A Conversation with Jane Birkin in 2010
I sat down with Birkin and Jean-Paul Gaultier, then head of womenswear for Hermès, for UK Harper's Bazaar. She was wide-eyed, had a big heart and was smart as hell. Here's the extended cut.
Hello, friends. Among my favorite interviews was a 2010 sit-down at Hermès HQ on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré with Jean-Paul Gaultier, by then six years designing womenswear for the house, and Jane Birkin, the muse behind Hermès’s most profitable handbag, and a legend in her own right. She didn’t do a lot of fashion press, but the house got her to give up an afternoon for a very hilarious chat à trois that trailed on for quite a long time. Birkin will understandably be remembered for her very large influence on fashion, which needed her wit and massive charm and very real insouciance. But I hope she’s also remembered as much for her deeply held convictions and humanitarian work, which to me spoke of a big heart.
THE MAD HATTERS IN THE ATTIC, Harper’s Bazaar UK, June, 2010
When Hermès’s associated rabble-rousers, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Jane Birkin, met for a chat in the secret garden patio at the top floor of the company’s rue Faubourg Saint Honoré flagship, we listened.
With its tasteful silks and unchanging core of leather luggage and accessories Hermès is a company normally associated with quiet tradition. And yet two of its best-known personalities are anything but subdued: Jean-Paul Gaultier, who has designed the house’s ready-to-wear since 2004; and the British actress and singer Jane Birkin, who contributed more than most people know to the creation, in 1984, of her eponymous Birkin bag, an object of intense, global fashion desire for decades. This pair of ardent nonconformists are, not surprisingly, mutual fans, evidenced not only by Birkin’s proud presence at Hermès’s front row season after season, but their complicity over tea in a sunny sitting room just off Hermès’s hidden garden patio.
From the vantage of 2010 it’s hard to understand just how scandalous Birkin was when she burst, as a model, into 1967’s Blow-Up, giving Britain its first taste of full-frontal nudity, and cementing her into the public consciousness as one of the most striking faces of the sixties counterculture. Two years after her debut, a fledgling actress, she expatriated herself to Paris, into the hirsute arms of the provocative French pop star, Serge Gainsbourg, himself recently broken up with Brigitte Bardot. Voilà, the world’s most risqué international “it” couple was born. Their steamy 1969 duet, “Je t’aime, moi non plus,” with overtly sexual lyrics, Birkin’s Lolita delivery and orgasmic moans, was condemned by the Pope, banned by the BBC, and taken up by demonstrating students and other lovers of radical chic. Birkin’s nonchalance and radiant, leggy beauty created a fashion archetype—tousled, casual, boyish, sunny—that recurs everywhere today, from Kate Moss to Gwyneth Paltrow to Birkin’s actress and model daughters Lou Doillon and the Anti-Christ star Charlotte Gainsbourg. (Birkin’s eldest daughter, Kate Barry, with James Bond composer John Barry, is a successful fashion photographer.)
As their careers and couplehood endured, Birkin and Gainsbourg both became prolific transgressors of sexual and cultural norms. In 1976, Gainsbourg wrote and directed an erotic film adaptation of “Je t’aime,” in which he formed a gay love triangle with two men and a boyish Birkin, complete with sex acts then recently illegal in many countries. In his later years, Gainsbourg’s music and public appearances got only more controversial, with reggae renditions of the French national anthem, increasingly graphic sexual lyrics and bilious, drunken chat show rants. But Birkin, even after leaving him in 1980 and moving in with the French director Jacques Doillon, Lou’s father, remained Gainsbourg’s strongest ally and muse. She continued to record with him and encouraged his collaboration with Charlotte, then aged 13, on a record called Lemon Incest, complete with a video of father and daughter lounging on a black satin bed. When Gainsbourg died in 1991, Birkin turned a French concert tour she had embarked on into a tribute, and emotional fans flocked.
