Having been in the spotlight for over 50 years, Jane Birkin reflects on her style legacy, namesake Hermès accessory, and new favourite pastime—facial gymnastics.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Having been in the spotlight for over 50 years, Jane Birkin reflects on her style legacy, namesake Hermès accessory, and new favourite pastime—facial gymnastics.

Jane Birkin is quite the conversationalist. She laughs easily and often while discussing a range of topics, from her upcoming tour with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal performing Serge Gainsbourg songs as “the closest she’ll ever come to starring in a staged musical,” to how her Cannes red carpet look this year (a Saint Laurent tuxedo suit) included men’s trousers that are “three sizes bigger because the boys have gotten very slim… or the other way around.” She is also charmed by the custom Saint Laurent collar that former creative director Hedi Slimane made for her bulldog, and is thankful that “he didn’t brand it; that would be too posh.”

Her charisma has served her well since she moved to Paris in 1968, at the age of 21. By then she had married and divorced James Bond composer John Barry, with whom she had a daughter, the late photographer Kate Barry. Having already acted in bit roles in 1965’s The Knack … and How to Get It and Blow-Up a year later, the shy English model flew from London to do a screen test opposite Gainsbourg, the country’s resident music sensation, for the film Slogan (1969), and although she didn’t speak a lick of French, landed the part. In the process they fell in love, had a daughter, and were a couple for 12 years, producing a lifetime of creative works that still endure. Their sexually explicit 1969 single “Je t’aime … moi non plus” would go on to sell more than six million copies, making her an unexpected household name, especially when the lusty ballad was banned from the radio in several countries. She would go on to appear in more than 70 films, release 19 albums, design what is arguably the world’s most famous handbag, become a crusader for Amnesty International, and raise three artistic daughters—in addition to Kate, the singer-songwriter Lou Doillon and the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.

All of that is well and good, but on this particular June day, Birkin is more into discussing her latest project du jour—a routine she adorably calls facial gymnastics. “There are various gymnastics that you can do for your body, of course, but also for your face, and I’m looking into that very seriously at the moment,” she says of the natural alternative to plastic surgery. “I think you can do it for hours, but I don’t think you’d need to do it for more than half an hour. Anyway, I’ve just come from my singing lesson, and for the high notes you have to smile and lift up, and that in itself is a sort of mini [face-] lift if you do it often enough, so for the moment I’ve been smiling.” Birkin goes on to confess that she learned about the exercises on the Internet after coming across the website of London facial fitness expert Eva Fraser. “I admire very much the people who know how to do [surgery] gradually,” she says. “But if you haven’t done it gradually, it’s going to come as quite a shock if you have a sort of different face. I don’t dare do that.”

The woman who made girls green with envy and boys trip over their tongues in the ’60s, with her freewheeling bohemian style that included mod Mary Quant geometric print shifts and see-through sweater dresses, may have evolved to donning more menswear-inspired looks these days, but she still is—and forever will be—in fashion. “My sister, Linda, was the original, wearing maxi skirts made out of petticoats, and bare feet on King’s Road,” says Birkin. “She was absolutely wonderful, but I was very conformist and had just the very short skirts that Mary Quant was known for. And so, when I came to France, long T-shirts were more my look, and I think they found that really exotic, so I was lucky to be the first one to come over the Channel.”

For years, as her looks oscillated between jeans with a white shirt tied at the waist and a minidress paired with thigh-high boots, Birkin’s omnipresent accessory, wicker baskets that she bought for five quid on Portobello Road, became her calling card. That is until her then boyfriend, the director Jacques Doillon, ran over one with his car … on purpose. “He said, ‘It’s terrible for you to be known for your object,’ ” recalls Birkin. But good fortune would strike again in 1981, when, while rushing for a flight, she spilled the entire contents of her replacement pouch in front of Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas. “We started chatting, and I said, ‘You should do the Kelly bag, but three sizes bigger and not shut it,’ ” she says. “He was intrigued, so I drew on one of those vomit bags, and I said, ‘Can you make it for me?’ ” The rest, as they say, is history. Thirty-five years later, the Birkin bag is still one of the most in-demand accessories in the world—a croc version sold for a record-breaking US$300,000 at auction in May. “I think that it has made Hermès a fortune,” she says nonchalantly. “It’s a beautiful bag.”

And in case you were wondering, the namesake of the Birkin bag doesn’t have a dizzying, Kardashiansize collection of the coveted accessory lying around. She owns one. “All of the others I put up for sale for Amnesty International, Handicap International, and Anno’s Africa about 10 years ago,” she says. “There’s no use collecting them in the closet. Now I just have to sort of punch mine around a bit for the next couple of years, then put it on sale again and get a new one from Hermès.”

Of course, no one’s life is perfect, and Birkin has dealt with more than her share of heartbreak—Gainsbourg passed away in 1991, a few days before her father, and she lost her eldest daughter, Kate, to an apparent suicide three years ago. It’s a topic she has yet to discuss publicly, but if Birkin, who has always spoken openly about her love for her family, ever feels like sharing, perhaps it will come in the form of her diaries, which she one day hopes to publish. She’s got “trunks and trunks” of them, dating back to boarding school, and she is in the process of slowly going through them.

With all of Birkin’s contributions to the arts, her influence extends way beyond the fashion realm. Yet the industry is always watching, trying to capture her effortless joie de vivre and repurpose that spirit into its own collections. You’d be hard-pressed to find a style blog that doesn’t feature her as its all-time-favourite poster girl, though this past March she appeared in a campaign for only the third time. It was for Saint Laurent’s spring 2016 ads, shot by her newfound friend Slimane. In the stark black-and-white images, she is wearing a white button-down shirt and a black le smoking blazer. She is also sporting the greatest accessory of all, her signature toothy grin.

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“I admire very much the people who know how to do [surgery] gradually. But if you haven’t done it gradually, it’s going to come as quite a shock … . I don’t dare do that.”