Jane Birkin's Legacy Lives On
Film/TV

Jane Birkin's Legacy Lives On

"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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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