We asked a Christie’s handbag expert what makes the Hermès Kelly so special. Here’s what she said.
When Grace Kelly appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1956 with a chic oversized Hermès bag and a fur coat draped over her shoulders, she wasn’t just debuting an instantly iconic outfit—she was creating the first viral accessory moment in fashion history.
“People were calling the magazine and saying, ‘What bag is that?’ and calling Hermès saying, ‘I want the bag Princess Grace is carrying,” says Caitlin Donovan, Head of Sales for Christie's Handbags & Accessories Department.
The story goes that the princess may have been using the oversized bag to hide early signs of her first pregnancy, but in the process a status symbol was born. And in the 60-plus years since, the Hermès Kelly bag—originally named the Sac à Dépêches—has become one of the luxury fashion world’s most coveted pieces, on the wishlist of fashion lovers for its timeless design and its enduring value.
Knowing that the Kelly is a star, we spoke with Donovan to get the inside scoop on the bag’s lasting appeal.
An Investment Piece for the Ages
While a parade of “It bags” came and went in the early 2000s, the Kelly bag has stayed steadily popular with collectors through the decades.
“To me, it’s the antithesis of an It bag,” says Donovan. As an accessories expert, Donovan found her way to the auction world as a way to embrace her lifelong passion for fashion, and she oversees Christie’s handbag-specific auctions.
Hermès is notable for being one of the few handbag brands with a higher resale value than primary market value, and the Kelly bag in particular often goes for a notable price. Despite the number of incredible bags that pass by her on an average day, Donovan sees something special in the Kelly.
“The attention to detail is unlike any other. There’s no stitch that’s accidental, there’s no color they’ve produced that’s questionable. I’ve really grown a deep affection and affinity for all things Hermès.”
A Symbol of Empowerment
It’s not just the artistry that draws Donovan to the Kelly; it’s the unique clientele the bag attracts to the auction house. “It’s the only female-centric client base in the auction collecting world,” she says. “I think it makes a woman feel powerful.”
In the early days of luxury goods, serious collectors ignored fashion accessories like handbags, preferring to invest in the established categories of watches, wine, and cars. Donovan notes that investment pieces were often designed for a male audience: “For many years, women didn’t have a category that was similar.”
But the Kelly bag changed everything. Produced in a limited run, each crafted with such care by a single artisan, the bags arrived on the scene as wearable works of art, and after Grace Kelly put the bag on the map, their long-term value just couldn’t be ignored.
Today, the biggest Kelly collectors see the bag as an appreciating asset. In November, a rare crocodile-hide Himalaya Kelly bag broke records when it sold at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong for $437,330, the most expensive bag ever sold at auction. The December 2020 New York auction inspired similar passion with its assortment of mint-condition Kelly bags—from a Violine Ostrich Retourné to a Bleu Paradis Swift Leather clutch.
A Timeless Piece of Hollywood Glamour
Quality and value aside, the Kelly bag retains much of its allure thanks to its connection to Grace Kelly. The future princess first fell in love with the bag on the set of To Catch a Thief; what was intended to be a simple prop stole the actress’s heart. The design has barely changed since—save the addition of a shoulder strap.
“The Kelly my grandmother bought versus the Kelly I bought from the Hermès store today would be almost identical,” says Donovan. Grace Kelly carried her own bag for many years—the original, well-worn from frequent use, has traveled to museums around the world as an important piece of fashion history.
When it comes to her advice for collectors entering the Kelly market, Donovan recommends starting with a classic. “A black Kelly bag can be worn day and night, in summer and winter, and it’s a fabulous neutral. If you consider yourself a truly successful handbag collector, you’d be remiss not to have this piece in your collection.”
What’s the next Kelly on Donovan’s wishlist? “It’s like naming your favorite child,” she laughs. “It would probably be a 25cm lizard Kelly, that would be my next dream bag. We had one in our most recent auction, which was pretty painful for someone who’s not allowed to bid on their own sales. I just wished it on all my loved ones.”
Much like the princess herself, the bag connotes elegance and quiet luxury at a glance. “When you’re carrying a Kelly bag, it’s an addition to the outfit, not an afterthought,” says Donovan. “I think there’s something to be said for something that is so timeless and so celebrated.”
“I hate using the word perfect,” she continues, “but there’s nothing really that I personally would change. I’m a fangirl for sure.”
Inspired to learn more about fashion’s most coveted bag? Explore our favorite moments in Kelly bag history here.
Photo credit: Christie’s