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Everything you need to know about one of the most iconic bags in history

It’s known as the Birkin’s more elegant sister. Meet the Hermès Kelly: formerly known the sac à main pour la dame, which translates to “bag for a woman”, it firmly makes the list as one of the most iconic items in fashion history. Born in the 1930s, the design was notoriously bold for its time, with a trapezoidal structure and stiff top handle—it was a veritable unicorn in the era of ultra-femininity.

But what’s in a name: Kelly? The year is 1954, and the costume designer of the romantic thriller To Catch a Thief was granted permission to source some items from Hermès for with soon-to-be princess consort of Monaco, Grace Kelly to wear, beginning a decades-long love story with the brand.

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Kelly, known as “America’s Sweetheart” in her time, has been immortalised in the hallowed halls of style, and married into the Monégasque royal family when she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco at a Cannes Film Festival photocall. Fast forward a few years, when the newly minted princess was expecting her first child, she propelled the bag into the mainstream consciousness when she strategically held the bag in front of her baby bump, in a bid to remain as private as possible. The famous picture, which ultimately landed on the cover of Life magazine, went viral and the public adoringly took to referring to the bag as “The Kelly”, and Hermés officially renamed the bag in her honour in 1977.

And the romanticism doesn’t stop with the name. Each of the coveted bags takes between 18 to 20 hours to make, depending on the expertise of the artisan crafting it, in whose hands the bag will remain from beginning to end.

Made up of exactly 36 pieces of leather, 20 metres of thread and 680 completely hand-sewn stitches—it embodies the word “luxury”. The infamous point sellier (saddle stitch), is the most iconic attribute of the Kelly (and its sister, the Birkin)—a slanted stitch made by using an awl (a puncture tool) to first create a hole for the thread to pass. Two pieces of thread are then interwoven in a single line, resulting in an indestructible stitch, so that even if the thread breaks, the stitch will remain intact.

The distinct stiff briefcase-life handle is the most intricate part of the bag to be made, and takes around four hours and comprises of layers of leather held together by stitches and finished with hot wax to ensure its longevity.

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The traditional Kelly has two styles: retourné and sellier. When observed side by side, the subtle difference between how these are made, make a major impact.

The original style—“sellier”—is more rigid and boxy, and is stitched from the outside in, and finished with a resin edge coat. By contrast, the “retourné” style is stitched from the inside out—the bag is literally folded inside out, stitched, and then flipped back. Its edges are rounded, creating a softer effect.

But there is also a third, ultra-rare style, that you can now only find on the secondary market: sellier mou. Mou, which translates to “soft” in French, does not have the extra layer of leather lining that you will find in the other styles—this makes the bag foldable from the bottom.

Similarly, the now-discontinued Kelly Flat is composed with the same notion—that it can be completely collapsed—and features a leather buckle, rather than the traditional touret (turnlock) closure. 

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Historically, the bag has also been made in varying styles: the Shoulder Kelly, featuring a shortened and lengthened torso, with a longer handle to be worn on the shoulder. There is also the Kelly Voyage, a 50cm Kelly accompanied with a removable thick canvas strap, which, as the name suggests, is perfect for an airport look. And then there’s the Kelly Relax, a comically huge, but still chic, version of the classic.

Each style is available in an array of hardware, colours and leathers. The two main hardware options are gold or palladium (silver colour). Kellys also do rarely come available in other types of hardware like rose gold, guilloche, even diamond-encrusted solid gold hardware, with a price tag not for the faint-hearted, though the best things never are. Perhaps the saying should be changed to “Hermès Kelly’s are a girl's best friend”?

In addition to the various styles, the traditional Kelly comes in a range of sizes. From the Micro Kelly (15) to the new holy grails the Mini Kelly & Mini Kelly II (Kelly 20), to the classic 25, 28 and 32, 35, 40—the measurement in centimetres across the front bottom of the bag.

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The popularity of the Kelly has also inspired an entire range of items. Sabrina Sadiq, founder of the luxury marketplace Luxury Promise, gave some insight. “The Hermès Kelly has an extension of other bags, which are highly sought after. Often people believe that the Hermès Birkin and Kelly are the only bags that are considered investments. The extension of other models include the Kelly Flag, Kelly Cut, Kelly Longue, Kelly Pochette, and Kelly Danse,” she told us.

Not forgetting, new additions like the Kelly To Go, as well as the Kelly Belt, and other Kelly-themed leather jewellery pieces and timepieces. The Kelly Cut is one of the more notable pieces on this list, featuring the characteristics of the Kelly reconceptualised as a clutch, keeping the general foundation of the Kelly—that being the touret and top flap—with the added elegance of an elongated torso. The newly added Kelly To Go, which reflects modern lifestyles and changing tastes, again personifies the essence of the Kelly, but is reimagined in a more versatile style as a cross-body bag for the modern collector. 

Most recently, the Kelly has been reimagined for the house’s Kellymorphose jewellery collection this year. Pierre Hardy took inspiration from the bag’s design elements, turning them into precious accessories such as rings and bracelets that echo the Kelly’s gavroche, to fluid necklaces that form the shape of the Kelly in precious metals.

From how the leather is stitched, to the fact that any Hermès bag—whether purchased from a boutique or on the secondary market—can always be sent back to Hermès for service and repairs, the Kelly has been built to stand the test of time and trends.

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