Episode #170 – Michael Tonello On Becoming The Houdini Of Handbags. 5 Years Flipping One Of The World’s Most Sought After And Exclusive Accessories.
I read Michael’s book “Bringing Home The Birkin” after having it on my wishlist for a couple years.
Finally, when I cracked it open I couldn’t put it down.
It had it all…
it was like James Bond meets Catch Me If You Can.
What was a massive interview I pared down for the McMethod to the barest of exciting essentials.
Above it all, this story gives great business examples.
Niche-ing, marketing, problem-solving and more.
I have no doubt when you listen you’ll not only want to snag the book and hear the other hour of my interview with him…
but you’ll want to go see what Michael’s up to now (more Hermes!).
In this episode, you’ll discover:
- The super-intense “insider” secrets of the luxury brand Michael infiltrated.
- The real reason clientele were willing to pay up to 4x retail value for his auctions.
- The biggest (and easiest) secret that propelled him into a million dollar business.
- An eye-popping demonstration of a strategy every copywriter and marketer knows! (or should).
- The surprising “full-circle” irony in Michael’s new company.
Intro and outro backing music: Forever More by CREO
David Allan: Hey, everybody We’re back with another edition of the podcast. I’m David Allan from makewordspay.com and we have a very unusual guest I would say today because it’s sort of off the beaten track. He’s an author he’s an entrepreneur he’s a socialite of some of some distinction I think in my in my world after reading his book I think and he’s got one of the most fascinating tales I’ve come across a very sort of niched subject. Michael Tonello, welcome to the show.
Michael Tonello: Hey thank you. Thanks for having me.
David Allan: Yes we are talking a bit off the air about sort of you know I found your book years ago and I don’t like I said I don’t really recall what how I stumbled on it I think it might have been in a bookstore maybe in an airport or something or other. And I remember thinking myself This sounds fascinating. I don’t know why I didn’t buy it at the time or somebody must build some story there too. But I eventually bought it on Amazon and read it and thought boy this is one of the such a great adventure tale you’re actually a very good writer. And so I was like just sucked into your world of handbags and international travel and intrigue and it had sort of that air of like almost like a James Bond be an air of mystery in imagery.
You know how you were going around the world. So maybe let’s start at the beginning for people who have read the book sort of where were you and what were you up to when all this stuff sort of kicked off.
OK. So what happened is we go back to 1999. I was doing hair and makeup for print advertising.
My clients were like Dunkin Donuts and me and T.J. Maxx and Marshalls and Reebok and a lot of the big corporations that are based in New England because I lived nearby. So a lot of the big corporations from New England and what day in January of 1999 I got a call from the agency that represented me and they said they had just booked me for a one week job for IBM for the iPad. It was a quarter page ads that would be running in Time magazine and we were going to be shooting it in Barcelona Spain and I would go there with a whole photo crew and we’d be their full week. So off I went with the Sodoku I’d never
been to Spain before I knew we’d been alone obviously during the week. I really loved Barcelona at least what I see of it because since I was working I really only had the evenings free. What I saw that I loved and I decided that I would return I went back two months later on vacation by myself I stayed for about 10 days. And during that 10 days I became obsessed with the city. I loved the food the culture the architecture everything about it the lifestyle and I decided I really wanted to live there. And over the course of that spring and summer I kind of like put my affairs in order if you will. I sold off about things I sold my car I just did everything I could to get rid of extraneous
things. Pack up some extra money and in September of 99 I moved to Barcelona. I quickly rented an apartment which in Spain requires a five year lease. That’s crazy. Yeah I mean I didn’t really do any research before. And that kind of caught me off guard. But you know I was so in love with the city I was just like in all of this. I’m going with it also and I love the apartment that I found. I mean it took me several days to find it. We looked at a lot of places that I knew this I mean when I saw this place I knew it was the place I signed the lease. And then over the course of the next several weeks all of the boxes that I had arranged have
shipped there started arriving with all of my personal effects in them and you know we start at this point getting into more like you know October-November all winter and in being Barcelona the temperatures were still in the mid to upper 60s even close to 70. And all these boxes are arriving and they’re full of all my clothes and other things. So being a New Englander a lot of my clothes were like cashmere in tweed and all has its. You know. Yeah. And I had very little need for any of them that they are. And as I’m packing all this stuff I’m thinking what am I going to do with it all. And I decided I would start listing a few things on ebay. I had never
