As 60s icon and inspiration for the world’s most expensive handbag Jane Birkin has been effectively banned from China due to her human rights activism, the legendary Hermès bag named after her has also received some unwanted attention in Chinese media.
After being denied a visa to China last week, the British actress and singer had to cancel a planned concert with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in honor of Serge Gainsbourg. Although Chinese officials provided no official reason, AFP cited an unnamed source stating that the visa denial was related to her human rights activism. Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times followed this by running a Chinese-language article on the visa denial mentioning her participation in the 2008 protests against China’s policies in Tibet during the Olympics torch relay in Paris.
Global Times also manages to drag her namesake bag into the controversy, noting that in the same year as the protests, she also showed up carrying a Birkin bag with the Tibetan flag sewn on the side to an event at the Élysée Palace in which French President Nicholas Sarkozy and NGO representatives were in attendance.
As the most coveted handbag in the world, the Birkin has an especially exalted position in China. It’s the only handbag that’s known to consistently appreciate in value after being purchased, and its price has been skyrocketing in recent years thanks in large part to China’s luxury market. In the last two years, two global Birkin price records have been set in a row at Christie’s newly established Hong Kong handbag auction. The most recent record occurred last month, with the sale of a diamond-encrusted crocodile Birkin for $300,168—setting an all-time high price not just for Birkins, but for all handbags worldwide.
Meanwhile, Jane Birkin has often seen the bag as a platform for political messages rather than an investment piece. She has also adorned her bag with messages in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, and has sparred with Hermès in the past over accusations of mistreatment of crocodiles killed for the bags’ leather. In 2015, she demanded that the bag no longer be named after her until Hermès took measures to improve conditions for the crocodiles that she deemed satisfactory.
As a de facto ambassador for the handbag—the story goes that Birkin helped design it on an airplane next to Hermès’ CEO—her outspokenness on human rights issues could make the leading luxury label a target for the Chinese government’s wrath. The Chinese media has been known to attack brands directly based on the political stances of celebrities they’re associated with, even if the brand itself tries to remain neutral. In June, Lancôme learned this the hard way when Global Times sparked controversy over its brand ambassador Denise Ho’s participation in the Occupy Central protests, prompting the beauty brand to cancel a sponsored Hong Kong concert by her.
But for Hermès and other brands, the most important factor is not what the government thinks about them, but the Chinese consumers’ willingness to spend on their goods. From the massive prices being commanded by Birkins in recent years, Jane Birkin’s political views certainly haven’t dampened Chinese consumers’ love for the ultimate “it bag” so far.