Today, films like the just-released Gainsbourg (Vie héroique), keep France’s most respected troubadour on the front burner, but Birkin has earned her own place in the pop culture firmament. She’s worked for over 30 years as an actress, almost exclusively in France, making an average of more than two films a year, and earning César nominations for Doillon’s La pirate and Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse. In 2007, she directed her first feature film, Boxes. Meanwhile she performs onstage (recently playing Gertrude in Hamlet at the Royal Theatre Northampton), gives concerts frequently (she just finished touring France, Belgium and the US) and now collaborates with musicians from Caetano Veloso to Bryan Ferry to Rufus Wainwright, despite having what no one would describe as the world’s strongest singing voice. It didn’t stop her from getting a gold record for 2003’s Arabesque. As an activist, she has campaigned vocally on behalf of the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, Amnesty International, prison reform, Chechen rights, and AIDS awareness. Enthusiastic and voluble, she is doubtlessly one of the people that makes award show producers the most nervous. Now, at age 63, dancing around in black lace knickers in the trailer of her latest film, the menopausal road comedy Thelma, Louise and Chantal, the eternally wide-eyed Birkin still wonders what all the fuss is about.
Jean-Paul Gaultier has raised a lot of eyebrows himself, with an over 30-year career in fashion that began at Pierre Cardin in 1970 and whose greatest hits include anatomically correct perfume bottles (for his 1995 men’s fragrance, Le Male, still a top seller); casting pierced, tattooed, elderly, and plus sized models long before anyone else; repeatedly including skirts in his menswear line; and elaborately corseting Madonna with outrageous peach satin torpedoes for breasts. Insouciant, confrontational sex appeal, and eclectic, global references with large doses of French signatures—Breton shirts, berets, lingerie—have gone a long way to cementing him as one of the France’s most infamous, best-loved designers. For his first collection at Hermès, in 2004, Gaultier took the house’s best-selling bag, the aforementioned Birkin, and cut it right in half, lengthwise. It was a hit.
When these two icons of French style met for tea, it was the first time they had seen each other since Gaultier’s fall show for Hermès. Birkin put down her overstuffed, sticker-laden namesake bag (in a supple chocolate brown leather) to take a load off, as the spring sun began to settle over the rooftops of the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Jane Birkin: So I first met you at an Hermès show years ago, but I already knew about all you did for Madonna. I remember thinking, Oh I wish he’d make me one of those bras, but with two tiny cones like when you’ve nibbled right down to the end of the ice cream.
Jean-Paul Gaultier: I feel like I met you before we met, because I had seen your movie, Je t’aime, moi non plus, and I knew all about you. You were a big part of my fashion education. The way you went around in little sandals like nothing, and wore that very open macramé dress on Gainsbourg’s arm. There are few people who would have the reflex to destroy their clothes like you did when you would break the collars of your t-shirts to show your neck. Brigitte Bardot had the nerve, when she asked Repetto to make a lower cut ballerina. And you did too.
JB: Well regarding the t-shirts, I just liked to see my children’s necks! Kate and Charlotte and Lou all have beautiful necks and collarbones. It’s my favorite part of the body.
JPG: I just love the way you wear your clothes. How you would pull on your sweaters to show a shoulder—I did that after seeing you! To me, Jane, your way of moving, your unique attitude was always so inspiring. And you still are like that, and it’s still fashionable! Timeless. You never betrayed yourself. More than a muse, you are something like a guru. And with the Birkin you are more than a designer because your desire, and what you needed for your way of life, is what shaped it. You were a real part of the creation, honestly. You do that very naturally.
JB: Well you know how that bag came about. My problem with the Kelly at the time was that you couldn’t put enough stuff in it. I carried a picnic basket and an Hermès agenda but things were always falling out all over the place. Then I bumped into a man on the now famous airplane trip who said, ‘Why don’t you have something that holds your things?’ I said, ‘When Hermès makes an agenda with pockets in it, I’ll get one.’ So he said, ‘But I AM Hermès! I am Monsieur Jean-Louis Dumas from Hermès.’
JPG: I love it!
JB: He said, ‘Give me your agenda and I’ll put pockets in it.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t you make a bag instead? Something a bit bigger than the Kelly, which you can’t fit enough in. And also with proper handles.’ We’re just not a handbag lot anymore. Because I don’t like shutting bags, I asked if it could be something that would stay open all the time, in a sort of black, like Serge’s Hermès luggage but smaller. So a couple of weeks after, I popped upstairs to have a look at what they had come up with, right around the hall from here. It’s great fun when you’re in the place where people are making things!
