The insider: Matthew Rubinger sheds light on the highly coveted handbag industry

The Christie’s expert talks about designer handbags as investment items, a collector category that's still dominated by the Hermès Birkin.

Matthew Rubinger, 27, heads the handbags and accessories division at Christie's, and is in charge of both auctions and private sales. Courtesy Christie's
Powered by automated translation

There are very few people in the world who know more about handbags than Matthew Rubinger.

He’s the guy who can tell from across the room whether an Hermès Birkin is real. He can tell by the colours and materials, by the stamps or by the stitching: “What’s interesting about the stitching is if it’s too perfect, it is machine-made and it’s fake, but if it’s too erratic, the craftsman who made it was not skilled enough, so again, it’s a fake. There’s a sweet spot in the middle that’s extremely perfect,” says Rubinger. He can even tell by the weight or by the way the corners are constructed: “Right at the corner, it goes in a little bit, because a Birkin is made from the inside and stitched so tightly that you get these divots. That’s a really difficult manufacturing process, so you probably wouldn’t see it on a fake bag.”

The 27-year-old, who featured in Forbes's 30 under 30 list in 2014, was formerly the director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions, but has since made a move to Christie's, where he heads the auction house's handbags and accessories division, looking after both private sales and auctions. Christie's started selling handbags online, out of its London office, in 2010, but the category was relaunched last year. This, coupled with Rubinger's appointment, highlights the growing prominence of handbags as investment items, a fact reiterated by a Christie's auction this summer, which saw a diamond-encrusted, fuchsia Birkin fetch US$221,846 (Dh815,000), setting a new record as the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hermès continues to dominate the second-hand handbag market, with its Birkin, Kelly and, to a lesser extent, Constance models. In fact, scrolling through the lots for the Christie’s Handbags and Accessories auction in Hong Kong, on December 2, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hermès was the only brand to ever make a designer bag. There were crocodile Birkins and Kellys; shiny black, lizard and purple-and-pink versions; a sterling silver micro Kelly; and even a custom-made Birkin 35 emblazoned with bright red tulips.

These are the crème de la crème of the handbag world – rare and custom-made creations that are snapped up for thousands and thousands of dirhams. “One of the most important parts of my job is to work with collectors and, from the pieces they want to sell, pick out the ones that really are important. The ones that not only are worth the money, but that you can’t find anywhere else,” Rubinger tells me when we meet in Dubai. “They are either in top condition or extremely rare or discontinued, or there’s something interesting about them. The people we are speaking to say: ‘I already have this, this and this, now I’m looking for a custom or a limited edition.’”

This is particularly true of buyers from this region, Rubinger notes. “Buyers are very sophisticated here. Generally speaking, they have access to the stores and they have bags, so what they are looking for is something special, pieces that nobody else can get.”

Of course, condition is king, and will radically impact the price. With an object that is designed to be carted around and subjected to some pretty hard wear (not that I am imagining that your average Birkin owner treats their bags with quite the same irreverence heaped upon my own), scuffs, tears and stains are to be expected. Which makes those mint-condition bags all the more valuable. “If you had the same piece and used it every day for 10 years, versus someone who put it in the closet and forgot all about it for 10 years, you are talking about exponentially different values.”

But what is it about Hermès’s bags that has allowed the brand to monopolise the market, completely unchallenged, for so long? And why haven’t any of the other big fashion brands developed a Birkin of their own in the 30-plus years since its launch?

Rubinger attributes some of this to the age of the “It” bag. While Hermès was crafting its coveted pieces to the highest specifications and in very limited numbers, many of the other big brands were focusing on creating the bag of the season, which would be carried around with pride for a few months, then be quickly forgotten. “Looking back, if you think about things like Dior’s Girly collection, if you look at that now, it was really not manufactured at a particularly high level, but it was iconic. A couple of celebrities wore it and all of a sudden, everybody wanted one.

“What has got the Birkin to where it is today is the fact that Hermès has stayed so true to its core. There is nothing by that brand that is not magnificently produced. They have the best craftsmen in the world, they work with the best materials in the world, and they make as many as they can make, and that’s it.”

But surely there are other contenders? “We are servicing the very top of the market and at the moment that is very heavily driven by Hermès. Behind that, there are the best bags that Chanel has made, such as the really special minaudières they’ve been producing – those are definitely future collector’s items. Then you’ve got things like the best Gucci bags and the best special-edition Vuittons.”

Rubinger’s interest was piqued as a teenager, when his mum asked him for help hunting down a bag online. “I really did my research. I was curious about why certain pieces were selling for certain amounts.” The bag was found and bought, but a few weeks later, Rubinger sold it for a profit. “I made a small margin and thought that I was the wealthiest person ever,” he recalls. “So I did it again. And from that day until today, it has been completely organic steps forward.”

Is it odd, I wonder, being an authority on an item that you yourself will never use? “I actually think it’s what makes me good at this. I don’t get overrun with emotion or want to keep the bags for myself. Although I have a huge amount of respect for these pieces ... I can look at them analytically. When I see a bag, I see a spreadsheet, as un-luxurious and unfashionable as that might sound.”