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In our age of social media and celebrity stylists, Jane Birkin’s unstudied gamine style is a revelation. Her particular je ne sais quoi was the living antithesis of today’s face tuning and studied perfection. “My look is a cocktail,” she’s credited as saying, “I’m not as nicely turned out as the French, but I don’t care like the English.” A London-born would-be English rose, Birkin instead found her voice, literally and figuratively, as a French icon. President Emmanuel Macron said as much when he paid homage to her on Twitter yesterday, when he announced her death at age 76.
Jane Birkin is a fashion muse; a style icon whose impact could never be fully quantified. Entire collections and mood boards have been created in homage to her Parisian boheme approach, leaving countless crochet dresses in their wake. But how she inspired Hermès is the stuff of legend. It goes, Birkin boards a plane and gets upgraded, where she’s seated next to Jean-Louis Dumas, chief executive of the storied brand owned by his family. Her items fall clumsily to the floor out of her too-small bag, as she complains that she can never find one to fit her myriad items. In short order, the Birkin is born. It is all Jane; modern yet elegant, a couture take on her signature basket bag. “I would love to have been a sort of neat person and wear a Kelly,” she said in an interview with CBS, “But I never thought you could get enough in it.’’
She was hardly precious about the bag that bore her name, though. She was known to adorn hers with stickers when she did wear it and told the BBC that if you fill the bag with “junk… and half the furniture from your house, it’s a very, very heavy bag… Now I fill my pockets like a man, because then you don’t actually have to carry anything.” It’s that ease of self, that almost mockery of luxury that embodies her ethos — it begs emulating because her appeal exists less in a particular item of clothing as much as in an attitude you can’t quite pin down. But try we will.
Her particular fashion DNA was evident from her first roles, including as The Blonde in the 1966 film “Blow-Up,” directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. There we see her in knit shorts, over-the-knee socks, and classic brown leather boots, already with her hallmark long wispy bangs. A mere two years later, she would meet her future creative and life partner, Serge Gainsbourg on the film set for “Slogan.” They would be together for 12 prolific years (producing music, films, and one child, adding to her brood of one with a former partner — her third daughter would arrive years later with indie film director Jacques Doillon). There are countless Pinterest-worthy photos to document Birkin and Gainsbourg’s famed oh-so-French love affair, each one eviscerating the idea that marriage and motherhood rob a woman of her allure.
The couple’s hit 1969 song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”) was so sensual, it was condemned by the Vatican. Birkin seemed to care little for what the establishment thought — favoring the sheer dresses, mini skirts, knee high boots, and cropped tops that would come to signify the sexual revolution. While doubtlessly a provocateur, one cannot help but think Birkin was merely using fashion as a creative outlet not unlike her performances in song and film. She dressed as she lived, freely and without care for what others thought. “But who wants an easy life?” she asked in an interview in the 1960s, “It’s boring!”
Her real life style and on-screen wardrobes are so entwined it’s difficult to separate the two. Her outfits in “La Piscine” are seared into the subconscious of anyone with a passing fascination with French cinema — or Birkin. That white bikini, more crochet, low slung leather belts, a gingham mini dress, and a basket bag, of course, can send anyone with a pulse down a vintage rabbit hole search on eBay and Etsy.
But Birkin’s chic-yet-undone style didn’t end when she could no longer claim youth, it merely evolved, and aged as beautifully as she did. She traded the skin-baring, simple-yet-glamorous pieces of an ingenue for the insouciant style of a grown up. Paper bag waist trousers, cashmere sweaters, oversized trench coats, white button-downs, and le smoking jackets were swapped for low slung flares, denim short shorts, military peacoats, and swingy fringe dresses.
As Instagram and TikTok introduce the singer’s joie de vivre to new generations of would-be Jane acolytes, the fashion establishment has continued its fascination with her as well. Last year she co-designed her sole fashion collaboration with French mainstay APC. As recently as 2016, Birkin starred in Saint Laurent ads, hand picked by Hedi Slimane. Even after nearly 60 years in the public eye, a place predicated upon the very idea of transience and the hunt for next big thing, everyone still wants to embody a bit of Birkin — whether by dropping $20,000 on the handbag made in her honor, posing on a sail boat in white jeans and a cropped top for the ‘gram, or finally committing to that iconic fringe.
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Meet the Author
Kerry Pieri is a multi-hyphenate creative: fashion editor, brand consultant, author, and more. Pieri served as the digital fashion and features director at Harper’s BAZAAR for ten years, and she continues to write for publications including Eyeswoon, L’Officiel, and Porter Magazine. She has worked within the fashion and editorial industries for fifteen years. Learn more about WWD here.