Singapore teacher blows annual bonuses on Hermes Birkin bags
Primary school teacher has $90,000 luxury-bag collection
She owns 11 bags from French luxury brand Hermes, four of which are the highly coveted Birkins.
And she is not a "tai tai", or lady of leisure.
Ms A.L. Soh, a primary school teacher of 20 years, has spent her annual bonus for the past six years on Hermes bags.
She admitted that her collection, which has cost her about $90,000, has got the attention of her colleagues.
The 41-year-old, who said her monthly salary is "less than $10,000", told The New Paper: "People will initially say, 'You have a rich husband', and that's untrue because he doesn't believe in buying bags for me.
"Then they'll say, 'You're a tai tai'. If I were one, I would be sitting at home shaking my legs, not working like the rest of you."
Ms Soh's husband owns his own company in the petrol industry and they have two daughters, aged 13 and 16.
For Ms Soh, it is more a question of how one prioritises one's spending.
"It is really not how much you earn but how much you save that enables you to achieve your dreams or buy things you want," she said.
"I'm only spending my bonus on these luxury items. Moreover, I don't spend on clothes. I channel most of my money to shoes, bags and watches. And I eat in the school canteen, which is like 50 cents for a bowl of noodles and another 50 cents on a packet drink, which works out to just $1 a day."
HOW IT STARTED
Her Birkin obsession began in 2010 after she received a "big bonus" in her 15th year of work and decided to splurge it on a Birkin, her first.
She said: "I felt I should treat myself to something worth keeping and passing down to the next generation.
"The Birkin has always been a coveted bag and I've watched documentaries on the bags - how much time goes into it and the workmanship and how junior bag makers are not able to touch certain leathers and so I was pretty intrigued.
"Having said that, I never really dreamed of having one because of the price tag. But I thought long and hard about using the money."
TNP PHOTO: SHAHRIYA YAHAYA
Her first stop was the Hermes boutique in Singapore, but she was told the wait list was closed.
So she turned to resellers via online advertisements and bought a "pre-loved" gold 35cm bag on a whim for $17,000.
She recalled: "When I brought it home, my daughters didn't like it. They were grumbling and kept telling me it was ugly. They said they wouldn't want it even if I gave it to them, so I sold it eventually," she said.
A few months later, Ms Soh walked into the same Hermes boutique in T-shirt and shorts and, to her surprise was offered a Birkin without having bought other items there before.
She was shown a new 25cm purple Birkin.
"I liked the colour, but I was unsure if I wanted to buy it... But the salesperson said, 'No one rejects a Birkin' so I just did it.
"I've grown to love the bag. It will always have significance to me," said Ms Soh, who paid $11,000 for it.
Her most expensive buy so far is a $28,000 pre-loved pink ostrich Birkin bag that had to be handled so carefully that her reseller flew to Indonesia to collect it from a woman who was getting rid of all her pink Hermes bags.
"When I got my first bag, it was like a status thing. But after that, it became more of a hobby. I feel that it is worth keeping these bags because they hold so well... I see it as an investment," she said.
Ms Soh said she does not feel any guilt because she has not deprived her daughters of anything.
She is now holding back on further purchases as her goal is to buy a crocodile Birkin, costing $50,000 to $70,000, before her 50th birthday.
On the growing culture of Singapore women acquiring Birkins, Ms Soh said that "more are earning their own keep and do not require husbands to support their luxury spending".
With more resellers in the market, the Birkin has also become more available.
Ms Celia H, a secretary of 20 years who is in her 40s, bought her first Birkin two years ago, after saving up for eight months.
She told TNP: "I've noticed that all levels of women are trying to get their hands on it nowadays as it's almost peer pressure to own one and be of the same status as the rest."
A reseller, Ms Eileen Fong of A-Star Bag & Jewellery Collections at Thomson Plaza, said: "They are getting more common and I think some women feel the need to have them so they won't lose out to their friends who are carrying these bags. Some are so desperate that they pay us in instalments."
