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How a DIY enthusiast created a replica of a $126,000 Birkin handbag for his girlfriend

The Birkin bag, a luxury handbag made by French fashion house Hermès, has become a symbol of wealth and exclusivity, with long waiting lists and prices that can soar into the hundreds of thousands.

When Seattle product designer M.J. Kim expressed interest in owning a Birkin bag to her boyfriend, Alexander Sway, they both agreed its high price point put the designer piece out of reach. 

"Hermès was a brand that my mom and friends love and they always talk about Birkins," Kim told CBS MoneyWatch. "But it was kind of a joke that I would have one because I knew it was so expensive and coveted."

Unbeknownst to Kim, however, Sway — a real estate agent and DIY enthusiast — made it his after-work hobby to handcraft a leather handbag for his girlfriend himself, from scratch. Sway researched tutorials online and drafted his own blueprints to make the correct leather cuts.

"I love doing things with my hands," Sway said. "I decided to make the 'Birkin' as a surprise for her because it looks like the most doable designer bag to make and I was looking for my next DIY project." 

Depending on their condition, material, color and other details, the cost of an Hermès Birkin bag ranges from $10,000 to as much as $450,000. But price is not the only barrier to obtaining the iconic accessory named after late British-French singer-actress Jane Birkin, who died last week at age 76 at her home in Paris

Even if you're able and willing to pay the steep price, walking into an Hermès store will not guarantee you a Birkin of your choice. The sales associates at Hermès make the decision of whether or not to present clients a bag for purchase, based on how much an individual spends in the store as well as other "unknown" factors, according to Byrdie, a beauty and fashion website. 

An Hermès Birkin crocodile bag with 18-karat white-gold, diamond-encrusted hardware on display at auction in New York in 2014.  STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Sway modeled his bag after a Birkin crocodile bag, which is made of real crocodile leather and sells for almost $126,000 on 1stdibs, a luxury e-commerce website. 

Hermès did not immediately return a request for comment about Sway's DIY project.

Cutouts of the materials placed on a work platform before it was stitched together. Alexander Sway

Sway brought his blueprints to a local leather store and then picked out croc-embossed calfskin and cowhide for his version of the bag.

The frame of Sway's handbag before the front and sides were attached. Alexander Sway

Sway said making the bag required long hours and a tolerance for "leather's distinct smell."

"In total, it took about 60 hours and over 30 days to make the bag," the amateur tailor recounted. 

The high-end leather materials cost about $80 each, he said. The rest of the budget was spent on tools for leatherwork such as hammers, skivers, punches, needles and thread.

"While making this bag, I was very overwhelmed with how labor-intensive one bag like this was for me," Sway said. "It brought a newfound appreciation for the craftsmen that spend their livelihoods designing and hand-making these items."

Alexander Sway and M.J. Kim posing with the finished handbag. Alexander Sway

"I felt so loved"

When presented with her handmade Birkin-style bag, Kim said she was shocked and grateful for the hours that her boyfriend spent working on the project.

"Wow, I've never had anyone do something for me that is this labor-intensive; and I felt so loved," she said. 

Kim says she hasn't taken her new handbag to too many places yet, but has worn it to friends' barbecues, New York City, and burger chain Five Guys. Sway encourages others to attempt DIY solutions like this one, even if they seem complex or daunting.

"It was a really fun project and something we learned is just because something is luxury, doesn't mean it's out of reach," he said. "It can feel empowering to make your own replica or your own version."

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