sold anything on Ebay previously I had bought several things. I was a collector of Reier first edition books modern first editions and like Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote the Inca. OK. So we e-bay was a good source for that for me for buying but I never sold anything. Anyhow I took a picture of this. Polo Ralph Lauren cashmere scarf that I had bought at a polo Ralph Lauren outlet store in Connecticut I paid $99 for it. I still hadn’t even worn it. It had the price tag so attach it. Ninety nine bucks for I wish to drive a seven day auction just a regular street auction
seven days in this car sold for over $400 a Beemer. That’s like exactly what they say. I couldn’t believe it I love it. You know I mean that first initial reaction which I in the book was like somebody must have been obsessed with flat terrain. Was like this round of base class thing. It was a guy in the Midwest and he had sold out. So I shall look into my things for more things to sound like you know every now everything had Bill signs on it for me. I’m like wow. So the second thing that I came across was this little orange box. If you know the brand Remez which is a French goods house kind of like
Chanel or Louis baton or Christian Dior or Remez. It’s a very old company that dates from the early 80s. It’s used to make saddles and all kinds of things for the carriage trade. But in more recent years they started becoming a very big company for silk and made all kinds of Silcox. Anyhow in 1992 I went on a black tie. New Year’s Eve dinner party in New York City and I went into Bergdorf Goodman and I bought this hermÃ¨s so scarf it was three foot square. It was black smoke and it had like gold equestrian stuff on it like metal. You know what’s
that. So I wore it new years eve under my tuxedo in your following day New Year’s Day I folded the scarf back up put it in the scarf box. And now seven years later here it was you know showing up a passport and I had one scarf in seven years. I thought OK I can easily solve this. Two pictures of that put it on e-bay. Again a straight 7 day listing a street auction may that sold for more than $500 $530 if I remember correctly. Wow. Insane right. Seventy five dollars for every night. So it’s more than doubled your money. More than double almost triple my money. I used to think more importantly I woke
up the following morning to about 10 or 12 e-mails from people that had been bidding on that scarf on that auction and didn’t win it. And they said to me you had more or most cards I didn’t have any more mascots but I wrote back to all these people and said What are you looking for. And then they responded to me with all kinds of information which I now call a wish list because what I learned is just as there are people who collect stamps and coins you know shot glasses and who knows what else. There are people all around the world they collect mad Scots. Now what I learned at that time back in
99 we said remeasure only had about 15 stores in the United States. They had around 250 stores worldwide. So there were a lot of people living in a lot of places they couldn’t get mascots unless they bought the airline ticket and flew to another city where it was from. So it was cheaper for them to pay my markup on e-bay for a scarf then obviously to buy an airline ticket in a hotel room. All that sort of stuff. So the following day after I got all those e-mails I went to the Remez store in Barcelona and I bought two more scarves and I put those on e-bay. And again I more than
doubled my money when I realized at the time but I quickly learned was that Remez also didn’t have a website at the time. Right. So again as that auction was progressing people were e-mailing me and asking me for specific things because these collectors all around world were looking for specific remet scarves. Each year I was maybe half a dozen new designs OCHA and they each have a name and they’re designed by a specific artist Yadi idea. It’s very complicated as is anything that you know collectors are usually involved in. It’s kind of like art if you will. So anyway we love
story short within about four or five months. I was doing almost twenty five thousand dollars a month on a splitting or scarps not it was crazy. It was insane. So about six months into that I got an email an email through Ebay system from a famous celebrity Allender California.
And she said to me I see you have a lot of women’s scarves on e-bay. And at that point I was adding a few more things I had you know some bracelets and just a few small things that were easy to share. Light weight not terribly expensive but I could you know. So anyhow she says to me in email do you happen to have an hermÃ¨s Birkin bag. Now I didn’t know what a Birken bag was to the time I knew what a Kelly bag was because of Grace Kelly and was very famous. I knew what it was I googled it and I discovered that it was the same mislike celebrity handbag made by her mags. I thought well if I can double my money on these cards imagine if I can double my money on one of these handbags because they were really
expensive. You know they were like 7000 pots. So to the store and ask for a Birkin bag and they said oh no no we don’t have any.