While it might be a status symbol to some, the Birkin to me is just a bag. I bought my first one from Hermes Singapore at Liat Towers in 2001. It wasn't that coveted then, I guess that's why we were so nonchalant about it. I don't remember it attracting the sort of buzz you see nowadays. I don't know how it evolved into this unhealthy obsession. I dragged it everywhere I went. It has carried everything from Star Awards trophies to my school books (when I was studying in Tokyo and Lyon), baguettes and even bird's nest which spilled and soiled the bag.
- TV host Sharon Au (above), who has two Birkins
I owned many Hermes hats and caps, but bought my first Birkin only about 10 years ago, which is kind of late. I fell in love with it because of its size (50cm) and because I can carry it on my shoulder. My client from China gave me a crocodile Birkin that cost more than $135,000. Three years later, she bought me another one. I guess it's not entirely about status. I like it more for its size and that it's unique and scarce."
- Celebrity hairstylist David Gan, who has 10 Birkins
It used to be the stealth wealth symbol and everyone just had to get it. As the years went by, symbols became less important to me. I was attracted to the practicality and functionality of the bag - I can find what I need in my bag easily. My most expensive one is the Himalayan Diamond Birkin that I paid $300,000 for many years ago. It didn't change my life, but it sure is a pretty sight in my wardrobe.
- Socialite Jamie Chua, who has 'hundreds' of Birkins and Kellys
More turning to luxury resale market
Even people who are uninterested in luxury brands must have heard that the wait for a Birkin bag can be up to six years.
Connections must be made and brand loyalty displayed before a Birkin is offered by a Hermes store.
If you have done neither, but have money to burn, turning to resellers is the way to go.
The cost of new Birkins range from $12,000 to more than $200,000 and they sell regularly on the secondary market for 20 to 30 per cent higher than the original retail price.
Because of the slow manufacturing process and the task of procuring specific textiles, very few Birkins are made each year, adding to the exclusivity that can drive up prices.
Rare colours, hardware in precious metals or personalised touches can also add to the high price tag.
According to Ms Sherry, a reseller in her early 30s and owner of online shop Ruelamode, which has both new and pre-loved Hermes bags, the wait list in Singapore for Birkins is closed "as they have too many orders to fill".
This is why more locals are looking at the resale market for specific bags.
Ms Sherry "fell in love with the world of Hermes" after she received her first Birkin as a 21st birthday present from her parents. She started her business in 2010.
She told TNP: "I have since been collecting Birkins, Kellys and all the other Hermes bags. They are well made and are classic designs that stand the test of time. Through searching and collecting, I established quite a good network.
"Initially, I helped my close friends and relatives source for the bags they desired. After a while, I was getting requests from friends of friends and acquaintances. I was urged by my friends to start a business."
Ms Sherry said her clients comprise an equal number of working women and tai tais.
She said: "We get our bags from many different sources. Usually, it is difficult for one person to buy bags from the store to resell as there is a quota for each individual.
"We do take in bags from our regular clients who already have an identical bag."
She said that Birkins always sell higher on the resale market as they are always "exclusive and highly sought-after".
For example, a Birkin size 30 in the local Hermes store would retail for around $16,000, but can fetch $18,000 to $24,000 in the resale market, depending largely on leather type, colour and hardware.
"These past six years have been good, with the growth in affluence and disposable income in the region.
"Demand in Singapore has grown steadily over the past couple of years," she said, adding that her stock moves fast and that, at any time, they might have between 20 and 30 bags available for viewing and purchase.
Ms Eileen Fong from A-Star Bag & Jewellery Collections at Thomson Plaza, which has another outlet at People's Park Centre, said her mother got into the business in 2005out of her love of designer bags.
"She opened the shop 11 years ago at City Plaza not knowing if her business venture would be successful. We passed out fliers and women who lived nearby were her first customers who went to her to sell their bags," said Ms Fong, 27, whose mother started dealing with Hermes bags in 2008.
The "heartland" locations of their shops have not affected their customer base, which consists mostly of rich women, bankers and teachers.
She said: "We have customers from all over, mostly by word of mouth. I think people are attracted to our shop because we try to price our bags lower than other stores. We only increase the price by about $2,000 from the cost price."