Jane Birkin On Perfume, Beauty Products And Being Ridiculed For Her Clothes

One of the most cited style icons of the 20th century, Grazia’s Natalie Hammond catches up with the woman, the myth, the legend that is Jane Birkin – and gets the inside scoop on her most trusted beauty stash…

jane birkin perfume

by Natalie Hammond |
Updated on

Jane Birkin might be just about the coolest woman on the planet, and is certainly the most alluring thing about the rather plush yet anonymous Knightsbridge hotel where we meet on a grey-tinged morning. The British singer, actress and former model, now 72 and a resident of Paris for around half a century, is dressed in what one suspects is a uniform of sorts. A navy jumper, comfortable-looking black trousers and wire-rimmed spectacles sit effortlessly on her person. Her short brown hair is flicked this way and that as she speaks, and her Birkin, the Hermes bag that famously took her name after an encounter with the French label’s then-chief Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight from Paris to London in 1984, sits plumply beside her on the sofa. It’s big and black, but covered in stickers and hung with kitsch Japanese trinkets, perfume sachets and, most importantly, her door keys. ‘It’s perfectly unrecognisable from being a chic bag,’ she says happily. She’s clearly not a traditionalist. ‘It was quite fun. Once on Japanese television, they had a Birkin bag. It was all very ceremonious. They gave it to me and I jumped on it immediately with both feet. I said the whole point is to make it look old and battered as fast as possible. They were horror-struck.’

Jane Birkin

Her approach to makeup is similarly nonchalant. She calls the ‘dollybird’ look of her modelling days - the big doe eyes, the fanned-out false lashes - ‘stupid’, although admits, ‘I was so worried that John Barry [her first husband] would wake up in the night and notice that I [didn't have] great big peepers. I kept an eyebrow pencil underneath my pillow. I was 17. It was miserable.’ Nowadays, she uses precisely three products, which she hurries to retrieve from her bathroom, for everyday. A MAC lip liner, which she rubs all over and then dabs on her cheeks instead of blusher, an eyebrow pencil to fill out the edges and Sisley’s fluid foundation to ‘take the blotches away’. ‘I wear less and less makeup. When you get old, it’s probably a mistake to put too much on,’ she says. ‘Personally, I look like a man dressed up in camp.’

Birkin has always been a refreshing tonic to the class of tight-lipped celebrity. Her conversation is a tapestry of stories about ‘divine-looking’ actors, and she’s spoken revealingly in the past about her 13-year relationship with the iconic French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Even the box of her Miller Harris perfume – a collaboration she’s been working closely on with the Brit-born fragrance brand - has a frank explainer stamped on it. ‘Created with style icon Jane Birkin, who craved a fragrance she could ‘bear to wear.’’ I hint that the last three words suggest a fractious relationship with scent. ‘I’ve never been able to find a perfume that didn’t make me absolutely sick,’ she confirms. But Miller Harris’ beloved L’Air de Rien, isn’t just any old scent. Developed with founder Lyn Harris in 2006, is a gorgeously powdery muddle of amber and musk, ingredients she previously experimented with at her brother’s house in Wales. ‘It all reminded me of my mother’s hair, an old book, an old chest of drawers - all those sort of old, friendly smells that I loved.’ I wonder about her mother, Judy Campbell - actress, muse to Noel Coward and, according to Cecil Beaton, the most beautiful woman in England - and whether Birkin remembers what perfume she wore. ‘In the last war, her flat blew up in the air raids,’ she tells me. ‘I said, ‘Mum, what did you take?’ She thought for a very long time and then said, ‘Schiaparelli’s Shocking perfume.’ I said, ‘What? You didn’t take food?’ She said, ‘No. When you have nothing left, you take the superficial for the morale.’ I thought let this be a lesson to me for always.’

Jane Birkin

When it comes to her own daughters, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, she’s emphatic about whether or not she doles out beauty advice. ‘No, no, no, no, no. I don’t. I don’t at all.’ In fact, she says, it works the other way round. Charlotte takes her to the gym in New York, while Lou is always recommending masseurs and osteopaths. She has that particular, proud mother’s way of heaping praise on them both. Lou is an individual dresser: ‘She picks up things from antique markets and wears old clothes. I never used to dress like that; she’s far more daring.’ Charlotte, meanwhile, at the opening night of Cannes last month was wearing ‘an unbelievably short dress, quite rightly, because everyone else was in long things - and tripping over,’ she says. ‘She looked sumptuous, but she’s more classical everyday, a bit like I am really.’

The way she and Serge dressed in those heady days of the late Sixties and Seventies - he in an unbuttoned, slightly rumpled, shirt; she in a see-through dress or flares with her famous basket bag nestled in the crook of her arm - was a kind of precursor to the manicured, almost stage-managed, glamour of a couple like Prince Charles and Princess Diana. They had a disheveled and utterly sexy kind of charm. Now, she says, a V-neck cashmere jumper is the ultimate acquisition. ‘I think it’s difficult to beat that and a pair of jeans on a pretty girl, she muses. ‘Look at Carla Bruni. I sat next to her once and she looked so wonderfully smooth and soft. It was all I could do to resist throwing my head against her breast,’ she laughs heartily.

Jane Birkin

She might be one of the most cited style icons of the 20th century, but Birkin remembers being ridiculed for her clothes at the age of 16 in Paris. The French were as ‘shiny as race horses’, while she and her English contemporaries, ‘were wearing flip-flop leather shoes that we skidded off, jean skirts, red jerseys, no makeup and hair, I don’t know, looking like a bit like mine does now. They rocked with laughter because we were so immediately English. Nothing went with anything. We were so badly turned out.’ Her secret weapon now is, naturally, more English scruff than French race horse. ‘If you wear men’s clothes a couple of sizes bigger than you are, you can get away with murder,’ she confides. ‘It’s totally inexpensive.’ Like I said, the coolest.

BUY: Jane Birkin's Limited Edition Miller Harris L'Air De Rien


Miller Harris, L'Air De Rien, £105

Miller Harris, L'Air De Rien, £1051 of 1

Miller Harris, L'Air De Rien, £105

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