So you only continue telling me what are the things I like to serve. One of the things I liked about the story too was because my other sort of career that I have going simultaneously. I’m a professional magician. And so the thing I liked about when you have things I like about your story was that you had sold a deck of cards this famous girl it’s told you about the and the famous singer songwriter. And for me personally Dechert decks of cards being strewn all over wherever I am usually that’s I thought that was very poetic.
From my point of view I guess that a deck of cards has led you to the book and yet you know it’s interesting because that’s why she bought a deck of cards and when she received the cards she saw that they were absolutely pristine mint as you knew is if she had herself bought them at an Amish store that morning. Because I mean I literally was going into mass buying just you know the seeing it and putting it up for auction. So there was never any like you said you know it wasn’t like I was sitting around using this stuff and then reselling it. It was all very you know made it brand new. And he asked me about getting you know one of those bags and of course I couldn’t get the bag
on that first attempt but I was momently get her a bag. At that point I decided to rent a car because I knew that Americans have a lot of stores in the south of France which only was about a two and a half or three hour drive from Barcelona so I rented a car and I drove to the south of France. I saw that I could hit the store in Moho way and be home a Marsay Exham all those kinds central hey all those sort of you know famous chic towns and there were some very older stores there that had been in business you know 50 or 75 years. Why I thought one of those stores has to have a
broken bag right. Right. So I lived with my aunts and going to the first restaurant I ask for and.
And again the same thing you know like we don’t have a bourbon bag and I was like OK I get it. I leave in a car and I drive 45 minutes on to the next town.
And I went to the store and I asked for Birken bag and the salesperson looked at me with great disdain like I was some kind of a stupid idiot. You know a stupid american or right. And she was like this a two year waiting list for over and back. Now that was the very first time I had ever heard the term waiting lists.
I mean I you have to wait two years to get a handbag. Crazy.
I mean it was crazy I inhabit that was when I realized Wow I guess that’s why this celebrity is asking me if I had one because even she can’t get one because there’s a two year waiting list. Right. And we all know the people that have a lot of money and you know celebrities you see getting things right now. You know tomorrow. Yeah. Because of you know you know skipping a line. You jumped the line. You know those chords are only meant for the general public not for the rich and famous That’s right.
Why don’t they. I guess this was about six or eight months in I decided to go to Madrid for the weekend to hit that Remez store there because it was it was one of the largest stores in Europe so I thought they probably have a lot of scarves and I really want to do a big way for the jury for the weekend. And I went into the store and I just went I had all these sheets of paper that I used to call wishless. I had names specific names specific scarves specific clients were asking for and I knew that if I could get those scarves I would sell directly to the client. I would put it on e-bay in hopes of having a bidding war because
I knew that one person specifically wanted that Scaroni one. All you need is two people somewhere in the world and you can have a bidding war. Right. So I have these lists of Scalzo I was before I went to the store in Madrid I was in and I asked all these scarves. I quickly piled up a pile of I don’t know 15 or 20 scarves and as we were doing this you know I said I’m going to take all of these and you know I’m asking the same. And then it’s just almost literally as a second thought just like randomly I say you don’t happen to have a Ergen bag do you. And the salesgirl said Oh I know when we look in the back and at the very first time that anyone at any of my store had said to
me let me look in the back because when I went on a road trip to the south of France they all said we don’t have any Birkin bags. Well there’s a waiting list in media right. So when do you suddenly look in the back. Thought oh that’s good right. And then two minutes later she comes walking out of the road with this big huge orange box about this is a portable television set. It’s just out on the counter in front of me and she opens just little draw and she puts on a pair of white cotton gloves and she takes the lid off the box and removes the tissue paper and then she takes the bag out and she starts telling me all about the bag like this specific
information about the bag like size and color and material and stuff of which I could not care anything about. I didn’t know anything about eggs.
