How Jane Birkin inspired one of today’s most luxurious status symbols

Fashion

Jane Birkin, the namesake of the elusive Hermès handbag and collaborator of singer Serge Gainsbourg, died on Sunday at the age of 76 after inspiring a generation of directors, fashion designers and musicians with her classic beauty and effortless style.
Jane Birkin Press Conference

Singer Jane Birkin with her namesake bag at L’Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo on March 26, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Jun Sato

Key Takeaways
  • Described as the epitome of French style, London-born actor, singer and model Birkin’s effortless looks, doe eyes and tumultuous relationship with popular French singer/songwriter Gainsbourg catapulted her to fame in the late 1960s and 70s.
  • Her unique Parisian style earned her the title of icon and muse, and she became known for carrying a wicker basket with vintage accents as a handbag everywhere she went until her husband, French director Jacques Doillon, famously and intentionally ran over the basket with his car.
  • It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Birkin was sitting on a plane and the plastic bag she was using as a purse broke and she audibly complained that Hermès, the French design house, didn’t design a bag that would hold all her things; Jean-Louis Dumas, the chairman and head designer of Hermès, happened to be sitting next to her.
  • The first Birkin bags were released the same year and have since become a symbol of ultimate status: The bags range in price on average between $10,000 and $60,000, waiting lists for rare bags can extend for months or years and customers must be personally invited to purchase one by sales associates of Hermès.
  • High-profile lovers of the Birkin bag include Pippa Middleton, Kate Moss, Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the Kardashian/Jenner sisters, who famously own dozens of the bags among them.
  • Birkin died Sunday in Paris and was called “a French icon” in a Tweet by French President Emmanuel Macron; her cause of death has not been released.
Jane Birkin at home in Paris

Jane Mallory Birkin poses barefoot on a sofa covered with an oriental woven carpet with her British Bulldog Dora in Paris in 2001. Photo by Derek Hudson/Getty Images

Key Background

Birkin was born in London in 1946 and began her career as an actress. She met Serge Gainsbourg on the set of the film Slogan and started a decades-long personal and professional relationship with the songwriter. She and Gainsbourg released the highly controversial song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (“I love you … Me neither”) in 1969 and its sexual explicitness caused it to be banned on radio stations in several countries and it was denounced by the Vatican.

The New York Times labeled her as “the keeper of the Gainsbourg flame” in 2018 and in her 70s she recorded a set of his songs accompanied by a full orchestra before setting out on a world tour. Birkin served as a high-profile ambassador for Hermès and her namesake line but seemed to never regard the bags as highly as they are seen today. She is said to have described the Birkin bag as a great rain hat, The New York Times reported, and she personalized her bag with stickers and other accouterments.

Surprising Fact

Birkin in 2015 wrote a letter to Hermès asking they remove her name from the crocodile-skin Birkin because of animal cruelty. A video released by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) of conditions at crocodile farms in Texas and Zimbabwe sparked the request, and Hermès denied using skins from the Texas farm, the Wall Street Journal reported. The brand’s most sought after bags are often made of rare skins like crocodile, alligator and ostrich.

Street Style - Paris Fashion Week - Womenswear Fall Winter 2023 2024 : Day Seven

PARIS, FRANCE – MARCH 05: Mary Leest wears a beige matte leather Birkin handbag from Hermes during Paris Fashion Week on March 5, 2023 in Paris. Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Big Number

$2 million. That was the price of the Sac Bijou Birkin bag unveiled in Hermès’ 2012 collection inspired by jewelry from the Haute Bijouterie Collection and designed by the brand’s fine jewelry director.

The mini Birkin included 2,712 diamonds and was intended to be worn as a bracelet, according to Sotheby’s. Only three diamond Sac Bijou Birkin bags were made. Today, Sotheby’s has 105 Hermès Birkin bags listed for resale on its website ranging from an $8,800 Bordeaux togo Birkin 35 made in 2010 to a $110,000 Alligator Mississippienis Birkin made in 2011.

Lady Gaga Arrives Japan

Singer Lady Gaga shows her Hermes bag with hand written message “I love small monster, Tokyo Love” at Narita International Airport on April 13, 2010 in Narita, Japan. Photo by Jun Sato

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers

Vegas Dave holds up his Birkin bag next to Bob Menery during a 120-94 Los Angeles Lakers win over the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on November 13, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Harry How

This article was first published on forbes.com and all figures are in USD.

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