Remembering Jane Birkin: The Icon Behind the World’s Most Sought-After HandbagDate: 09/01/2023
Do you know the name behind fashion’s most recognizable handbag? Now it’s time to learn!
I’m sad to report, but the woman who happened to inspire the design of our top favorite accessory, The Birkin Bag, has passed away at the ripe age of 76. And although she spent much of her last days battling Leukemia in the quiet of her home, I want to showcase the awesome life she lived prior to (and even during) her diagnosis. Certainly, as a fashion lover who also lives with a chronic illness, I continue to be inspired by the glamorous life this woman lived, particularly how she managed to avoid being bound up in the confines of a culture that sought to control her!
So, if you’re ready to walk down memory lane, let’s look at the wonderful life, loves, and immaculate charisma of the one and only, Jane Birkin!
Humble beauty, charming looks
Though most of us know Jane Birkin for her beauty, what with her signature flared jeans, mini dresses, and messy bangs, Birkin herself didn’t always think herself beautiful, likely as a result of all the bullying she underwent as a child in boarding school. In fact, until her second marriage, she thought she was merely passable, and relied on makeup a lot in her youth to draw attention away from the parts of her face she didn’t love, like her ‘small piggy eyes’ (her words, not mine!). She’s even admitted that, with her first husband John Barry (a famous composer), she would sleep with an eyeliner under her pillow, and was constantly insecure about her ‘boyish figure’ and flat chest! I guess it goes to show how powerful our self-perceptions can be, when even the ultimate ‘It Girl’ of the 1970s can view herself as less than incredibly gorgeous and unique.
Now, having been somewhat in the spotlight up to then – in part due to her marriage to Barry – it follows that Birkin would begin auditioning for television and film shortly after her first divorce. Thankfully, acting runs in her family (her mother was a famous actress at the time), and very soon her work became noticed by one, Serge Gainsbourg, who was her co-star in a film that would bring her to France in 1968 at just 22 years old. As the story goes, it was this somewhat scandalous union to Mr. Gainsbourg (18 years her senior), as well as her signature accented style of speaking – being originally from the UK – that supercharged her fame to true celebrity status.
Romancing in France
From the get-go, the romance between Gainsbourg and Birkin was turbulent–and the world took notice. As the couple’s energy became more bohemian and hedonistic, full of drinking and smoking and sex, so too did their mutual music and art projects. For example, soon after their marriage the couple recorded a steamy duet called “Je t’aime…moi non plus”, which catapulted Birkin into the role of sex symbol thanks to her smooth voice paired with Gainsbourg’s more growly timbre. In fact, the song was considered so risqué that it was actually banned in several countries (even by the Vatican!) for being too explicit–though of course the track reached Number One in the UK charts the same year it was released.
Sadly, her beau would eventually leave France for America, where Birkin only stayed a year before leaving; still, it is said that Gainsbourg and Birkin remained friends until his dying day in 1991. It is this friendship which resulted in many songs written for Birkin lamenting the couple’s beautiful end. Of one song Birkin has said: “It’s the most beautiful song about separation you could ever have”.
So, alone and back at ‘home’ in France, her passion for acting grew even more, and departing from typical casting that saw her in ‘dumb woman’ roles, Birkin was finally able to solidify her status as an actress by appearing in more than 70 films and art productions directed by France’s most famous directors, including the likes of Jean-Luc Godard! Not only that, but she managed to snag three separate acting nominations at France’s version of the Oscars (Cesars) starting in 1985!
The Birkin Handbag
Around the time that Birkin was becoming more and more renowned as an actress and singer (she performed her first solo concert at the age of 40 at Bataclan Theatre), the fashion ‘accident’ of the century occurred.
On one of many flights to and from acting and singing gigs across the globe, Birkin happened to be upgraded to a seat next to Hermès chief executive at the time, Jean-Louis Dumas. As she tried to then put her signature ‘picnic basket’ bag into the overhead compartment, many of the contents fell to the floor, at which time Dumas is said to have made a comment about her needing to find a bag with better pockets.
