Privé Porter founder Michelle Berk is making money moves—if you can’t tell by her Hollywood blowout, just look at her bedazzled, custom Birkins.
The style guru—who just made it on the cover of Forbes France—leads the premier seller of brand-new Hermès Birkins in the world. What started as a hobby in 2012, is now a multi-million dollar operation, which Berk runs through Instagram.
Berk hunts down the most exclusive and coveted bags around the globe and offers them at a premium to her clients, who are mostly located in the U.S. and the Middle East.
Due to her impeccable taste, smarts and fashion and business connections, she has been able to secure a massive social media following for Privé over the years, as well as a long list of celebrity clients. It’s because of that star-studded waiting list that she was able to debut Moneybags x MB, her own line of customized handbags—mostly glamorously blinged-out Birkins.
Paris Hilton is among her biggest supporters, as is Cardi B and her husband, Offset. Hermès is less of a fan, but Berk doesn’t particularly care. “I’m such a thorn on their side, but I also know I’m Hermès’ No. 1 salesperson,” she said with a laugh.
It was 10 years ago when Berk realized she had a talent for scouting out the crème de la crème when it came to luxury fashion products. She had started selling her own Chanel bags on eBay and saw that people were buying them for much more than the asking price.
“I started doing some research in luxury handbags and I saw there was this market of collectors and that some of these bags were very rare and hard to find,” she said. “When I bought my own personal collection, I never really knew that. I just bought them because I liked them. But I think I had a knack for picking winners, because most of the things in my collection were items that people were looking for and that were selling at a major bring-me-up.”
Berk began familiarizing herself with the industry through social media, and eventually came into contact with Bahraini designer Sofia Al Asfoor, whose products were only being sold in Bahrain and Dubai at the time. Seeing the potential in the designs, Berk made a deal with Al Asfoor and introduced her brand to America.
From one day to the next, Berk began selling Al Asfoor’s bags through an Instagram page she created under the name Privé Porter. Berk’s husband—who has been in the luxury fashion industry for decades—actually owned the rights to the name, as he had tried it out for a previous project.
In French, “privé porter” essentially means “private porter” or a person who carries one’s bags. “It happened to be the perfect name,” Berk said.
Berk’s sales through Instagram instantly took off—so much so that her clients began to request certain other rare bags. One day, a client requested a Birkin. At that point, Berk wasn’t aware of just how difficult it was to find and obtain an Hermès Birkin, but after the brand repeatedly rejected her requests to purchase one, she made it her “mission” to “crack the Hermès code,” she said.
In those fist few years of Privé, Berk and her husband searched the world for unique Birkins—making connections and learning the language of the industry. They eventually ended up in a Hawaii fashion shop, where they found one of Privé’s first products. Berk has been hunting down Birkins ever since, and said that every single year she sees them rise in value.
“I just bought a bag for $25,000 my cost, that I sold for $18,000 last year,” she said. “So by really holding the price and really spending the market price and being consistent, I’ve seen the price every single year increase 20%—and it’s been 10 years now. And the same with my custom bags. When I started they were $38,000, now they’re fetching as high as $98,000.”
In 2016, Berk sold a Birkin for a whopping $298,000, breaking the world record for the most expensive bag ever sold. And now, with her Moneybags, she’s found an even more dazzling way to secure her cash flow.
Berk works with an artist for every one of her custom bags, and usually, they have an A-list customer in mind. It’s very rare that a Moneybag is made and Berk is left looking for a buyer, in fact, she said Privé has a waiting list which is years in the making and seems to have no end. “I can’t even meet my demand,” she said.
Berk said she tries to be fair when she finds an item that she knows many of her clients want. “I don’t usually post those, I’ll send them out to my VIPs first and it’s really just whoever reads the message first,” she said. “My super VIPs, if I get something crazy special that I know a lot of them are looking for, I’ll broadcast it out and they, you know, claw each other. It’s like ‘Squid Game’ fo Birkin.”
Privé is bringing in $25 million a year now in sales, but Berk still runs it mostly by herself, just like when she sold items from her closet on eBay. Of course, she now has a few assistants and a shop in Miami, but she said she’ll be opening up at least one more brick-and-mortar store very soon in order to bring in a larger audience—possibly in Bahrain or Dubai, and maybe another in Las Vegas.
Berk knows having physical Privé stores around the world will completely change her business model and her clientele, but she isn’t worried about competing with Hermès. She said anyone can walk into an Hermès store and ask for a Birkin—they may not get it unless they spend thousands, but they can ask—but by doing so they’re just purchasing a product, whereas when a person shops at Privé Porter, they’re walking out with a better understanding of what exactly they’re investing in. That’s also one of the reasons Berk prefers connecting with her clients via Instagram rather than leading them to a website where they have no human contact and can easily move on if they don’t see the exact product they want.
“I know what’s out in the market, I know what bags are being offered on a daily basis, I know what’s coming into different Hermès stores, based on my relationships, or I know what might be coming out in the next collection, a color that’s similar from something that might be retired,” Berk said. “Nine out of 10 times, when I get a chance to talk to them … they’re going to end up buying something or I’m going to find them what they want, versus a website where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s sold, let me move onto the next purse.’ So it’s resulted in a lot more success for us, not selling online.”
Another reason she doesn’t want to turn Privé into an e-commerce website, is because she sells products at a “large dollar amount, so just letting someone put in their credit card and shipping them a $30,000-50,000 bag has never sat well with me,” she said.
Berk was one of the first luxury sellers to build a business fully around Instagram—and it has certainly worked out. The fact that the buying experience is so personal is also a reflection of just how exclusive Privé really is. Unlike its competitors—The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective and LXR, to name a few—Privé buys every item in cash before putting it up for sale, and it never takes consignments.
“So, because we only sell brand-new, store-fresh products, and because we are cash buyers, we’re typically the first person that somebody is going to call when they get a bag right out of Hermès,” Berk said. “There’s a big market where the 1% of the 1% just scoff at pre-owned luxury and they want to be the first person to ever carry it, and they’re willing to pay a bigger premium for that.”
Berk said her audience has always been diverse, but a big trend she’s seeing now—and which she thinks will only become more clear once she opens the rest of her Privé stores—is that younger women have become some of the luxury industry’s best clients.
“There was always interest from younger clients, who were like fascinated by a Birkin, you know, women in their 20s,” Berk said. “But I have noticed in the last few years there’s a lot more women in that age group with the means to be able to afford a Birkin, because social media has created so many opportunities for younger women to earn higher incomes and be self-sufficient.”
And though it’s unlikely Hermès will admit to it, Berk believes she’s partly responsible for the rise in the brand’s popularity among the world’s young, cool, successful shoppers—particularly in the hip-hop community.
“We’ve definitely increased the notoriety of the Birkin in the last 10 years, with social media. We have introduced it to a much younger crowd, and we have also been influential in getting the Birkins into the hip-hop community. Offset, when they [Migos] were writing the song ‘Jane,’ literally I’ve got messages going back three years on my phone from him sending me lyrics and clips like, ‘What do you think about this line? Does this make sense?’ So, you know, it’s kind of made the Hermès brand more mainstream, and I think that’s why people are going there and trying so hard to get a Birkin and spending all this money.”
And now, will Berk’s Moneybags escalate the price of standard Birkins and other Hermès accessories even more, or will the bedazzled creations surpass the French luxury brand’s own pieces? Only time will tell.