Your and you were thinking you were in or I was in awe and I’m also thinking to myself and emotionally she’s going to remember that there’s a waiting list and somebody is waiting for this bag with some manners is going to come out and tacker on the shoulder and say that it’s already sold. So I’m thinking like I just wanted to pay for the bag in scarves and get out so as fast as I could.
So did you even have any idea like what it cost at that point.
No. So happened. No I didn’t. What happened was that as soon as I could get a word and I said I’ll take it. And she starts talking she packed it all back out. We went to the cash register. They rang it up and all these cards you know I to my American Express card for the car. And I say I love the store and I have two giant orange shopping bags huge. And I get in a taxi and back to my hotel in a taxi I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel I was dying to open the box.
Look at this bag and you know see what the whole thing was all about why there were people waiting two years for this thing. I got to the hotel I opened the box and as I’m packing everything I see the receipt and I look at the receipt and there was like 28000 gongs and I nearly had a coronary. I was thinking I had to pay for this bill in full at the beginning of the month because it’s Americans graphs and I look in that bag was like you know 21 grand or something like that. You kidding me.
Here they are the anti-Roman mistake and I look at the receipt and I see and I learned very quickly when I had bought was a no man’s crocodile Birken back when in anthracite Gray which was like a charcoal gray. Meanwhile I’m like panicked because I’ve got to pay for this back you know. So I very quickly took a photograph of the bag and I sent an e-mail to that celebrity that had contacted me months ago and I said I have a broken bag. This is what I have. And I told her you know I wrote down exactly what it said on the receipt because I didn’t know any of it. But you spoke out that Senate seat and I added $5000 to the price.
And now about five minutes later I got an e-mail from her.
It was one word why she asked explanation I’ll take it again. I couldn’t believe it.
Could not believe that I made it quick five grimier. Well little did I know. I mean now I know about that.
I could have double the price of that.
I didn’t know about. We fly by the city or Pantea.
Yeah I was green. I didn’t know anything about that whole world at that point. But a few years later I got another e-mail from her assistant and she said you know I am the assistant. I will make payment arrangements with you and shipping arrangements. And she said My client is leaving for Harris in two days she’ll be staying in the coalition suite at the Ritz in Paris. Could I arrange for you to ship that in there. And I thought to myself is celebrity Coco Chanel sweet Ritz. I was going to deliver the bag.
Good idea. Right.
So I bought an airline ticket and I flew to Paris. So Whole days later and I was very graciously welcomed into the Coco Chanel suite and I sat there for about a half an hour or chatted with this celebrity and she was so in love with the bag. She had already paid me by bank wired days before and she told me she wanted more crocodile Birkin bags if I could get them. So when I left her I look downstairs and I decided I’d stop in the Hemingway bar there in the lobby of the Ritz and have a glass of champagne with my good fortune. And I
wanted to call my mom and tell her everything that just happened right. Because my mother was a voracious reader and she you know would love the fact that I’m sitting in the Hemingway bar and like that place it was muddy. So I mean there really are no way quietly on my cellphone speaking.
My mom and I’m telling the story and actually through the story she says to me you know Michael is something I don’t understand. I said What what’s that mom. And she said a few months ago you did that road trip to the south of France and everywhere you went they told you there was a waiting list of two years. So how did you manage to get a bag in you know 20 minutes in the store the other day in Madrid. And I said I don’t know I just went in and I borrow the scarves and then I asked the bag and as I was saying that I was like wait a moment. It was like this light went on in my head because I realized that when I did the road trip in the south of France I went into each store and just asked for a bag and they said they didn’t have one or they
said it was a waiting list and I was like when I went to midways up I hope things were committed to buy a whole bunch of things. And as I was paid for those things I asked for a bag so I had this hypothesis and maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was buying all that stuff. So there I was in Paris which was like you know ground zero Furman’s.
So I thought OK tomorrow morning I’m going to get wake up and get a cup of tea and then you get all dressed up and I’m going to go in the flagship store and I’m going to try and see if I can get another Birken back. That’s right. For me I get all this out in order to amass.
