The César Award-nominated actress moved to France in the late 1960s, after she was born in London in December 1946. She was the daughter of British actress Judy Campbell and Royal Navy commander David Birkin.
Besides being an award-nominated actress and international fashion icon, Birkin was known for her musical and romantic relationships with French singer Serge Gainsbourg. They notably collaborated on the steamy songs Je t’aime moi non plus (I Love You, Me Neither).
Birkin’s ethereal, British-accented singing voice and Gainsbourg’s gruff baritone in the 1969 duet helped make her famous. However, she was forbidden to enter Italy after being denounced in the Vatican newspaper for the controversial track.
While the duo eventually ended their romantic relationship in 1981, they continued collaborating on music. Birkin released such albums as Baby Alone in Babylone in 1983 and Amour des Feintes in 1990. Both records feature lyrics and music by Gainsbourg.
Birkin musically ventured out on her own later in her career. She wrote her own album Arabesque, in 2002. In 2009, she released a collection of live recordings, titled Jane at the Palace.
Besides her notable music style, Birkin became a style icon in the 1960s and early 1970s. She was known for having long hair with bangs, and wearing jeans paired with white tops, knit mini dresses and basket bags. Her fashion choices still epitomizes the height of French chic for many women around the world.
Birkin is also connected with a Hermes bag that bore her name. Created by the Paris fashion house in 1984 in her honor, the bag became one of the world’s most exclusive luxury items. At the time of its release, it was also known for having a high retail selling point. Despite the high price, there was a years-long waiting list for consumers who wanted to buy it.
In France, Birkin was also celebrated for her political advocacy for women’s and LBGT rights. She campaigned for Amnesty International, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, the fight against AIDS and other causes.
“You can always do something,” Birkin said in 2001, as she supported an Amnesty campaign against torture. “You can say, ‘I am not OK with that.'”
The actress also joined five monks on a march through the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. The group demanded that Myanmar let foreign aid workers into the country to help cyclone victims.
Last year, Birkin joined other screen and music stars in France to cut their hair in order to support protesters in Iran. Birkin’s daughter with Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who’s also an actress, cut off a snippet of her mother’s hair. The mother-daughter duo were supporting the “HairForFreedom” campaign as Iran was engulfed by anti-government protests.
As news reports of Birkin’s death began to surface, French President Emmanuel Macron called her a “complete artist.” He also noting that her 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,” the political leader tweeted.
French Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak also Birkin. The political leader called the entertainer “the most French British person” and “the emblem for a whole epoch who never went out of fashion.”
Birkin’s early movie credits included Blow-Up in 1966. The mystery thriller film credited with helping introduce French audiences to her “Swinging Sixties” style and beauty.
Birkin and Gainsbourg met two years later. Besides Charlotte, the actress-singer-activist also had a daughter, Kate Barry, with James Bond composer John Barry in 1967. Their daughter died in 2013 at age 46. Birkin had her third daughter, singer-model Lou Doillon, with French director Jacques Doillon in 1982.
Birkin suffered from health issues in recent years that kept her from performing. Her public appearances also became sparse.
French broadcaster BFMTV said Birkin suffered a mild stroke in 2021. As a result, she had to cancel shows that year. She also canceled her shows again in March, due to a broken shoulder blade.
The singer hoped to return to performing in May. However, she said at the time that she needed a bit more time to recover, and promised her fans she would see them again this fall.
Despite her decades-long screen and music career, in a CBS Sunday Morning interview in 2018, Birkin joked that the bag that bears her name might be what she’s best remembered for. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, on my obituary, it will say, ‘Like the bag’ or something,'” she said. “Well, it could be worse.”