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MASON ROTHSCHILD AND THE METABIRKIN
The Birkin bag is one of the most coveted and well-renowned luxury handbags in the world, created by the well-established French fashion house Hermès. From the stiff rolled leather handles that mirror the exterior of the bag to the minimalistic flap secured by matching hardware, this purposeful design takes at least eighteen hours to craft and continues to be one of the most sought-after accessories in the world. While these bags have traditionally been exclusive and impossible to purchase, the artist, Mason Rothschild, put an end to the Birkin's unattainability.
Mason Rothschild is a Los Angeles-based artist and the current creative director at the brand Terminal27. He became popular in 2015 due to his t-shirt collection called Art School Dropout, which featured the names of U.S. art schools on apparel. However, his name garnered the most attention back in early December 2021 when he introduced 100 versions of the famous Birkin Bag as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) at Art Basel (a contemporary art fair) in Miami, Florida. The Rothschild collection of MetaBirkin NFTs featured the iconic Hermès Birkin Bags with fur pixels and vivid color variations and designs. Rothschild aimed to point out the need for animal-free luxury and hoped to encourage other artists, brands, and fashion houses to implement more sustainable changes in the future.
The “MetaBirkin” collection quickly became popular after Rothschild published his work on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace platform that allows consumers to buy, sell, and even create NFTs with their cryptocurrency. Although Rothschild relied on the style, design, and name of the classic Hermès Birkin bag to sell his work, he was the only person to profit, with sales reaching around $125,000, including royalties of 7.5% of secondary sales. One Metabirkin bag even sold at the steep price of $23,500 and had an animation of a fetus growing within.
Hermès sent a cease and desist letter to Rothschild and OpenSea for violating their intellectual property. While OpenSea removed his work from the site, Rothschild continued to sell the NFTs. He continued to defend his work and claimed that his NFTs were under his First Amendment rights, noting on his Instagram he has “every right to create art based on my interpretations of the world around me.” After non-compliance with the Hermès demands, the fashion house filed a suit against Rothschild in a New York federal court on January 14th, 2022. Among the laundry list of complaints, they accused the artist of cybersquatting, trademark dilution, and they demanded monetary compensation from his NFT profits.
NFTs are the future of digital fashion, and the verdict of this landmark suit sets a precedent for other cases. The jury could have either empathized with Rothschild, defending his work as artistic expression, or they could have decided that Hermès was in the right and interpreted the use of Birkin images as stealing and unoriginal.
In the end, though, Hermès won the case on February 8th, 2023, and received $133,000 in damages. This may seem petty as the total revenue of Hermès amounted to 6.39 billion euros in 2020. However, Hermès most likely pushed to win this case to make space for themselves in the digital realm as they realized how lucrative and fast-paced the industry is. At the end of the day, no art is original: every piece, crafted from the most modest painter to the biggest fashion house, gets its inspiration from outside sources. Some may ask where Hermès got their inspiration for their famous Birkin bag…