And I went in and I had on my wish list and I went up to the scarf encounter and I ask all of these cars and then I think they ask for a lot of the exact same scarves that I asked for mid-grade or one of those scarves was like a secret.
Right. Right. Good thinking.
This is a work in progress. I don’t know what’s going on here right now offices. So as soon as I pile up about 10 or 15 scarves that I said I’ll take them all. And we started to walk towards the cash register. And just very sort of nonchalantly say if you happen to have a broken bag my mother would like a bird back and the salesman said to me I don’t know let me look in the back.
Bingo bingo two minutes later he came walking out of the back room with that giant orange or many spots. And when I saw that box I knew right then and there that I was going to be the new Houdini man spoken.
Yeah. You seriously knew like I could crack some sort of code some sort of formula.
Yeah it for me it was a formula. And I’ll tell you a year later I bought and sold 1.6 million dollars worth of Burkin bags. Wow. And I bought every single bag and it remains stored somewhere in the world. Like I went to just a different store every other day.
So I mean it’s all been really really great experience for me and really exciting and in a lot of it is because of the fact that you know a lot of these people that were clients migrated to being what I would consider to be friends. You know a lot of times it’s really on who you know in a lot of these friends that connected me with our friends and one thing led to another. I mean I recently launched my own brand which is it. It’s actually it’s funny because it’s kind of come full circle with launches Grandcourt. Oh yes. OK. I just I took a few words I took the word reinvented.
There were reports in the word. So combine them together to make this word was a joke. So what I’m doing is I’m taking an iconic silk scarves from imams and Louis Vuitton and Chanel and Puchi and sourcing them from major auction houses around the world. And I’m buying them and I’m bringing them to Spain and I’m working with this very very old hundreds of years old workshop in Spain and we’re hand making. As for drills you know what else to do. I don’t know that no the materials are these. It’s like these four where the
bottom of them is like this rolled in like straw. OK I think I’ve seen those. And then they have some roll around the bottom. They’re very cheap right now they’re very stylish and fashionable and they’re you know very sort of in vogue if you will. Where have making these videos using this iconic silk scarf from all these companies. And just a week or two ago we got a big order from Bergdorf Goodman and we have a meeting today with Neiman Marcus and we’ve launched our own Web site. So it’s all come full circle. You know my very first huge success on Ebay was styling and all of my stuff and now here I am
making Aspen Rosalie grass.
It’s crazy how the world works.
It is so crazy. It’s like and I just like I pinch myself each day and I’m like you know I love it. It’s great. I love it.
Certainly I found something you’re passionate about too I think. I think you know reading the book and sort of not knowing what had happened you know in the interim 10 years or whatever since it started with the finished I always sort of thought to myself I wonder if Irma’s ever consider bringing you on you know as some sort of like spokesperson or something like that because it was obvious to me even though that you were working the system. You know I sort of figured out their formula and sort of expose them for their waiting list nonsense and their sort of marketing angles. But also you were super passionate actually about you know people certainly who bought all the stuff from you and you sort of had this respect for the fact that even though it’s like these crazy
prices of crazy handbags like how can this be worth that you still had like an empathy for her. You know Irma’s because it changed her life. And I thought I always thought you know I wonder if that ever crossed their minds and sort of reach out to you and just sort of turn it from almost an adversarial relationship perhaps into something more mutually beneficial.
It’s interesting. You know a lot of very intelligent people who I know have said the same thing. They thought though they are thinking as you know it’s sort of better to have the enemy on your side and on the other side.
Never have thought of me as being sort of the enemy. Well then I mean the thing is when you read my book and if you were to watch all of the interviews and listen to all the interviews that I’ve given since the book came out I don’t see anything better on that because no you know I love them as I have changed my life.
And you know good were they not perhaps the most honest about how they handle the selling of the products. Well you know that’s people to make a decision about I sure you know the thing is my book which is very mainstream and romance is not very mainstream.
So in some ways my book draw the mass brand Young much more into the mainstream and that’s a great thing for him mass certainly got a lot more publicity than anybody else in recent years.
