The fascinating history of the Hermès Kelly, a bag fit for a princess
When one thinks of the Hermès Kelly bag, a few words come to mind. Iconic – as all of our History of the Hero subjects are. Expensive – and it’s only getting moreso, making it one of those rare fashion things that’s actually a good investment. And classic, of course – except the Kelly wasn’t always a symbol of timelessness. When it launched, it was positively radical.
It was the 1930s and Robert Dumas had joined his father-in-law Émile Hermès in the family business. Dumas was behind several creations that would go on to become Hermès icons, including the house’s silk scarf, the Chaîne d’Ancre bracelet, and a game-changing women’s bag. The Kelly – or Petit Sac à Courroies as it was originally known – was larger than other bags of the era, affording the woman carrying it greater independence and symbolising a larger societal shift.
It was also a little sharper, sleeker, more geometric than anything that had been seen before, architected to a trapezium shape, with a flap closed in by two side straps and a neat swivel clasp. It would be the archetype for so many iconic Hermès bags to come, including the Birkin, which was a much later – but no less legendary – addition in 1983.
Unlike the Birkin, which was simultaneously created and named in honour of actor, model and muse Jane Birkin, the Kelly would take a little longer to find its namesake – some 20 or so years after its conception, in fact. The story goes that in the 1950s, costume designer Edith Head chose Hermès accessories with which to style To Catch a Thief’s leading lady, Grace Kelly. Kelly loved her Petit Sac à Courroies so much she continued to wear it off set, even using it to conceal an early pregnancy in 1956. The photos went around the world and made the (then relatively unknown) bag famous – though it would be another two decades until it was officially renamed ‘Kelly’ by Hermès, in 1977.
Princess Grace may have swapped her last name for ‘of Monaco’, but she continued to carry her beloved Kelly bag, its faithful use documented by the scuffs and scratches that were visible when it was later displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum for the 2010 exhibition, ‘Grace Kelly: Style Icon.’
Unlike some of our other History of the Hero subjects, the classic Kelly’s design has remained largely unchanged, the most notable tweak being the addition of a double ring at the top handle (to more easily attach a long strap) in 2000. Hermès has however expanded the collection to eight sizes, from a bijou 15cm – as carried by cool-girls Leia Sfez and Lori Harvey – to a (some might say ludicrously) capacious 50cm. The Kelly Sellier is elegantly structured, while the Retourné style is more supple and a little sportier.
As with the Kelly’s Eighties-born sibling, the Birkin, there are a whole host of special editions, the rarity of which makes them considerably more valuable than core styles. This is no mean feat, considering the price of a ‘regular’ Kelly is between £9,000 and £10,000 in-store and almost double that at resale. The Kellywood, crafted from oak and leather, is currently on sale for over a quarter of a million pounds at Mighty Chic, a specialist reseller based in Miami, while a well-preserved Kellydole (an anthropomorphised Kelly bag featuring a face, arms and legs, launched in 2000) starts at around £70,000.
There is also the Kelly Picnic, a basket bag you probably wouldn’t want to leave on the grass, and the Kellygraphie, in which multiple leathers are joined together to form a letter of the alphabet. The Kelly has also been reimagined as a backpack (the Kellyado), a very chic bum bag (the Kelly Danse, created by Jean Paul Gaultier and named as such because it leaves the wearer’s hands free for dancing), with zips (the Kellylakis) and in asymmetrical form (the Kelly Sellier en Desordre). There is even a teeny-tiny, Kelly-shaped bag charm, for Hermès-loving miniaturists.
Special editions aside, a classic Kelly is as sound an investment as the Birkin (and gold), with Hermès hiking prices by almost 10 per cent each year and resellers upping their prices even moreso; as mentioned in our feature on the Birkin, it’s notoriously difficult to purchase these bags from Hermès unless you’re a loyal customer of the brand.
If you do get your hands on a Kelly, be prepared to marvel at it. It is, as you’d expect from Hermès, impeccably made. "The artisans put a little bit of themselves into each piece," says Hermès, and it is said that the atelier’s expert leatherworkers can recognise a Kelly they made at first glance. The bag is made up of 36 leather and metal components, which takes a single artisan between 15 and 20 hours to stitch, glue and assemble. We say, one would expect nothing less than a bag fit for a princess.
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