Jane Birkin, singer, actress and fashion inspiration, dies at 76

Jane Birkin, the Franco-British singer and actress whose collaboration with artist Serge Gainsbourg made her a defining figure of the 1970s and whose personal style inspired a luxury handbag, died in Paris on Sunday. She was 76 years old.

Her death was confirmed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who called her a “French icon” in a message posted on Twitter. French media reported that Ms Birkin was found dead at her home but the cause was not immediately known.

It was Ms. Birkin’s personal and artistic relationship with Mr. Gainsbourg that made her famous abroad, especially after their 1969 hit song “Je t’aime… moi non plus”. In America, Ms. Birkin was best known for lending her name to famous Hermès handbags, status symbols with a distinctive strap closure and signature latch.

Jane Mallory Birkin was born in London on December 14, 1946 to actress Judy Campbell and Cmdr. David Birkin of the Royal Navy. But it was her years in France that made her famous and established her as the epitome of Parisian chic.

Among her first acting roles was The Blonde in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow-Up” in 1966. It was two years later, on a film set, that Ms. Birkin met Mr. Gainsbourg, beginning of a love story that will last 12 years and captivate France.

Their erotic duet “I love you…me neither,” whose lyrics are punctuated by breathless moans from Ms. Birkin, was seen as an example of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It was condemned by the Vatican.

Following the breakup of the Gainsbourg relationship in 1981, Ms. Birkin continued to sing and act, notably in films by Agnès Varda and Patrice Chéreau. In 1983, she released the album “Baby Alone in Babylon”, which included music and lyrics by M. Gainsbourg.

Mr Gainsbourg, a director and composer whose music helped launch contemporary French pop music, died aged 62 in 1991.

“He wrote for me from 1968 until the day he died,” Ms Birkin said in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. “Why he kept asking me to perform the songs I had inspired , I don’t know – but maybe he knew that I would be faithful to at least that.

Ms. Birkin’s boyish look and carefree bohemian manner transfixed generations of style-conscious people and inspired Hermès’ expensive and coveted Birkin bag.

“I would have loved to be kind of a neat person and wear a Kelly,” she said in a 2018 YouTube interview, referring to the women’s handbag created and named for movie star Grace Kelly. “But I never thought you could get enough.”

The collaboration with Hermès, the French luxury house, began after its managing director, Jean-Louis Dumas, saw Ms Birkin struggling with a straw basket on a flight to London, its contents spilling over the floor. Ms Birkin said she was unable to find a leather bag she liked. Hermès designed the Birkin, which was, as she claimed, “four times the size of a Kelly”.

Ms Birkin was also popular in France as an activist for women’s and LGBTQ rights, as well as for her British accent when speaking French, which the French found endearing.

“The most Parisian of the English has left us”, writes the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in a message on twitter. “We will never forget his songs, his laughter and his incomparable accent that have always accompanied us.”

Ms Birkin suffered a mild stroke in 2021 and had recently canceled a series of concerts due to health concerns.

She is survived by two daughters she had with Mr. Gainsbourg and French director Jacques Doillon: singer-actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, who each, like their mother, inspired designers and fashion enthusiasts. . Another daughter, photographer Kate Barry, whom she had with film composer John Barry, died aged 46 in 2013 when she fell from the window of her fourth-floor Paris apartment.

Guy Trebay contributed reporting from New York.

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