The namesake behind the coveted Hermès handbag looks back at her career and love affairs.
The night Jane Birkin flung herself into the inky-black waters of the Seine, she did so to end a lovers’ quarrel. She was 19 and her lover, Serge Gainsbourg, 36. The grand gesture was worth the risk. And taking risks has always served Birkin well.
For half a century, Birkin has artfully parlayed her je ne sais quoi into fame and longevity in an industry notoriously known for its fickle, love ’em and leave ’em infatuation with starlets and their leading men. And after all this time, at 72, Birkin remains a beloved movie star, songstress, and fashion icon—and most recently, the venerable face of Yves Saint Laurent.
Birkin made her debut in 1966 as one of the era’s original “It” girls. She booked one of her first acting jobs with a bit part in Blow-Up, a British film where she briefly appears nude. Her nudity caused an uproar, but it also paved the way to a career that would eventually include over 70 films, more than 20 albums, and of course, her namesake, that bag.
The English actress didn’t speak any French, but still managed to break into New Wave French cinema by snagging the lead in 1969’s Slogan, a film starring Gainsbourg, France’s leading man. By the time the movie wrapped, Birkin and Gainsbourg lay the glittering foundation for what would become a storied, lifelong collaboration that would catapult English-born Birkin to a household name.
Inseparable for more than 10 years, Birkin became Gainsbourg’s glamorous muse, and together they were the face of European counterculture. Nothing, it seemed, was off limits. Birkin’s blend of boho-chic microminis, knee-high boots, and ubiquitous wicker basket inspired legions of women to take fashion risks. Her unmistakable gap-toothed smile, fringed bangs, and long hair epitomized the era’s new axiom for beauty, and she was its cheerful poster child.
The trendsetter is best known for her simple and provocative silhouettes: white unbuttoned men’s dress shirts casually paired with blue jeans and ballet flats or low-top trainers; no-fuss midrifts and low-slung denims; chain-mail dresses or sheer fabrics.
Today, her many looks have influenced countless Pinterest and Instagram followers who seek to emulate her legendary style. Singer-songwriter Lou Doillon, Birkin’s youngest daughter, recently told CNN she views her mother as someone not particularly beholden to prescribed conventions. It’s quite the opposite, she says.
“Mom represents a very Parisian style. She was very influenced by French designers, for sure,” Doillon told CNN. “I found actual looks from my mom I thought were T-shirts and they were dresses and completely transparent! And it was fine, which seems mad today!”
By all measures, Jane Birkin has had her fair share of heartbreak in an otherwise storybook life. At just 17, she married John Barry, multiple Academy Award winner and composer of the James Bond films, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves and father of her first daughter, the late photographer, Kate Barry. Though the marriage failed, Birkin gained enough traction in England to hedge her cinematic bets across the pond in France.
She credits her whirlwind romance and marriage to Gainsbourg, the preeminent French composer-singer-director of the time, as the impetus that transformed her life. Their life together was fodder for the paparazzi as their affair played out across the front pages, thanks in part to his larger-than-life persona. The press couldn’t get enough, and the public consumed it.
Gainsbourg originally wrote their infamous duet, Je t’aime… Moi non plus for his former lover, femme fatale Brigitte Bardot, but it was his version with Birkin that made it famous. The song, scandalous for its lyrics and Birkin’s explicit moaning, was denounced by the pope and banned by radio stations in several countries. Despite the collective outrage, the single sold more than six million copies. Overnight, Birkin was a star. Soon after, they had a daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, the multiple-award-winning singer-songwriter and actress. Eventually though, Gainsbourg’s antics and alcoholism ended their marriage.
Birkin later married Jacques Doillon, the French film director with whom she had her third daughter, Lou Doillon. She made three films with him and of those critically acclaimed collaborations, Birkin told the New York Times, “They were probably the best films I did.”
But that marriage was doomed to fail. Despite having divorced Gainsbourg, he continued to be an enormous influence. “He never really went away. He would still write music for me and he would phone every evening,” she told the Daily Mail. According to Birkin, even after their divorce Gainsbourg continued to write prolifically for her, and in her view, those melodies and lyrics were his saddest and most beautiful songs. She, in turn, would continue to sing his songs, even after his death in 1991. When Gainsbourg died, her marriage to Doillon ended as well. She never remarried.
