She was the London hipster who stole French hearts and whose effortless cool inspired the world’s most iconic bag. Joanne Hegarty meets the still legendary Jane Birkin.
I am sitting in a bustling Paris bistro waiting for one of the world’s greatest style icons to arrive. The scene is charming and very French but it’s loud and there’s barely enough room to swing a cat. Trying to perch on a tiny stool after cramming my wheelie suitcase awkwardly under the table, I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to hear a word the legendary Jane Birkin – actress, singer, model and epitome of 1960s chic and glamour – is going to say.
When Jane, 75, arrives sans make-up, hair wild and free, wearing a long khaki puffer coat with her bulldog Bella in tow, you almost feel the room stop. As we squish in next to one another, half the customers, along with a few starstruck waiters, appear to be not-so-subtly ear-wigging our conversation. Jane lives in a flat nearby and, even though she often pops into the bistro to people watch and answer emails (she tells me she’s already been here the day we meet for coffee with her daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg), her presence captivates those around her.
Jane orders a warm apple tart, and at first is surprisingly shy. She’s reluctant to make eye contact and speaks quietly. I fear this is going to be an absolute disaster. But things soon improve and Jane – all her plummy English vowels still intact despite the half-century living in France – explains her initial timidity springs from suffering a minor stroke last September.
‘I’m still maybe a bit vague. I can’t remember too many things. I am slowly getting back to being normal. It was, however, nice being on a pause for a bit.’
What has never been paused is her sense of style. While these days she prefers to dress in more comfortable clothes such as the black cords, simple knit and Converse she’s wearing today, she still manages to achieve the same effortless look Parisians are famous for. She is also still blessed with that beautiful, wild-child face – the one that lit up 60s counterculture movies such as Blow Up and Kaleidoscope.
‘I don’t bother with make-up any more,’ she says. ‘When you get older, things added onto your face can make you look quite hard and you end up looking like Joan Crawford.’
Did she ever consider a little surgical help? ‘I never dared – it was a question of courage. There are no guarantees that something would not get messed up. But I admire those who do. I think how great that they still feel attractive. It must be wonderful waking up in the morning and feeling like you are still in the game. I’ve gone past that stage. If I was ever going to do it, it would have been ten years ago. There’s no point sticking something in your face at 70. I certainly have nothing against Photoshop, though!’
These days, Jane says she feels like ‘a survivor’, coming to realise that above fashion or style, health is wealth. ‘As you age, if you are healthy, then you shouldn’t moan too much when people much younger have died tragically or are ill with things like leukaemia. I had that [in 2002] and was lucky to survive it.’
It was back in 1984 that Jane’s place in the pantheon of fashion icons was cemented by the creation of the famous Hermès Birkin bag. It’s an iconic item that many fashion connoisseurs – myself included – might consider selling a relation for. Its genesis, however, was a happy accident. Hermès’s chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas just happened to be seated next to Jane on a flight from Paris to London. When she attempted to place her straw travelling bag in the overhead compartment, everything fell out, cascading all over the pair of them. Jane apologised and explained to Dumas it had been impossible to find a leather weekend bag that she liked. Inspiration struck. They then spent most of the flight talking about what their ideal bag would look like, with Dumas scribbling designs on the back of a plane sick bag. From such inauspicious starts, the Birkin was born.
I half wondered if she might show up to our interview carrying one slung over her shoulder – but Jane tells me she has given away all but one of her Birkins to raise money for charitable causes close to her heart. These days she carries most of her belongings in the large, deep pockets of the men’s corduroy trousers she often wears and of which she is a big fan. (To emphasise the deepness of said pockets, she dramatically pulls her keys – attached to her trousers with a long Hermès string – from one and thrusts them in my direction.) Asked whether she is proud of her association with the iconic bags, she says: ‘It is fun to have something named after you. When I’m in New York performing, people often ask whether I am “Birkin the bag” and I say: “Yes, and the bag is going to sing now!” My daughter Lou jokes that she is “the daughter of the bag.”’
Sadly for Jane, all her considerable fame and fortune has come hand in hand with devastating heartbreak. Eight years ago she lost her daughter, photographer Kate Barry, after she fell from the balcony of her Parisian apartment in a suspected suicide. Kate, just 46 when she died, was the eldest of Jane’s three children. Her father was the British composer John Barry, Jane’s first and only husband, best known for his scores for the likes of the James Bond films and Out of Africa. When he and Jane separated shortly after Kate was born, Jane moved to France with Kate, and later had Charlotte with the French singer Serge Gainsbourg, then Lou with the film director Jacques Doillon.
In an interview in 2017, Charlotte said that after losing Kate her mother was ‘gone for years. Really gone… She wouldn’t get up. If you told her to come over, she would, but she didn’t talk, not to my children or to anyone.’
Today Jane is remorseful about this. ‘If there was one thing I could have done better, it would be to think of Charlotte and Lou more when their sister Kate died because they too were lost. When something like that happens, it knocks you over and there’s nothing anyone can say. I was watching Out of Africa on TV last night and I remember thinking how sad I was, not about John, but that I didn’t talk about him more to Kate. Though we had to pipe down a bit in front of Serge because he was bringing her up.’
Serge was 18 years Jane’s senior and as famous for his decadent life as for his songs. The couple never married but were together for over ten years and during that time the story of the English Rose and the unkempt French avant-garde artist was simultaneously captivating and scandalous. They worked together on a string of projects including the 1969 hit song ‘Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus’, which he penned and which scandalised the Vatican and was banned by the BBC after being deemed sexually explicit. Jane’s loyalty to Serge, who died in 1991, is unyielding and their passionate relationship is one of the main subjects in her memoir Munkey Diaries. ‘He was a great person – clever in his way of writing, dashing and funny to boot. A lot of people who are brilliant aren’t funny – they take themselves too seriously. That is an extremely difficult cocktail to find. Those were wonderful years.’
But Jane is at pains to point out that she had more than one great love in her life, and that it would be unfair to her daughter Lou to say her feelings for her father Jacques paled in comparison. ‘He was a very big passion, too, that just so happened to come after Serge. It shouldn’t be underestimated.’
So what does Jane, who found fame in a very different era, think of the world today? Does she consider herself a feminist?
‘I’d like to think I stood up when it counted. But things are happening now without us, it’s quite exciting. My granddaughter Alice [Charlotte’s daughter] lives in New York and is very shocked by how life was in my day, when it was assumed that young girls were somehow responsible for the reactions of older men. Thankfully that’s something that has changed – and to change an accepted point of view is quite something. A young girl’s story is now just as important as anyone else’s and Lou’s son is being brought up far more thoughtfully than boys ever were before.’
As our time together comes to an end we finish by discussing Jane’s fast approaching homecoming. Soon she will return to London to perform songs from her album Oh! Pardon tu Dormais… at London’s Barbican. Jane admits London is the only city that she gets nervous performing in, saying, ‘It’s a mixture of things. It matters the most and it’s the fear of being judged on one’s own ground.’
I tell her she has nothing to worry about. A woman who has led the life she has – and who can give candid interviews at 75 in tiny crowded bistros with her barking bulldog in tow – can cope with anything.