The world suffered a huge loss yesterday with the death of British-French actress, singer, model, advocate and fashion icon Jane Birkin, OBE, yesterday at the age of 76. Birkin, known (of course!) as the inspiration for the beloved Hermès Birkin – itself the most iconic and desired handbag anywhere in the world – leaves behind a cultural legacy, a music career, a film career, a history of advocacy for women’s and LGBT rights, and three daughters (one who preceded her in death).
A Journey from London to Paris and a Lifelong Affair with Art and Love
Born in London in 1946, Birkin met composer John Barry in 1963 at age 17, and they married in 1965, around the same time she began appearing in films in small roles. She then appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and Kaleidoscope (both in 1966). They had a daughter, Kate Barry, in 1967 (who passed away in 2013). Barry left for the United States in 1968, and they divorced.
Birkin’s minor role in Blowup gained notoriety due to her nude scene. Her 1968 appearance as the lead in the French film Slogan had her co-starting with Serge Gainsbourg, who became her artistic collaborator – working on numerous music and film productions together – and her romantic partner until 1980. Their 1969 song “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus“, which was sexually explicit and banned by radio stations in the UK, Spain and Italy, became the biggest-selling foreign language single in the UK. They had a daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, in 1971, and separated in 1980. She later had a long relationship with director Jacques Doillon, giving birth to daughter Lou Doillon in 1982. Birkin continued to appear in films and record music throughout her life; she remained in France from the late 1960s and and eventually became a French citizen.
Birkin’s most notable honors include being awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2001; she was also appointed a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2013, rising to the highest rank of Commendeur in 2022.
Jane Birkin’s Fateful Flight and the Birth of a Luxury Legend
Birkin is also known for the iconic legacy of a fateful 1983 flight when she was seated next to Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas; her beloved straw basket proved unfit for her travel and she and Dumas famously spent the remainder of their flight discussing the design for a more suitable option, sketched on the back of a paper bag, which was an adaptation of the Haut à Courroies.
Their collaboration, which Dumas named the Birkin after her, has been commemorated in countless ways, most recently as depicted in Jan Bajtlik’s design L’Epopee d’Hermès. Birkin generally only had one of these bags at a time, and always in black; she often covered them with stickers, trinkets and charms, and when one became very worn, Hermès would replace it with a new one; often she would auction her used bags for charity.