal – and we Instagram those ad nauseum.

If no one else bears witness to this opulence, is its value diminished? Perhaps. The public unboxing is a declaration. “It’s kind of like a statement: I haven’t bought mine second hand from eBay or I haven’t had it lying around my house,” says Ajadi, who, like other unboxers in this story, has never been contacted by representatives from any of her beloved brands. The bag is new. Enviable. Mine.

As a matter of research, luxury executives will sometimes quietly – anonymously — use the unboxing videos to note whether sales staff are doing justice by the brand — not skimping on the ribbons, including all the glossy literature, making the purchasing experience feel special. The videos are a window onto the exact part of the shopping experience that gets people most excited, Rosner says. “This is not like putting people in a focus group,” Rosner says. “The level of honesty is a whole new platform.”

Brands are alternately flattered by the videos and bemused by them. After all, the videos can add to a brand’s mystique as buyers swoon on camera. Or they can demystify it, as shoppers get down to the topic of dollars and cents.

On the subject of money. If you must ask the price …

“Hermes, Chanel, they like to be really exclusive and not mention the prices,” Ajadi says. “They like to keep things hush, hush.”

If curious shoppers browse the Hermes Web site, they will not find the famed Kelly or Birkin bags. They can find used Birkins for sale on eBay or 1st Dibs. But how much, exactly, is a new one? On the YouTube channel of TheLuxeBabe, one can watch videos starring a tall, elegant black woman with roots in Jamaica but who lives in Germany who began dabbling in YouTube to stay in touch with her sister who lives in New York. TheLuxeBabe works in fashion and for that reason will only offer “Yolanda” as her real name so as not to mingle her professional life with her private one. The unboxing of her Hermes Birkin has accumulated more than 48,000 views.

“A lot of people have this fear of going into the store and asking the questions,” she says. “I try to get back to them about the bags, about the prices.”

TheLuxeBabe shares that she paid 7,100 euro for her blue Birkin, which works out to approximately $8,100. There is a waiting list for a Birkin and it took two years for hers to arrive.

These unboxers are not bag hoarders. They do not have walk-in closets overflowing with thousands of designer handbags. These purchases remain rare enough that they must be savored. Ajadi estimates that she probably has seven bags. Clarke thinks she has five or six. “It takes a while to accumulate cash to buy a bag,” says Clarke, who spent a little more than $5,000 for her Chanel bag.

In the rarified domain of luxury unboxing, Chanel is the most fetishized brand of all, representing 23 percent of luxury unboxings videos, according to ZEFR. (The Paris-based design house had no comment on its unboxing dominance.) It is followed by Gucci (13 percent), Hermes (9 percent) and Louis Vuitton (8 percent). Prada is featured in seven percent of videos.

“I grew up so poor. So very, very poor. Sometimes there was not enough money for food,” says Trina Leavers, 53.  “In movies, sometimes you’d spot [a Chanel bag], it was something that shows you’ve made it or that you’re a lady. It’s very classic.”

Leavers was born in the East End of London and alternately moved between Sydney, Australia and England – first with her parents and later with her husband. She left school at 12 to work in her family’s sandwich shop. But over the years, she and her husband invested in real estate. They made money. Lots of money. When she was 38, she bought her first designer handbag – a Louis Vuitton.

“When I was 17, I saw a movie and Cheryl Ladd gets off a train with a whole set of Louis Vuitton luggage. I thought, one day, God willing, I’ll have that,” Leavers says.

Now, the resident of Sussex, indulges in Chanel. “Friends of mine might spend thousands pounds on overseas holidays and I’m happy for them,” Leavers says. “This is where I choose to spend my money. I don’t like to take overseas holidays because I don’t like to fly. I like nice handbags.”

For a while, Leavers got a bit carried away. She bought four Hermes bags. They were too much. Not her style. She nearly got mugged.  She sold them. She’s so loyal to Chanel now that the sales staff at London’s Bond Street store – who know about her videos — invited her to a fashion show there. “It was amazing,” Leavers says. “I felt like I belonged with the crowd.”

“My family means the world to me. And I’d never go into debt over a bag,” Leavers says. “But whatever brings you joy, as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to entertain that.”

So after a satisfying shopping trip, she puts her little Canon digital camera on a tripod and unboxes. An enormous smile spreads across her face. Sometimes, she is so excited she does a little dance. Thousands of people share in her thrill. And she revels in theirs. Says Leavers: “I get great joy out of watching other people be happy.”