“But who wants an easy life?” the actress and singer Jane Birkin once said. “It’s boring!”
Birkin’s style was as much about attitude as it was about clothing. She was born in London in 1946, yet it was in her adopted country, France, that she made waves in the 1960s. Certainly she had qualities that were distinctly French: the wafer-thin physique, the olive skin, the choppy brown bangs she would keep all her life. But it was Birkin’s Englishisms—her rumpled appearance, her roster of crop tops, straw bags, and jeans—that sold her to the French public. Her casual chic was sexy. It was new.
In the early 80s, she captivated Jean-Louis Dumas, the artistic director and C.E.O. of Hermès, who was seated next to Birkin on a flight from Paris to London. When her bag tipped over, its contents spilling onto the floor, Dumas suggested she should have a purse with a pocket. Birkin said that the day Hermès made one, she would buy it. Dumas then revealed who he was and said he would make it for her. A year later came the first Birkin, today the most coveted handbag in the world.
By then, Birkin’s 12-year affair with the actor and musician Serge Gainsbourg had unceremoniously ended. The pair had met on the set of Slogan, in 1968, when she was only 22. Birkin was little known at the time, and Gainsbourg, then 40, was in the middle of a torrid affair with the mega-star Brigitte Bardot.
Birkin and Gainsbourg soon made headlines, and his song “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” originally written for Bardot, was sung by Birkin. National radios banned it. “We are not an immoral couple,” Gainsbourg said about the two of them. “We are an amoral couple.” Birkin encouraged him to stop wearing underwear, and Gainsbourg cast her in his near-pornographic directorial debut, Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (1976). But his drinking and violence mounted, and in 1980 Birkin eloped with the director Jacques Doillon. Still, she remained close to Gainsbourg until his death, 11 years later.
Tragedy would strike Birkin’s later years. In 2013, her daughter Kate Barry allegedly killed herself by jumping out of her Paris window, a mystery that was never fully resolved.
After what was definitely not “an easy life,” Birkin died last Sunday. Two daughters, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, survive her. These photographs capture the je ne sais quoi of the French-British icon. —Elena Clavarino
Jane Birkin was born in London in 1946. She died on July 16, aged 76
Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor at Air Mail