Birkin: Much more than a bag

Birkin: Much more than a bag

Model, actress and musician Jane Birkin in St James Park in London, ahead of the launch of her album, Jane Birkin au Palace.

Jane Birkin with husband Serge Gainsbourg at London's Heathrow airport after arriving from Paris.

Jane Birkin in concert at The Roundhouse in Camden, north London.

First published in ShuttleXtra

Jane Birkin talks to us about her glamorous film and music career, singing naked in bed with Bridget Bardot, her love affair with Serge Gainsbourg, just how she got Hermes to design her the perfect sized handbag, her devotion to her three daughters and reveals just what Je T'aime... Mois Non Plus means to her.

By Albertina Lloyd

At 62, Jane Birkin is certainly no old bag. The English actress, model, singer and film director has lived in France since the late Sixties and while she oozes glamour, she is too adorable for her Parisian chic to be intimidating.

Dressed simply in a black shift dress, black stilettos with minimal make-up and jewellery, and her cropped hair ruffled, she is still every bit the sex symbol who burst onto the scene in Blow Up in 1966 - and she lives up to her icon status.

She even has an assistant who carries her bulging Hermes Birkin bag for her, and plonks it at her feet, dripping with beads she has wrapped around the expensive leather, making it seem softer, and more her own.

And as she smiles coyly, pulling her dress up where it has slipped to reveal her bare, bra-less shoulder and begins to speak in that sweet breathy voice that made her famous in the song Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus, she puts you at ease and wins your heart, like she has won so many before.

She certainly won Jean Louis Dumas's heart, president of Hermes, when she sat next to him on a plane - following their meeting, he made the Birkin bag for her.

The story goes that her former lover Jacques Doillon, despised the basket she used to carry around with her, calling it a "gimmick", and one day he intentionally ran over it in his car.

"So I had to carry all my stuff either in a plastic bag or in a camel's stomach, something rather unattractive.

"I was rushing for a plane and I remember the air hostess upgraded me and so I was sitting in club class.

"My agenda fell to the ground and the man next to me said 'oh goodness, you should have pockets in your agenda' and I said 'I would have pockets in my agenda should Hermes make an agenda with pockets, but they don't'.

"And he said 'I am Mr. Hermes, I'm called Mr. Dumas. Give me your agenda and I'll have pockets put in it'.

"So I said, 'why don't you make a bag that's a bit bigger than the Kelly bag because you can't get enough stuff in the Kelly bag?' And I drew him a little design and he said 'okay, I'll make it for you'.

A month later, they met again and Dumas duly gave Birkin back her agenda, with new pockets.

"He was true to his word - and when he presented the bag to me, he said 'can I call it after you?'

"I was proud, I thought how gorgeous to have a bag named after you, it was really flash."

But the bag soon began to eclipse its muse.

Birkin reveals: "I went to New York to sing a few years later. People looked at the bag and when they heard my name, they screamed and they said 'Birkin! Like the bag?'

"And I said 'yes - the bag is now going to sing'."

The bag has redeemed itself though. Hearing Sharon Stone had designed a charity bag for Louis Vuitton, Birkin negotiated for an amount of the profits to be donated to charity every year.

The older generation will know mother-of-three Birkin best for her breathy duet with French singer-songwriter, actor and director Serge Gainsbourg.

In 1968, Birkin won Gainsbourg's heart when she went to France, aged 21, with her baby daughter Kate (from her first marriage to composer John Barry), to audition to appear opposite him in Slogan.

But their first meeting did not go so well.

"I thought he was arrogant," she recalls. "He was a bit like Rhett Butler - frankly my dear, I couldn't give a damn."

Their first scenes involved Birkin perching on the edge of a bath naked. To break the ice, the film's director took the pair out to dinner.

Birkin enthusiastically takes up the story of the night they fell in love.

"I was alone with Serge by the dance floor, so I asked him to dance. He walked on my feet and I thought 'ooh gosh that's charming, he doesn't know how to dance, how wonderful, I love men who don't know how to dance'.

"What I'd taken for arrogance was extreme shyness."

The night became more magical when Gainsbourg took Birkin on a tour of his favourite Paris haunts and they drank champagne until 6 o'clock in the morning.

Back at the Hilton Hotel, Birkin left Serge lying "plastered" on his bed and crept out and bought a "little 45 record called Yummy Yummy Yummy (I've Got Love In My Tummy)".

"I stuck it between his toes, went back to my Hotel Esmeralda, pure as driven snow, and then I realised that he was quite an extraordinary person."

The couple lived together for 13 years and had Antichrist actress daughter Charlotte.

Gainsbourg wrote many songs for Birkin, but most famously they recorded Je T'aime, which he had written for his former lover Brigitte Bardot.

"I only sang it because I didn't want anybody else to sing it," insists Birkin, who claims French beauties were always asking Gainsbourg to let them record it and she was jealous at the thought of them sharing a recording studio.

"So when Serge heard me singing rather brightly in the bath, he said 'I'm going to write Jane B and then on the other side, perhaps you'd like to sing Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus, but in an octave higher than the Bardot version so you'll sound like a little boy'. I said yes immediately.

"So off we went to Marble Arch to record it. He was very afraid that I'd get carried away with the heavy breathing and so whilst I was breathing, he was making gestures, so I stopped breathing and that's why there's a little gap if you listen to it."

The song was a huge hit but was also banned by several countries and the BBC for its sexual lyrics. But Birkin still loves it and even imagines it will be played at her funeral.

"I know what they'll play as the feet go out first. It's quite nice to know what they're going to play."

And Birkin needn't have worried what Bardot would make of her re-recording her song.

"I did Don Juan with her and when we were naked in the bed we didn't know what to do.

"So I said 'let's sing a little song and she said 'Why don't we sing Je T'aime...?' And I thought 'uh oh', so I said 'why not sing My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean?'

"So we sang My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean and she couldn't have been sweeter, there was not one fault in the girl."

Birkin has been so many things in her life and still is, but asked how she wants to be remembered, she says: "I think I'd like the children to say I was an alright mother."

She recently directed and co-starred in Boxes with her daughter Lou Doillon - from her relationship with Jacques Doillon - a film which she insists is not autobiographical.

"I got very cross when people said Lou's playing so-and-so. People have offered me purses of gold to write an autobiography, but I don't want to write one."

But Birkin does admit she based some of the film on her own experiences and wanted to show the feelings she has as a mother to her three daughters.

"Not the jealousy, not the longing for them not to make the same mistakes as you, but the desire for them to be taken seriously and not just as a pin-up like I was.

"I did Je T'aime... and all the covers of Paris Match and all the photos that everyone wanted me to do with no clothes on, which was all fine, but suddenly it was the only thing about you.

"I told Charlotte to make a film on her own, and I'm proud of that because I wanted people to salute her as an actress and not just as 'the daughter of' other people.

"When Charlotte won best actress this year at Cannes (for Antichrist), God was I proud.

"I have three daughters and it's very difficult when you do interviews to try and be fair to all three. Lou is starting out and Kate's a fantastic photographer."

Devoted mother Jane Birkin might be the label she most enjoys, but does she consider herself French or English?

"I'm on a raft, somewhere between the two. And on either side I turn up I find it delightful."

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