Actor and singer Jane Birkin, who made France her home and charmed the country with her English grace, natural style and social activism, has died at age 76.
The London-born star and fashion icon was known for her musical and romantic relationship with French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Their songs notably included the steamy Je t’aime moi non plus (I Love You, Me Neither).
Birkin’s ethereal, British-accented singing voice interlaced with his gruff baritone in the 1969 duet that helped make her famous and was forbidden in Italy after being denounced in the Vatican newspaper.
The style Birkin displayed in the 1960s and early 1970s — long hair with bangs, jeans paired with white tops, knit mini dresses and basket bags — still epitomizes the height of French chic for many women around the world.
Birkin was also synonymous with a Hermes bag that bore her name. Created by the Paris fashion house in 1984 in her honour, the Birkin bag became one of the world’s most exclusive luxury items, with a stratospheric price tag and years-long waiting list to buy it.
In her adopted France, Birkin was also celebrated for her political activism and campaigning for Amnesty International, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, the fight against AIDS and other causes.
“You can always do something,” Birkin said in 2001, drumming up support for an Amnesty campaign against torture. “You can say, ‘I am not OK with that.”‘
She joined five monks on a march through the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 to demand that Myanmar let foreign aid workers into the country to help cyclone victims.
In 2022, she joined other screen and music stars in France in chopping off locks of their hair in support of protesters in Iran. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin’s daughter with Gainsbourg and also an actor in her own right, cut off a snippet of her mother’s hair for the “HairForFreedom” campaign as Iran was engulfed by anti-government protests.
‘The most French British person’
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Birkin as a “complete artist,” noting that her soft voice went hand-in-hand with her “ardent” activism.
“Jane Birkin was a French icon because she was the incarnation of freedom, sang the most beautiful words of our language,” he tweeted.
French media reported that Birkin was found dead at her Paris home. The French Culture Ministry tweeted that Birkin died Sunday. It hailed her as a “timeless Francophone icon.”
Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak called Birkin “the most French British person” and “the emblem for a whole epoch who never went out of fashion.”
Outside Birkin’s home on Paris’s Left Bank, fans mourned her death.
“She was a poet, a singer, an artist,” said Marie-Jo Bonnet. “She gave the best of herself and that’s marvellous.”
Birkin’s early movie credits included Blow-Up in 1966, credited with helping introduce French audiences to her “Swinging Sixties” style and beauty.
Birkin and Gainsbourg met two years later. She remained his muse even after the couple separated in 1980.
She also had a daughter, Kate, with James Bond composer John Barry. Kate Barry died in 2013 at age 46. Birkin had her third daughter, singer and model Lou Doillon, with French director Jacques Doillon.
Birkin suffered from health issues in recent years that kept her from performing and her public appearances became sparse.
French broadcaster BFMTV said Birkin suffered a mild stroke in 2021, forcing her to cancel shows that year. She cancelled her shows again in March due to a broken shoulder blade.
A return to performing was put off in May, with the singer saying she needed a bit more time and promising her fans she would see them again come the fall.
Despite her decades-long screen and music career, Birkin suspected that, for some people, the bag named after her might be her most famous legacy.
The fashion accessory was born of a fortuitous encounter on a London-bound flight in the 1980s with the then-head of Hermes, Jean-Louis Dumas. Birkin recounted in subsequent interviews that they got talking after she spilled some of her things on the cabin floor. She asked Dumas why Hermes didn’t make a bigger handbag and sketched out on an airplane vomit sack the sort of bag that she’d like.
Dumas then had an example made for her and, flattered, she said yes when Hermes asked whether it could commercialize the bag in her name.
In a CBS Sunday Morning interview in 2018, Birkin joked that it might be what she’s best known for.
“I thought, ‘Oh gosh, on my obituary, it will say, ‘Like the bag’ or something,”‘ she said. “Well, it could be worse.”