JPG: It’s amazing in the ateliers here, a totally different world.
“I noticed that Sharon Stone was pitching a bag for charity, and I thought it would be a good idea if mine came to some good too. Since M. Dumas is a very decent man, he agreed to give me a certain amount of money per year for any charity I chose, even after my death. That bag has helped the International Human Rights Federation, campaigning in Burma, anti-land mine work. Having a famous bag has been a delight!”
JB: I loved the bag, and was about to pay for it and go when M. Dumas asked, ‘Do you mind if we call it after you?’ And I said I’d be honored. Then I noticed that Sharon Stone was pitching a bag for charity, and I thought it would be a good idea if mine came to some good too. Since M. Dumas is a very decent man, he agreed to give me a certain amount of money per year for any charity I chose, even after my death. So that bag has helped the International Human Rights Federation, campaigning in Burma, anti-land mine work. Having a famous bag has been a delight! I was always trying to find money for causes but this was the first time I had some real cash to give.
JPG: Of course I have nothing against Grace Kelly but the Birkin bag for me is the more modern one. It’s bigger, it’s relaxed, and the softer leather that you used was perfect. I find it very inspiring. When I did my version, I just changed one proportion of your work, to make it lower, but I don’t say I make something complementary at all because I think Jane, you did completely right with yours.
Harper’s Bazaar: Do you both still feel like the enfants terribles you’re reputed to be?
JB: I never thought I was. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re not thinking you’re doing something shocking. If the macramé dress didn’t please me because it was too high in the front then I put it the other way around.
JPG: Jane, what you don’t say because you’re very modest is that none of the phenomenon of Serge would have happened without you. Of course I knew Gainsbourg in the early 60s, but it was after you arrived that he started to make things that were incredible like “La décadence,” the song with that scandaleuse dance where he turned you around backwards. It was you as a couple that was important. And the attitude you have with fashion, the way of life you have that people want to have too, even if you are very non-fashion, this is something a designer cannot replicate. It’s only a woman who can create this. A woman who is free.
“What do I care if I’m at the Elysée Palace, and I eat my salad with my fingers?”
JB: Maybe that’s got to do with being English. I remember meeting Julie Christie for a movie project, and at she came out of her house with her specs on her nose looking quite divine, in her pajamas and a pair of gum boots taking out her own rubbish. So what do I care if I’m at the Elysée Palace [the residence of the French President], and I eat my salad with my fingers?
HB: Did you really do that?
JB: Absolutely! I knew jolly well that it’s simply not done to cut salad so what else can you do but use your fingers? My father used to do it. But also I knew I was loved and that makes you bolder. If you feel you’re loved you take it for granted that people will accept you. It’s all right if you decide to eat with your fingers. You feel frightfully at ease with everybody.
JPG: It’s really true what you say. I have also been surrounded people that loved me, too: my grandmother, my mother and father. My grandmother let me do everything I wanted! Looking at the TV with her when I was nine, in the suburbs, I saw a report on the Folies Bergère. So I sketched one of the dancers during class, with fishnets and sequins. My teacher saw it, and to punish me she made me tour all the other classrooms. When the other boys saw me they smiled and laughed, and suddenly I wasn’t rejected at school anymore. My sketches became my passport.
But am I really an enfant terrible? I would say I have the attitude of a child in my work. Terrible, I don’t know. Terrible for whom? Everything is relative. What I express in my clothes might shock some but I’m not trying to provoke, I’m trying to reflect what people around me are doing. And now? I’m working with Hermès, so come on!
JB: Yes but you’ve mixed up all different kinds of people in your work, old, young, thin, heavy. There were at least five different cultural references in your last show.
JPG: Honestly my way of creating and provoking has always come very naturally to me. But in this moment we’re very politically correct and a lot of things are shocking. I think it’s regressive now. In the 70s, things were much different, like with what you did, Jane, with Je t’aime, moi non plus. It was a movie that was very ahead of its time. To show two homosexuals, like real men, was very advanced. It made a big, big scandal. But today maybe it wouldn’t have even come out.
