A s a shy, slender young girl in the late 1950s, Jane Birkin was ferociously bullied by a cabal of peers at the fearsome-sounding Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington, London. They teased her gamine frame as “half boy, half girl,” Birkin recalled in Vogue many years later. Of course, their attitude would have differed substantially had Birkin’s tormentors held an inkling of a scintilla of an idea that her passing, in July 2023 at the age of 76, would be marked around the globe by presidents, fellow actors, musicians and fashion icons – not to mention thousands of fans worldwide now paying tribute to the last great Englishwoman in Paris, whose family may as well be French royalty.
Birkin’s friends recall a modest, humorous and humble woman who’d earned a regal reputation far removed from her years as a glamorous entertainer and scandalous socialite. “She was so many different things, which makes her a true icon, really,” says Lyn Harris, the founder of Miller Harris and Perfumer H. In 2006, Birkin and Harris collaborated to produce a fragrance called L’Air de Rien that evokes memories of Birkin’s past. “As a style icon, she never took references from anyone else; it was just all in her head. She was incredibly well read and was like a sponge: she absorbed lots of information. She was so interesting and unique. Well, the word ‘unique’ was just an understatement for Jane. She was breathtakingly unique.”
“The word ‘unique’ was just an understatement for Jane. She was breathtakingly unique.”
Bored of London and with bit parts in romps such as Wonderwall and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Birkin emerged from a bruising short marriage to film composer John Barry and crossed the Channel in 1968. There – while caring for their one-year-old daughter, Kate Barry, and not speaking a word of French – Birkin auditioned for the film Slogan. Despite facing hostility from costar Serge Gainsbourg, France’s carunculated yet charismatic little prince of pop, she won the part.
After a dinner that director Pierre Grimblat orchestrated to defuse the tensions between the pair, Gainsbourg and Birkin embarked upon a relationship that lasted until 1980. Throughout the 1970s, the pair fascinated France: the elegant Englishwoman and the Franco-Russian roué, Birkin’s coolly understated glamor and Gainsbourg’s charismatic music, the public rows, the beautiful children, the globe-trotting lifestyle – all of which forged an irresistible alchemy.
With Gainsbourg, Birkin became globally infamous for her laissez-faire approach to life, sex, art and underwear. Their duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was so breathily frank that the BBC promptly banned it. Despite this, it became the biggest-selling foreign-language single in the United Kingdom.
On a visit home to her family at the height of her succès de scandale in 1969, she agreed to play the record for her parents as long as they let her lift the needle over the fruitiest bits. One imagines this made for a very short performance indeed – just Gainsbourg’s mellifluous croak and lascivious organ. In 1971, she’d go on to feature on his critically acclaimed album Histoire de Melody Nelson before recording a series of light, poppy solo albums such as Di doo dah and Lolita Go Home.
Birkin and Gainsbourg remained together for a decade, after which she took up with the arthouse director Jacques Doillon, with whom she lived for thirteen years.
Doillon cast Birkin in a number of films in the early 1980s, affording her confidence and serious acting experience, both of which were then at a low ebb. Now she acted on stage, took demanding movie roles, was awarded public and critical acclaim as accomplished film and theater actress, and was firmly established in France. She became globally recognized as a style icon – a woman who eschewed off-the-peg glamor for an innate signature style that always, somehow, just worked, whether she was dressing up for a performance or simply mooching elegantly in big, sloppy shirts and jumpers or jeans around St-Germain-des-Prés.
Birkin remained British to her core, despite the Brits never quite getting to grips with the nature of her artistry. Meanwhile, the French adored what they perceived as her innate Englishness, and Birkin, with her French partners, friends, work and children, clearly loved being perceived as such. Until the end of her life, she was fondly recognized on the streets as she made her daily rounds.
For many years, she had carried a capacious wicker basket that she bought in the late 1960s at some Portuguese fishing village or another. She took it everywhere – until Jacques Doillon, in a fit of pique, deliberately ran it over.
Crushed but not forgotten, the wicker basket lives on in fashion legend. In 1983, Birkin took it on a first-class flight from Paris to London, where it toppled out of an overhead locker and over the head (in both senses) of Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. As Birkin frantically gathered its jumble of contents and bewailed the lack of smart bags suitable for her lifestyle, Dumas regarded the mess about him. A few sketches later, the Hermès Birkin Bag was born. Decades later, it remains one of the most covetable style statements in the world. Like its namesake and inspiration, the handbag is beloved, singularly practical, dreamy and elegant, not to mention built with the perfect blend of British pragmatism and Gallic style.
“Everything she did was so timeless,” says Harris, noting that customers continue to request her perfume to this day. “She was always doing interesting things – just last year, she did a collaboration with APC. It was absolutely phenomenal; everything sold out.”
Harris recalls strolling around Saint-Germain with Birkin and marveling at how gracefully she captivated the neighborhood. “Everybody wanted to talk to her,” Harris says. “It was such a lovely day. She talked to everybody, she was completely humble and very approachable. That was a trait. In fact, the last time I saw her, she was doing a talk with Alexa Chung, and I could see that Alexa was just in awe of her. It was lovely – she was so excited to be doing that interview, but Jane had no idea! She had lived such a life, she had so many stories. She never stopped.”
Photographer Laura Sciacovelli Recalls Birkin’s Charisma on Set
In 2005, the Italian photographer Laura Sciacovelli photographed Birkin for Mixte Magazine. Here she relays the singular experience of meeting and shooting Jane.
Like most incredible women, she was very down to earth and very, very motherly. I was pregnant at the time, and she wanted to talk about it, touching my belly. She was very into having conversations about having children.
She was not fussy at all. She didn’t have to be a diva – her personality was already mythological. There was a sweetness and vulnerability about her which was very striking. I also remember, when I began taking pictures of her, that I noticed she had very piercing blue eyes, which you don’t realize in pictures.
I think she was a reference point for so many models and fashion people, but she was not a fashion person, you know? She was Jane!
Banner: Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg in 1974 in France. (Photo by Gilbert UZAN / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)