I remember when I first came across the doe-eyed, willowy romantic icon Jane Birkin. We were nineteen, taking an epic trip through Italy and desperately hoping to fall in love. One of my university friends introduced me to Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, a seminal moment where my style and romantic sentimentality irrevocably changed forever. And just like that, it was love at first sight.
On Sunday, it was announced that fashion icon, singer and actor Jane Birkin had died aged 76. She was the uncrowned queen of French chic, a deeply romantic and emotional individual, inextricably bound to her romantic and creative partner Serge Gainsbourg in such a way that has often overshadowed the recognition of her own work and contribution to musical, cinematic and creative culture.
Many will remember Birkin for her eponymous creative partnership with Hermès, the iconic tote released in 1984 and their bestselling handbag. I msyelf was drawn to her not for the bag or her 1969 hit single with Gainsbourg Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus, but her deep understanding of love and iconic feminine style, that was for me the perfect culmination of casual, chic and sexy. I admired the way she would shimmy from day, a white tee with jeans and a little basket, into night, a slinky number like the naked dress she wore to the 1969 premiere of ‘Slogan’ was extraordinarily enviable and right up until the end, her Cannes wardrobe was always perfect (she wore an untucked white shirt, jeans and converse to the photocall of her daughter’s documentary ‘Jane par Charlotte’ in 2021). She was consistently chic, effortless and unafraid to dazzle, shock or push the boundaries of fashion at the time.
London – 1946 – the path was paved for Jane Mallory Birkin to lead a colorful life, when she was born to glamorous theater actress Judy Campbell and David Birkin, a Royal Navy lieutenant and World War II espionage operative. She was raised in Chelsea, alongside a brother, Andrew Birkin, and then educated on the Isle of Wight at Upper Chine School. At the age of seventeen, she married the Oscar-winning film composer John Barry in 1965 and then gave birth to her first child Kate*, in 1967.
*Kate died tragically in December 2013
Jane Birkin quickly emerged at the epicenter of the Swinging London, landing a role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 picture ‘Blowup’ and then in the 1966 film ‘Kaleidoscope’ a counterculture comedy crime with Warren Beatty and Susannah York. In 1968, Birkin co-starred alongside Serge Gainsbourg in the 1968 film ‘Slogan’ and they met for the first time in Paris at the audition for the film.
The year was 1968, student riots raged through the streets and Jane did a screen test alongside Serge for Pierre Grimblat’s ‘Slogan’. When she went out with Pierre after the audition, his Porsche had been blown up in front of the Saint-Germain drug store, a dramatic moment that heralded how her life would change after being offered the part to star in the film. Eighteen years her senior, Gainsbourg quickly became an important figure in her life. Upon completing the film, she wrote in her book ‘Munkey Diaries’, ‘there is a man in it whom I love and he is called Serge Gainsbourg. He is very strange looking but I love him.’ She then talks about how when she dragged him onto the dancefloor in 1968 he walked on her feet and she realized he didn’t know how to dance, which she found ‘exquisite’. On Gainsbourg, Birkin writes with a heady intoxication that is wildly romantic, reflective of how deep her love was for the man. After ‘Slogan’, Jane went on to star in the sublime psychological thriller in 1969 ‘La Piscine’ directed by Jacques Deray, alongside Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. It was this film that enabled her to relocate permanently to France at the bright-eyed age of 21, after getting a divorce from Barrie.
In 1969, after hearing Jane sing in the bathtub, Serge asked her if she would sing Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus with him. Previously it was recorded as a duet with Brigitte Bardot, only for her to put a stop to its release, fearful of how scandalous it was going to be. Jane and Serge recorded the track at a big studio in Marble Arch, collaboratively creating what is perhaps one of the sexiest tracks ever recorded. Birkin’s sensual silky high-octave pillow-talk whispers and warbling’s perfectly complement Gainsbourg’s bright and raspy French vocals. The scandalized hit record was brought out as an LP under a cellophane cover, climbed all the charts in Europe, was banned by the BBC and condemned by the Vatican.
Throughout their relationship, Birkin and Gainsbourg had a high level of love and respect for one another, along with a healthy dose of passionate drama that ensured life was kept interesting whilst they were together. Notably, a lemon pie thrown in Serge’s face at the famous nightclub Castel’s, a fabulous circus party involving Portuguese sangria, with red wine, cloves and peaches, and a beautiful daughter named Charlotte who was born in 1971. The relationship between the pair ended in 1980 after Jane tired of being his ‘puppet’, along with his drunkenness and selfishness, but they continued to remain close and co-parent Charlotte despite no longer being together. Both embarked on new relationships, Birkin with the film director Jacques Doillon and Gainsbourg with the actor, singer and model Caroline Paulus, known as Bambou. What strikes me now is the pertinence that even though the relationship between Jane and Serge ended, their love continued to live on strongly.
Birkin had a two-fold relationship between love and freedom. In a 1980 entry in ‘Munkey Diaries’, she writes of a yearning for independence and to live a life away from Serge: ‘I want a house full of sunlight, children playing in the garden, nothing forbidden, no more orders; I’d live alone, I’d do what I want. I’m thirty-three and I want to live as I want, without being dominated, without fear, without shame, but with Serge he’ll never let me be like that.’ Perhaps if this were today, Birkin might have felt that she was able to live this life she dreamt of where she could do exactly as she pleased and source love from other aspects of her life besides romantic relationships.
One message that Birkin communicates beautifully is that true love stands the test of time. Even though the romantic and sexual relationship between Jane and Serge run its course, Jane writes, ‘in my dreams, Serge, you never left’, a longing that reminds us of the somewhat sublime and magical nature to love, marrying both the ordinary and the extraordinary, that to love and be loved is both so complex and spectacular.
Beyond 1980, Birkin went on to lead a colorful and varied career in the art. She co-starred with John Gielgud in ‘Leave All Fair’ in 1985, collaborated with Agnès Varda in 1988 on the extraordinary ‘Jane B. for Agnes V’ and appeared in Merchant Ivory’s ‘A Soldier Never Cries’ in 1998. In her later life, she featured in an ongoing campaign for Hedi Slimane’s Yves Saint Laurent alongside Marianne Faithfull, Courtney Love and Joni Mitchell in 2016 and had a lead role in a short film titled ‘La Femme et le TGV’ directed by Swiss filmmaker Timo von Gunten, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Perhaps her most challenging, intimate and complex project was ‘Jane par Charlotte’ (a nod to the Varda film), a documentary directed by her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, released in 2021 that explored their mother-daughter relationship, a reminder that right until the end she was prepared to allow audiences into her experiences of love.
As I reflect on how Birkin has impacted me, I lean towards her perceptions of love and romance. Growing up, my appetite for Disney pictures and then romantic-comedies meant I believed that true love only had neat, complete, happy endings. I now recognize how it has no beginning, middle and end, rather is complex, incomplete and yet there is so much beauty in this. Jane Birkin leaves the legacy not just of a bag or of an extraordinarily great love story, but of a woman who was unafraid of self-expression through her style and philosophies. She leaves me with the courage to love deeply with compassion and not be afraid to put my emotions on show, perhaps with a perfect fringe and wicker basket in tow as I canter down the Croisette in the month of May.
‘Life is so short and sometimes I worry that I will die without you knowing the immensity of my love’ wrote Jane to Serge in 1981 and it might benefit us all to remember this from time to time. True romance isn’t going out of fashion anytime soon and neither is Birkin, a woman who loved to love, threw out the style rule books and will live on far beyond her time.