“Now, lately with all the tributes to Serge and this new film, I’ve felt a bit like leaving the country. It sends you backwards to such an extent. But I’m happy for Serge. I’m glad he was able to experience people’s adulation before he died. By then Serge knew he was greatly loved and for a man who loved himself so little, it was very important.”
JB: Yes, these days you’d be knocked sideways for so much of what Serge did. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to do Lemon Incest. But I thought that project was a wonderful idea! First, the play on words, between zeste de citron, which means lemon zest, and incest de citron, lemon incest. But also, the only way Serge could really show his daughter he loved her, and take her in his arms, was if he did it in a film like Charlotte Forever [Gainsbourg’s 1986 film starring his daughter], or for the video of the song “Lemon Incest.” He was such a shy man he never would have dared otherwise.
HB: Was it strange to be Charlotte’s mother when people were scandalized by the record?
JB: At the time, people saw Charlotte didn’t like giving interviews on television about it and so some felt uneasy. But certainly not me. I rather pushed her into doing Charlotte Forever because she was already doing films and it was a unique opportunity to do one with Serge. She was just worried about missing school. I loved her in Anti-Christ too and I thought she deserved that Best Actress prize at Cannes a million times over. Now, lately with all the tributes to Serge and this new film [Gainsbourg: Une vie heroique], I’ve felt a bit like leaving the country. It sends you backwards to such an extent. But I’m happy for Serge. I’m glad he was able to experience people’s adulation before he died. By then Serge knew he was greatly loved and for a man who loved himself so little, it was very important.
HB: Jane, you’ve always been a very good advertisement for France.
JB: They’re just so much more open-minded here! When Je t’aime, moi non plus came out in England they’d only show it in the red light district. Here it was on the Champs Elysées, with a defense from the Ministry of Culture, and Francois Truffaut telling people, Don’t go see my film, see Serge’s. I was lucky here in that I was fairly pretty and smiled a lot and I spoke a tiny amount of very broken French. But they love foreigners here. There’s no other country whose most loved actresses have been foreign, from Romy Schneider to Claudia Cardinale to my good self and then after that Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas. You can’t say that about the English. I mean on the Champs Elysées you can see any film from any country.
JPG: But I feel like we Parisians are not so pleasant. We are very arrogant, we are snobbish. Our mentality is very negative. We always say no first. Or, “It’s not bad.” Never, “I liked it.” I was from the suburbs of Paris. For me Paris always meant fashion and my dream was to make fashion, so this was where I came. But you know what really inspires me, since at least 20 years? I love London. In Paris sometimes I have difficulty making fashion. You’re always judged here. And you have to be so discreet. London for me is truly, you can do what you like. Going there is like taking vitamin pills or drinking a huge orange juice at breakfast. I love the gardens. The rock and roll. All the extremes and people really saying things speaking with their clothes.
JB: Well you know I’ve actually gotten very American, thanks to darling Lou who moved to New York for a time. They have a completely different attitude on everything, very open. Now I think there’s not a second to be lost saying you love people. You always regret it for not being bolder.
“I believe in man. No one used to do things for other people but nowadays they get off their asses and help. You can find people willing to die for their ideals. That would be a wonderful way to die.”
JB: Kindness is so important. It pleased me so much when I read your biography [Jean-Paul Gaultier, by Colin McDowell] to see how much you loved your grandmother. It made me think, ah, there will be someone for us! It’s important to know that as we age there are people looking out for us with a kindly eye.
HB: You seem very pleased to be a grandmother.
JB: Grandmothers count! And my children are very decent to hand my grandchildren over quite a lot. I sort of kidnap them out to my house in Brittany. You try to recreate what was fun for you with your children and grandchildren. For me that was having a wild childhood of my own, out of the Isle of Wight with my brother and sister. We’d go off on our bicycles and not come home til night fell. Once again, something else you can’t do anymore today!
JPG: Your positivity is always amazing.
JB: Well I believe in man. No one used to do things for other people but nowadays they get off their asses and help. You can find people willing to die for their ideals. That would be a wonderful way to die. How can you not believe in humanity when you see that? How can you not be optimistic?