"Icon" status. It's the undefinable, and seemingly unreachable height of fame, achieved by a rare few who are so unapologetically themselves that they make an irrevocable mark on culture. Jane Birkin is one of them. Even 60 years after the height of her career, Birkin is still fashion's number one influencer (sans social media). Filmography, song catalogue or style credibility aside, Birkin will forever be immortalized in the most-coveted bag in the world: the Hermès Birkin — a favorite of Drake, and as recently revealed, more valuable than actual gold (although, criminally, Birkin doesn't see a percentage).
The daughter of a World War II spy and British actress, Judy Campbell, and the ex-wife of Bond composer and Oscar winner John Barry, Birkin rose beside Bridgette Bardot to become one of the most-sought after singers and actresses of the '60s; donning belly button plunging dresses and breathing heavily in the infamous, Vatican-enraging, "Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus." It is her you have to thank for the influx of ballet-flat wearing, basket touting, bangs-adopting girls on your Instagram feed, although, despite her daughter's claims to the contrary, Birkin says she hasn't seen anyone imitate her style.
]The France-based 71 year-old is still as unabashedly vivacious as when she was the most photographed woman in the world, returning to New York to pay homage to Gainsbourg (who passed in 1990) at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra on Feb 1 — her first U.S. performance in six years. PAPER sat down with the sensation to talk Serge, stardom and how Mick Jagger poured liquor in her basket. Oh, and her girl crush on Robin Wright.
Jane Birkin: My first boyfriend had that wonderful accent from New Zealand, like you.
PAPER: Your first boyfriend was Kiwi?
Yes, he was a Kiwi. And I didn't know.
How old were you? Because you got married so young.
I was about 16, 15. I was doing ballet lessons and he was opposite in the block of flats, quite a long way away. So I went down to the end of the road. I had a code with my sister, that I was going down to the end of the road. I'd say, "It's raining," and my parents were perplexed because it wasn't, and he came up behind me. He said hello with that funny accent. I nearly died, it was the most wonderful accent I ever heard in my life. And he had a birthmark on his face... mauve. He must've been about 40.
He was 40?
As a teen in New Zealand, I was looking at pictures of you wearing a lace dress backwards; are you aware of your impact?
I don't think you are aware of what's happening to you. You never think of that sort of thing.
You were photographed all the time.
But I wasn't a model, so I did it for fun. I was never paid. Then I got married at 18, and my father thought I was too young, rightly. It was a terrible mistake.
How did you know it was the right thing?
Well, at the time I thought it was the right thing. I was wrong, but I thought it was. And I didn't think I was going to be so miserable anyway. But out of that came [my daughter] Kate, which was all I wanted. And so when he left, and pushed off to California, I think, without an address and without a phone number, I was alone in England with Kate. I went back to my parents', as people do. They were kind enough not to say we told you so. And then I got a call to do an audition on Kings Road, and the French guy thought I was funny, so he invited me to Paris.
I remember reading somewhere that you described your French as tablecloth French.
Yes, I've been there when I was 15. I must've gone for about six months, but I was in the same block of flats as Edith Piaf when she died. I didn't realize, she was in the same block of flats before she died. And when I tried to get back into my flat, the policeman stopped me — I didn't know what was happening. Then the crowds whispered, it's Françoise Hardy. I was so excited.
They thought you were Françoise Hardy?
Yes, I was so excited, I just bought her record. They let me through, which made everyone think that of course I was Françoise. And then they told us we could look at her Edith's dead body if we wanted to. Also, Serge [Gainsbourg] was also part of the crowd paying his respects to her.
Wait, Serge was there?
I missed him, I wouldn't have known who he was. But in fact, he was one of the people going in the queue. He told me, because it was a very famous house and a very famous day.
How established was he at this point?
At the time of Piaf, he was a sort of marginal artist. Cabaret. Little cabarets. So when he wrote in 1967, he wrote a song then won the Eurovision Song Contest, which was the biggest thing in those days. And so, by the time I turned up to do this film test with him (he was the star), that was in about '68. I couldn't understand a word of the stuff I was trying to learn. So on the way to the studio, I kept on thinking, "Oh, I do hope there will be a car accident. Nothing graphic, just enough so that I didn't have to do this test." Poor Serge saw this English donny bird turn up, who couldn't speak French, didn't know the language, and so he was naturally irritated. But he thought I cried pretty well. By the time I got back to London, they said I got it. Then we started the movie, and then I fell in love with him. But it didn't start off in a good footing.
What advice would you give for long-lasting love?
I realize now, that it was like having lived with Cole Porter. While I was with him, I think he needed his private side, his sort of B-side, his feminine side, and he said I was his best interpreter. I went on singing his B-side, his feminine side, and he could go on burning five hundred francs, riffs on the television. It's glamorous. In fact, he was scandalous, and he was romantic in private.
He was a genius, and the weight that comes with that is immense.
That's why when you've got that many songs. Most of the ones I like the best are the ones when I left him, which I think will be more meaningful and more beautiful.
I know "Je t'aime... moi non-plus" was originally written for Bardot, then you two acted in a film together. Was that not an interesting experience — the former lover and the current lover?