Absolutely. And really you know personally and I’m certainly not their demographic perhaps but certainly for me like I knew nothing about meze I’d had me you know I don’t think I even heard of them when I read your book. Even though they’ve been around since like 1837 or something. You know it’s so for me you know I’m sure a lot of people perhaps had that Namibia people into some lesser things lesser price point handbags Maybe I’ve been awoken to a whole new world.
Well you know this is when I was out on the west coast doing publicity for my book. This was you know back in 2008. I just spent on it like I forget what it was the Today Show or good morning america or something. And a day later I was in L.A. and I came walking out of a parking garage on day.
Right now we see to it like a kiddie corner. So I go and look in the window before I went to meet some editor at some restaurant and it’s sitting there on the street looking in the window when he comes out and she says Excuse me you know. And I was like I need advice. And she says Oh hi I’m so-and-so I’m the store manager of a mess. And I said and I was like oh. And she’s like Oh God she goes we’re in love with your book and everybody in the store is reading your book. It’s like three or four copies going around would you mind coming in and saying hi to people. Oh gosh. So she got it she understood it well
you know what she said to me we get it signed we I went inside I had like 10 or 15 minutes to kill. I mean inside quickly had like oh you know 10 people gathered around talking and laughing and she said to me you know there are ever since you started with all this publicity and people coming in the store thinking they can buy the book here. Well are we seeing five to go do you know what. A lot of them buy a bottle of cologne or something like that while they are here. So it’s relevant because you brought a whole new group of a whole new audience a whole new customer base to us. We couldn’t be happier.
Yeah. To be honest as a person who’s into marketing and sales you know I think they really missed the boat. If I had gone if I was I had a.
You know maybe they have this sort of I don’t know maybe they are more snooty than I’m giving them credit for perhaps. But you know maybe I would a couple I would have had that book in that store the next day.
Yeah. Well they’re very fresh.
They don’t think the way we do right. You know that’s clear. Obviously that’s what it is. You know that’s amazing. It’s an amazing story. I’m so glad I stumbled across your book.
You’ve been uber generous with your time to come and talk with me about all your insane adventures and anybody listen to us eventually I hope we get to get the book managed because there’s so much more we didn’t even touch on and that so much so much exciting and insane stories.
It really makes you think about other for me anyway as it made me think about other things out there that might be like that’s you know that remain undiscovered perhaps. Yes.
And you know and I get e-mails to people now occasionally all across the world that are like you know I love you both.
I read your book I really want to try and create some kind of a business. Can you give me any kind of suggestion and I like is I feel like I had some kind of a formula for for are can they replicate something. And you know it’s very simple and it’s so true. It’s like find something that you either know a lot about or love and really want to learn a lot about. You need to be able to answer every single question that people throw at you intelligent you know. Right. And you can people. I mean I think the sky’s the limit. It’s a matter of figuring out what the product is what the item is or what the service is and
this really go for you.
And I think to you know in some ways your work can be seen as like an exposÃ© I guess of sorts of the marketing and selling process behind or as in regard to their Burkin bags especially I guess but also those are those are if you look at it from a different perspective those are actually very clever marketing things that they’ve done to grow their brand into billion dollar you know brand. So true so true. You can see it from a number of different perspectives. And those are all things that are usable in other and other venues. Yep I agree. Fantastic now people if people want to get a hold of you Michael where should they go.
They can go to my Web site you know dot com. And there’s a contact button on there and I every one of those messages comes directly to me. I read all of them and I respond to all of them.
Awesome awesome. And now you got the yearbook has been optioned you know for a movie perhaps. And here you have this new clothing company of sorts.
Yeah. Call folk are USPO okayi dot e s great sons. I just want to thank you so much for your enthusiasm and interest because that’s the kind of thing that I mean it’s so invaluable to writers. You know it’s really great. So I really do appreciate you reaching out.
No problem no problem. It was a pleasure reading the book. I think you are a great writer because I mean it was one of those page turners I couldn’t really put down. The combination of the of your writing ability and the material the content it was it was a pleasure having you on the show and I really want to thank you for making the time.
My pleasure. Anytime.
Awesome for everybody else listening. Hopefully we’ll have our next guest will be as exciting and as adventurous and I have so many interesting things to say as Michael. So until next time we’ll talk to you later.