Why Jane Birkin was the original badass

Actress, singer and style icon Jane Birkin died in Paris at the weekend. She was 76 years old.

Birkin’s effortless style has captivated the world since the 1960s, and was the inspiration for the much-coveted Hermès Birkin bag - whose origin story has become the stuff of fashion legend.

It is said that, in 1981, Birkin received an unexpected upgrade on her Air France flight, and was seated next to Hermès' chief executive, Jean-Louise Dumas. 

At one point in the journey, the contents of her signature oversized wicker basket - including her Hermès diary - spilled out on the floor. 

As Dumas leaned over and suggested to his neighbor that she might consider a bag with pockets in future, Birkin replied that the day Hermès produced a bag big enough to hold all of a woman’s belongings, she’d give up the basket. 

Dumas is said to have then sketched out a design for the now-iconic bag there and then on an Air France sick bag.

It made its debut three years later, but wasn’t an immediate fashion hit. In fact, it took until the late 1990s to be fully embraced as the elite status symbol it has become (to buy one today would set you back a minimum of $10,000). 

Jane Birkin

Jane Birkin

Victoria Beckham is said to own at least 100 Birkins, while Singaporean socialite Jamie Chua is thought to be the proud owner of the world’s largest collection - more than 200.

The Birkin had a starring role in season four of Sex and the City, in an episode in which Samantha coveted one so much it cost her job. And it appeared again more recently in And Just Like That… when Seema’s treasured orange Birkin is snatched by a thief outside her apartment, leaving her heartbroken. 

Jane Birkin was gifted a total of five of her namesake bags from Hermès, but she chose not to keep them and instead auctioned them off for humanitarian causes close to her heart. She also ensured that a portion of each Birkin sold would benefit charity.

“I got Hermès to fork out for my charities once I saw the fortune they were making,” she said in 2011. “A certain amount of money every year goes straight to my charity and it will continue to after my death. 

“This year I was able to [use some of that money] to go to Japan for a benefit concert after the earthquake. We use some of the money to feed the poor people who can’t afford to eat in France. 

“I sold one of my Birkin bags for $163,000 to help the Japanese Red Cross. So that rather trivial piece of heavy luggage has done a lot of good in the world.”

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