She was married at the time, they had an affair for about a month, or two months. ["Je t'aime... moi non-plus"] was printed, and then she rang to say, "Don't print it out, for me it's going to be a divorce with Gunter Sachs." All Gunter Sachs needed now was a record coming out where she's heavy breathing, you could imagine. She panicked.
It was very decent of him, but he wasn't stupid either, he knew he had a hit on his hands. So a year later, he comes across me and we did the film together, Slogan, and I must've been singing in the bathroom or something, in a very high voice. He said, "Would you sing this, but an octave higher than Bardot so you sound like a choir boy?" It was even more scandalous because it was very high. A choir boy, sort of. I was the lucky one, because it came out first. Later in life, when we were no longer together, he rang me up saying, "I've got bad news for you, Bardot's rung me, and she wants to bring out 'Je T'aime,... Moi Non-Plus.'" What could I say? I'd had all the glory. The Vatican banned it in Italy, also in South America. It was wonderful.
It's the way you get everybody wanting something, by taking it away.
It was the best PR we could ever have. It was divine, it was wonderful. Rather strangely when I went back to singing in Spain, and in South America, they said for us it was a breath of freedom.
What was it like, because you've just come out of this marriage and given birth to a child at such a young age, and you're kind of catapulted to fame, with Slogan and Serge. What was that like for you, that movement and that momentum?
It was all such fun with Serge. We didn't care who's clique we were. We were nothing.
So you weren't schmoozing with Mick and Bianca?
No, English pop stars always think they're the best. I don't even know now whether they realize how great Serge was and Serge adored him. One time we were in a nightclub with them and I used to carry around a basket in those days, and Mick poured liquor in my basket. Serge adored them, because he thought Mick Jagger was one of the most beautiful things on Earth. But I don't think Mick Jagger thought a second about Serge, and I was always vaguely insulted that he didn't realize how great Serge was.
Do you like the fame?
I'm so used to it.
Also, the Birkin. Isn't that crazy that it's worth more than gold?
It's crazy to not have a percentage.
You don't have a percentage?
Well, of course not.
That is news to me.
No, no, I gave it to them.
I didn't know that.
That was part of the beauty of the whole thing. I didn't have a contract with him, I didn't have a contract with anybody. No one ever asked me to design clothes, I wish they had. I'd loved to have done it, and it's something I could have done rather well. So, I was on this plane with him, and I drew the bag. On the vomit paper bag thing, you know the story, that famous story. And then he says, 'I got it on cardboard, come look at it." He was so nice, he was the head of Hermès. He goes up to me and says, "This is so great, all the girls in my bureau want it. Can I call it after you?" It was so flattering, such flattery. I went, "Oh wow, I'd love it."
And now it's become such a status symbol, isn't that...
I don't know anyone who has it. It's stupid. Look, (gesturing towards her Birkin, which is covered with key rings and scarves) I have it with all my Japanese stuff.
Do you have unlimited?
Yeah. Of course. But you have camouflage them as much as you could, or else everyone has the same bag. The one before this one is very well known too, the basket. And it cost two quid.
But how did that come to be, why a basket?
I bought one from a market in the West End and there was a basket. I used to buy one, two, three, because they used to keep breaking. When I arrived in Paris, and I lived with Serge, I had my basket and I wouldn't let go of it. So, we're at a restaurant, they said I can't come in with it. So I said, "Well then I'm not going, Serge." So Serge said, "If she can't bring that basket then we leave." And that was that. And the same thing with nightclubs, the same thing with anywhere.
How does it feel that almost 60 years on women are imitating your style?
It's lovely. But I don't hear about it, I don't see it
I can literally show you pictures of my friends.
My daughter, Lou, says, "You know, mom, you could be making your own label. All the girls would love it." I said "Lou, it's very sweet of you, but it's not a good idea." She said, "It is, it is, people are bringing back your basket." I saw a girl walking down with the basket, I could hardly believe it. I was very, very flattered.
You have an effortlessness to your style. And it's fun, it doesn't take itself too seriously. American woman, New York women are constantly searching to become more Parisian, more French.
In France, beautifully turned out, beautifully... but I prefer English eccentricity, they don't give a damn. I mean, I saw a woman down from her front doorsteps from Kensington and she had her raincoat over her pajamas. She was wearing Wellington boots with her dustbin, and little specks on the end of her beautiful nose. She looked beautiful.
Is there anyone you've ever been starstruck over? Any women you truly admire?
You know, I find it mesmerizing the way, um... Sean Penn's wife. Robin Wright. Wow, how wonderful she looks. She looked fantastic.
Robin Wright recently won her fight for equal pay on set.
Until we get equal pay, we won't be respected. It really is something that I believe in. It's not so much actresses, we're lucky because sometimes we are paid the same.
Were you shocked by the Weinstein reckoning?
The really nasty part was the fact that he got people to silence the girls. It's just so creepy. So, if girls have been going through this in offices, and quite ordinary jobs, not just actresses, it's always been the case that there's producers and directors that want to sleep with you. But, this harassment and silencing people, like the mafia, it's absolutely terrifying what they must have been through. But especially the sad thing of men being worried about taking the same lift as a girl because she could suddenly turn you in.
But at the same time, women have been afraid to speak for so long, it's been so unfair. That's why the tables have turned.
A revolution. Personally I think this will make a few people wake up in France, and that's not bad.
Photography by Nico Bustos/Shoichi Kano, all other images via Getty