Jane Birkin, the British actress, pop singer and namesake of the Hermès Birkin designer handbag, died on Sunday. She was 76.
Born in London, Birkin adopted France as her home country, where she became an international star after striking up a musical and romantic partnership with French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Known for her long, eye-skimming bangs and classic wardrobe, Birkin epitomized the effortless French-chic style.
The French Ministry of Culture, which confirmed her death, called her a “timeless Francophone icon.”
“The most French of Britons is gone,” culture minister Rima Abdul Malak said in a tweet. “Jane B was mischief, impertinent elegance, the never-outdated emblem of an entire era, a murmuring voice that remains our idol.”
Her acting credits include a minor role in the 1966 crime rom-com Kaleidoscope and the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
Birkin was married to James Bond film score composer John Barry from 1965 to 1968, with whom she had a daughter, Kate Barry. Kate, a photographer, died in 2013 at age 46 after falling from the window of her fourth-floor flat in Paris.
In 1968, Birkin joined Gainsbourg for the breathy hit “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). The song was banned from radio play in several countries and condemned by the Vatican for its sexual innuendos and heavy breathing — which only made its popularity skyrocket.
Birkin and Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, were together for 12 years but remained friends and collaborators after their split.
The Birkin bag, a luxury “it” bag known for its lofty price tag, was first created in 1984 for the actress by Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas. A few years prior, as NPR previously reported, Birkin found herself seated next to Dumas on a London-bound flight. The actress, who’d been known to tote around a straw basket to hold her essentials, relayed to Dumas her difficulty in finding the perfect-sized weekend bag — one bigger than the Hermès “Kelly” handbag, but smaller than a suitcase. She pulled out the plane’s “vomit bag” and sketched out her idea to show Dumas, she said in a 2018 interview with CBS News. She joked that she had become so synonymous with the famed bag that it would one day be the highlight of her obituary.
Birkin, also known for her activism, asked for her name to be pulled from association with the popular crocodile-skin version of the Birkin bag in 2015 over concerns of animal cruelty. Birkin has auctioned off her bags over the years for various causes including earthquake relief. She’s also said she had an arrangement with the designer to donate a portion of Hermès bag sales directly to charity, even after her death.
The actress died at her home in Paris, according to French media reports. Birkin suffered a mild stroke in 2021, The New York Times reported, and had recently called off concerts due to health issues.
“Because she embodied freedom, because she sang the most beautiful words of our language, Jane Birkin was a French icon,” wrote French President Emmanuel Macron. “A complete artist, her voice was as sweet as her engagements were fiery. She bequeaths us tunes and images that will never leave us.”
“We will never forget her songs, her laughter or her incomparable accent that have always accompanied us,” tweeted Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris.
She is survived by two daughters, one from her relationship with Gainsbourg and one from her relationship with French film director Jacques Doillon: Singer-actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon.
NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this story.