The most coveted Birkin bags, sold by luxury French retailer Hermès, cost more than most Americans make in a year. Selling at retail for well over $100,000 a pop, at least for certain versions, the Birkin bag and the wait lists for acquiring one represent what you cannot have — maybe even if you are rich.
Some of the bags are also made of crocodile skin. And as it turns out, only recently has Jane Birkin, the British actress and singer whose name adorns the ultra-luxury handbag line, come to realize the horrifying truth about how her eponymous bags are made.
What does it take to create one, polished handbag? According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, it requires the belly skin of three young crocodiles who have been slaughtered in a factory where they lived their short, aimless lives until the moments of their deaths.
Last month, the organization released an investigation featuring undercover video recorded at a crocodile factory in Zimbabwe, where PETA says Hermès sources some of its crocodile skin. A second farm in Texas that supplied crocodile skin for watchbands was also shown in the video.
“Having been alerted to the cruel practices endured by crocodiles during their slaughter for the production of Hermès bags carrying my name, I have asked Hermès Group to rename the Birkin until better practices responding to international norms can be implemented for the production of this bag,” Birkin told Agence France Presse.
In PETA’s video, the animals are seen slaughtered on a table, first by workers shoving knives into their spines to kill them. Once dead, the crocodiles can be skinned.
“They’re always twitching on the table,” the Zimbabwe factory’s director of operations says in the video.
A worker later explains that they now electrically stun the animals before killing them. The earlier practice produced too much “pandemonium,” the director said.
At the Texas facility, PETA shows workers using a captive bolt gun to shoot the animals in the head, killing them before nerves in the skin are severed with a box cutter. You can watch the video here, but be sure to hold on to your lunch.
According to Hermès, the Texas facility isn’t the source of crocodile skins for its Birkin bags.
“Hermes respects and shares [Jane Birkin’s] emotions and was also shocked by the images recently broadcast,” the French company said in a statement, according to AFP. “Her comments do not in any way influence the friendship and confidence that we have shared for so many years.”
The company said it would investigate the farm’s practices and “any breach of rules will be rectified and sanctioned,” according to AFP.
Hermès declared that it holds its suppliers to the “highest standards in the ethical treatment of crocodiles,” adding in its statement:
For more than 10 years, we have organised monthly visits to our suppliers. We control their practices and their conformity with slaughter standards established by veterinary experts and by the Fish and Wildlife Service (a federal American organisation for the protection of nature) and with the rules established under the aegis of the UNO, by the Washington Convention of 1973 which defines the protection of endangered species.
For years, PETA has raised alarm about the slaughter of crocodiles, which are “fascinating and intelligent” animals, for the fashion industry.
“Birkin bags once marked people as celebrities – or at least members of the super-rich – but soon, no one will want to be caught dead carrying one,” PETA said in a statement. “On behalf of all kind souls in the world, we thank Ms. Birkin for ending her association with Hermès, and we call on Hermès to do the right thing and stop plundering wildlife, factory-farming crocodiles and alligators and slaughtering them for their skins.”
The Hermès bags have been named after Birkin since the 1980s, after the actress struck up a friendship with Jean-Louis Dumas, the former, longtime head of the Hermès Group.
Recently, a Birkin bag sold for more than $220,000 in a Hong Kong auction.