Jane Birkin, actress/singer and style icon, best known for her 1969 hit song “Je t’aime … moi non plus”, which she sang with her then lover, the late French singer Serge Gainsbourg, has died aged 76. She has also starred in dozens of films and is known for her tireless campaign for women and LGBTQ rights, but what everyone remembers is her as the inspiration for the famous Birkin bag.
But how was the world’s most famous, influential and coveted handbag born, back in 1981? “I remember it perfectly!” said Birkin. “On an Air France flight to London, I found myself sitting next to a man, Hermès visionary Jean-Louis Dumas. I’m not quite sure what bag I had on me, but on the flight, everything I had on me fell out, and the man sitting next to me said, ‘I need one with pockets. I said, ‘the day Hermès makes a bag with pockets, I’ll have one’. He said ‘but I am Hermès and I will put pockets in it for you’.” Birkin then recounted that when she visited Hermès some time later to purchase the result of her in-flight ‘private order’, Dumas instead suggested that they give Birkin the bag in exchange for her lending her surname to christen the design. The fashion house, incidentally, paid her an annual royalty, which she passed on to charities each year.
How would you describe the style represented by Jane Birkin? First of all, there were the shrunken T-shirts, the cropped jeans, the “babydoll” dresses, worn with perhaps more panache overseas only by Mia Farrow. But we could also mention the slightly tangled bangs that she wore all her life, looking as if she had cut them herself with nail clippers. Her style was very different from American style and she introduced something completely new into the universal fashion vocabulary. There was something very British about her, but she combined it with the classic French codes in a very unabashed and very cool way. But the most important ingredient was of course Hermès’ indispensable Birkin bag. Before the invention of the handbag, Birkin was often photographed carrying a straw basket full of make-up, keys and other accessories. “I was known for carrying a basket,” she explained in a 2018 interview. “I knew girls liked to have a lot of things in their bags”.
The Birkin, made of supple leather, is based on an earlier Haut à Courroies bag made by Hermès around 1900. With its loop-like handles, closed by a strap attached to a distinctive piece of iron (and usually left open to reveal the Hermès logo), the bag has over the years become a globally recognised symbol of status and wealth. With a base price of more than $10,000, the Birkin remains endlessly coveted and customisable (a Diamond Himalaya version became the most expensive handbag ever, selling for more than $450,000 at Sotheby’s 2022 auction), and is worn and collected by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B.
Jane Birkin herself favoured simple leather styles and embellished them in her signature relaxed, bohemian way with pearls, keys and even her watch.