A Conversation with Bringing Home the Birkin
Author and Respoke Designer, Michael Tonello
The first of our Designer Series Q & A
HOW IT STARTED…
Born in Cape Cod Massachusetts, Michael Tonello made his way to Boston in the late eighties to pursue a career in hair and beauty styling. Always thinking creatively and grand scale, he and his friends created a styling management company that represented 65 artists in the beauty styling business initially which quickly grew into a multi-million business.
Tonello began his European journey in the late ’90s. He moved to Spain and was in need of a job (that didn’t require working papers) when he began to sell high-end merchandise on eBay and quickly directed his focus to the most desired designer: Hermès of Paris. He learned everything he could about the Parisian fashion house. The one question he was determined to get answered was why is it so difficult to purchase a Birkin handbag.
THE BIRKIN BAG
The Birkin bag, or simply Birkin, named after English actress and singer Jane Birkin, is perhaps the most sought-after bag in the world. Introduced in 1984, the bag quickly became a symbol of wealth and exclusivity due to its high price and long waiting lists. Costs vary widely according to the type of leather or exotic skin used. After months of trying to purchase a Birkin bag for his long list of collector clients, he discovered that “the formula” was to be well-dressed wearing the brand’s products from head to toe: ready-to-wear, a bracelet (chain’d’ancre to be exact), scarf and a leather good (think an orange Ulysses notebook). I worked for the brand briefly after college, his formula is absolutely on point!
In his book Bringing Home the Birkin, Michael shares interesting and exciting tales of his collector clients, travel, and his home life with his partner, Juan. Along the way it was a wild ride, meeting celebrities, traveling all over the World and visiting Hermès stores, all along working the formula and bringing home the birkins… One of my favorite parts of the book is the chapter in which he breaks down the sales associates at Hermès. I started my career as a Scarf Ambassador at Hermès. He called my “character” an Ingenue. It made me laugh at how spot-on his descriptions were of myself and my co-workers.
During his travels, he realized everyone at home in Spain exclusively wore espadrilles in the summer. Over the years they never changed, always the same boring styles purchased at the beginning of the summer and thrown away come fall. Then it dawned on him, why not incorporate the beautiful silk scarves? Repurposing designer scarves into comfortable and handcrafted footwear. Tonello visited the birthplace of espadrilles and met a woman named Anna who helped create the first pair which was appropriately titled the “Anna.” She bonded the silk scarves to the thin canvas with a very tight weave so that the scarf would not rip or tear. He loved them so much he shared them with his Facebook friends and sold 50 pairs the very first month. They are entirely hand-crafted in La Rioja, Spain and no two pairs are alike.
Cut to 2008, while on his book tour in New York, interviewing with the Today Show, Access Hollywood, and others, he dined with a good friend Fern Mallis, the woman who created New York Fashion Week. They ate at The Polo Bar while none other than Ralph Lauren himself was there dining. During dinner, Tonello gifted Mallis, who had recently been named Director of the Fashion Institute of Technology Foundation, a pair of Respoke espadrilles (made from a vintage Emilio Pucci silk scarf). Mallis was so taken by the espadrilles that she took Tonello across the dining room and introduced him to Linda Fargo, Creative Director of Bergdorf Goodman, and Jim Gold, the former President of Neiman Marcus. Both Fargo and Gold immediately wanted to place an order for each of their stores. The following day Tonello received an order from Bergdorf’s.
Respoke stands out in the fashion industry because it is all about sustainable fashion and luxury fashion by repurposing and bringing new life to iconic fabrics. It takes roughly six weeks to make a single pair of espadrilles. In addition to the espadrille, other “respoked” items with iconic designer silk that can be found at Respoke are cashmere sweaters, trousers, jeans, linen blouses, linen bucket hats, sneakers, and of course 2020 face masks. Their next product in development is a luxe cocktail slipper.
To source the fabrics the Respoke business partners (Michael, Adriana, and Chris) go on two major buying trips to Paris, Tokyo, Florence, and Hong Kong sourcing Hermès, Emilio Pucci, Gucci, Ferragamo, Etro, Alexander McQueen, and more. Its mission is to bring a unique product to the global market.
Tonello’s advice is to find your niche and become an expert. Additionally, build relationships with your clients, write thank you notes, and all of the little details that truly matter so much. Some of his past clients and Hermès collectors are still some of his closest friends. “Listen to people,” he said. “You never know what you may learn.”
Wonderful advice from our new friend, Michael.
Thank you to our wonderful friend, Whitney for the introduction.
To learn more or purchase, please contact: Whitney Kelly – at Respoke in Provincetown, Massachusetts and you can shop the line at respoke.com or locally at Reserve in Amarillo, Texas.
H-INSPIRED LUXE FOR LESS