Did you know? Birkin’s hand-woven straw basket was from Castro Marim in Portugal, and she took it literally everywhere she went until Jacques Doillon (her second husband) intentionally ran it over with his car sometime in the early 80s!
True to form, Birkin retorted that the day Hermès designs a bag with good pockets, that she would wear it. Right then and there, Birkin sat down, pulled a sick bag out of the seat pocket, and together her and Dumas sketched out Birkin’s dream accessory: a handbag that is bigger than the Kelly, smaller than a suitcase, with pockets and an open mouth for easy shopping!
Promising to follow-through on the bag’s design, Birkin eventually received the very first Birkin Bag to her door, though it wasn’t yet called that, in simple black. To the joy of Dumas, she immediately fell in love with the bag, and started wearing it wherever she went.
The thing is, we love our Birkins so much that we often take great care with our bags. We don’t want to ruin our largest investments, right? But Birkin didn’t see her bag that way. Indeed, Jane liked to add unique touches to her handbag, sometimes stickers or beads, sometimes with charms and ribbons. That’s actually the subject of one of my favorite quotes from Birkin, which goes like this: “There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around, so that it looks as if a cat’s been sitting on it – and it usually has. The cat may even be in it!’.
It just goes to show how sturdily made the Birkin bag is when we note that Birkin herself only owned a few of these bags in her lifetime. One of her bags even went on display in 2021 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London! Otherwise, for the most part, Birkin actually used the bag’s fame as leverage to gather funds for causes that had become close to her heart.
Philanthropy and activism
Throughout the years, Hermès is said to have annually paid about $40,000 in royalties to Birkin to use her name in their marketing and for the handbag design itself. Not one to keep that money for herself though, these funds were often put on the books as donations to various charities. Not only that, but Birkin used the proceeds from putting one of her own Birkin bags up for auction in 2014 to support Anno’s Africa, a non-profit close to her heart. That same bag later sold for a whopping $162K at auction, though the funds went to the bag’s seller on that occasion.
As she moved away from acting and more into her role as an activist, Birkin began using her fame as a platform to support humanitarian interests like immigrant welfare and the HIV/AIDs epidemic. She began to visit war-torn countries to shine light on the atrocities occurring overseas in Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda, and even Palestine.
This isn’t to say that Birkin wasn’t always somewhat of an activist, however. For instance, as early as the 70s Birkin was already demonstrating in the streets against capital punishment, and in support of the right to abortion. It’s therefore not as much of a surprise to note that in her later years, she would take a highly active stance in French politics, lambasting Marine Le Pen, and marching in support of refugee rights and immigration, as well as to draw attention to the continued fight against climate change.
Most interestingly for this exploration, or at least I think so, is that Birkin wrote a public letter to Hermès in 2015 to request that her name no longer be associated with the iconic handbag.
As it turns out, Birkin knew what she was talking about. Her activism was in direct response to the substandard usage and procurement of crocodile leather in Hermès bags overall, which she requested be improved to incorporate harm-free skin acquisition. To date, Hermès insists they were able to change their procedures in light of Birkin’s activism, which goes to show just how strongly they wanted their name associated with hers, and the far reach of this important woman’s words!
Strength in passing
Sadly, now that Jane Birkin has passed, we only have her memory to go by, but what a memory and history she has left us with! I am inspired by this woman who was so humble, yet so bold. And now that we are both inaugurated into her world (and what she gave to us by being in our worlds), we can all wear our Birkin bags a little more proudly through the streets, knowing that they represent our own individuality, as well as the deep individuality of Jane Birkin. These bags now also signify the simple power of asking for exactly what you want…especially when you meet a famous handbag designer on an airplane! (haha).
Truly though, I hope you enjoyed this little dive into Jane Birkin’s story. It really is eye opening to see that there was so much more to this woman than you see at face value…which if I’m being honest, can be said of many of my favorite female icons (like Audrey Hepburn). And although she is no longer with us, Birkin and Hermès have together worked to make sure she is not so quickly forgotten. In fact, those of us with Birkin bags can carry a little piece of her wherever we go.
Isn’t that just a lovely thought?
With all my love,
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