Decades before the highly sought-after Hermès Birkin bag was created, Birkin was long associated with a wicker-basket purse she’d often purchase for five quid at London’s Portobello Road. The basket, unconventional but functional, was a Birkin staple, and she was rarely seen without it.
Yet, as luck would have it, a 1983 chance encounter on an Air France flight led Birkin to finally ditch her basket. On that fabled flight, as the story goes, Birkin spilled her basket as she placed it in the overhead compartment. The stranger who sat beside her was none other than Jean-Louis Dumas, a fifth-generation descendant of famed fashion atelier, House of Hermès.
Lamenting the lack of suitable handbag choices, she asked Dumas, “Why don’t you make a handbag that’s bigger than the Kelly, but not as big as my suitcase, which weighs a ton,” she recalled during an interview with CBS’ Sunday Morning. As the story goes, during the short flight she drew a sketch of the ideal bag on a napkin and a month later the serendipitous Birkin-Dumas prototype was born. She approved the sample and when the designer asked if they could name it after her, she signed off on the collaboration. “I was so flattered!” she said.
But despite its unorthodox beginnings, the Hermès Birkin bag is a veritable symbol of elegance and refinement. Today, savvy collectors, on average, will pay between $10,000 to $150,000, depending on the size, fabrics, and skins used, and wait a year or more to receive the signature piece.
Charlene Parson, a well-respected fashion authority and current fashion director of the Miami International University of Art & Design, says the Hermès Birkin handbag is truly a wise investment. It is an exceptional piece of wearable art, made with superior attention to detail and craftsmanship, she says.
“When a woman walks into a room with the Hermès Birkin bag, it is noticed before anyone looks at anything else,” says Parson. “It continues to be relevant today because it is the only bag made by hand with the finest of leathers and skins. It does not get old, but truly gets better with time.”
Caring for Your Hermès Birkin
Giovanni Mesa, accessories director at Massimo Dutti, shares his tips on how to keep an Hermès Birkin handbag in its absolute best condition:
1. When not in use, store the handbag in its official protective cloth bag.
2. Always store the bag at room temperature.
3. Keep bags away from prolonged direct sunlight exposure. Some leathers are harmed by extreme heat or cold.
4. Have the bag professionally cleaned. Hermès offers spa services for its handbags.
5. Always read the care labels on your bags.
Case in point: The Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Diamond Birkin handbag sold in 2017 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong for approximately $380,000. It was the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction. And how did it fetch that price? The diamond Himalaya Birkin is crafted by hand with Niloticus crocodile hide and finished with 10.23 carats of diamonds on its 18-karat-gold hardware. The hide is painstakingly dyed by expert craftsmen to achieve its gradated shades of gray and white—intentionally designed to reflect the snowcapped Himalayan mountains. The finished handbag is a masterpiece in artistry and workmanship.
When Birkin speaks of her creation, its lasting cultural impact and explosive market value, it is obvious the bag’s indisputable success is second to her amused delight. She says, “When someone says to me, ‘What will you be best known for?’ I will say, the bag. Well, it could be worse!”
That’s an understatement.
Selecting an Hermès Birkin Handbag
Mesa says few bags rival the mystique and exclusivity of an Hermès Birkin; therefore, thoughtful planning is a must before purchasing the holy grail of handbags.
The handbag is timeless and classic. It goes with anything. It can be dressed up and down. Neutral colors—nude, gray, or black—work best as an everyday bag and can be paired with anything.
The Hermès Birkin is all about quality. The craftsmanship of the bag is impeccable. It is hand sewn and made with Grade A, hand-painted leathers.
It must fit a person’s lifestyle and needs. It is available in different sizes and capacities. The Birkin 30 is the most versatile size and works well with most body frames.
Birkin, today, uses her platform to advance various humanitarian causes, most notably by working with Amnesty International and the International Human Rights Federation to raise awareness of human rights violations.
She continues to masterfully interpret Gainsbourg’s body of work through concert tours and recordings. Her most recent critically acclaimed album, Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, is a complex take on their most famous collaborations between 1968 and 1991, and is performed with a full orchestra before international audiences.
In many ways, Birkin’s life, to date, remains inextricably entwined with Gainsbourg’s, and by all accounts, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
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