Jane Birkin, the English actress and musician who somehow came to epitomise Parisian chic, has spent a lifetime on the road. While currently preparing for a tour with Gainsbourg Symphonic, where she will be performing the work of her late partner, Birkin welcomed Smythson Travel into the Paris home that she now shares her beloved bulldog Dolly, and opened up about her enduring love of travel – alongside the art of doing it well.
Photography by Annemarieke van Drimmelen
There are few people alive today who truly deserve to be called an icon – but Jane Birkin is one of them. The English-born actress and singer famously departed swinging London for a post ‘68 Paris, where she met Serge Gainsbourg and became one half of one of the twentieth century’s most beloved, prolifically creative, and controversial couples. One of those rare figures who is regarded more as a symbol (of style, of sex, of music, of an era) than a living, breathing person, a youthful Birkin’s choppy haircut, doe-eyed gaze, and famous straw basket comprised an image which remains resolutely fixed in our cultural memory (and to Pinterest boards across the globe).
Of course, Birkin is more than just the image we have of her. Now aged 70, she is refreshingly candid about matters of life, style, and travel: she wears shirts from Marks & Spencer, admits the idea of sleeping with an eye mask is far too chic to be an everyday reality and has been known to emerge from Duty Free with armfuls of custard pies. Right now, she is on tour with Gainsbourg Symphonic, a two-hour long performance of the work of her late-partner Serge Gainsbourg in London and New York – at the Barbican on Tuesday 26th September, and Carnegie Hall in February 2018. The performance has been orchestrated by composer and pianist Nobuyuki Najakima. “I met him when I went to Tokyo after they had the tsunami and the nuclear disaster,” she mentions casually – humanitarian work being another of her callings.
In preparation for her London tour, we spoke to Birkin about all things travel-related, from her love of French pharmacy products and being mocked on the Metro, to the things that she likes to steal from hotel rooms.
I admire people who have a travel suit and haven’t forgotten where they put their earplugs because they’ve got everything stored in a little pouch – but I’ve never been organised on a plane, ever. I try and travel light. For in-flight luggage, The Burlington Holdall is just the thing, or the Hermés bag I designed. Really, it’s just about trying not to forget my toothbrush, not to forget the toothpaste – which I always seem to do – not to forget the earplugs (I use Idem Sleepers as they have to be the real thing), and the sleeping pills, and money, of course – I’ve started using the Panama Marshall travel wallet, after carrying my visa card for years just in my pocket before it broke.
After toiletries, I’m always wearing the same thing, so I pack a couple of shirts, a couple of pairs of trousers and that’s it! I go to Agnès B – I always wear her silk tops, I have one that is 50 years old. She re-did one for me for the show. My daughter, Lou is a great person for fashion, she takes me to Isabel Marant and I go and pick up things from Hermès, because they let me – I like their men’s V-neck cashmere jerseys. I’ve always liked Dries Van Noten, and then there’s Saint Laurent, for the shirts and ties, and the eternal Le Smoking suit, which has gone on being wonderful for fifty years.
“I’ve never been organised on a plane, ever. I try and travel light. For in-flight luggage the Burlington Holdall is just the thing…“
I’ve got a rather chic eye mask but I always forget to take it. I should be much more careful on aeroplanes and bring a really good scarf. You’re killed by the acclimatisation, even on the Eurostar – I don’t know what opera singers do! Hermès do a man’s zip-up jersey of very, very soft cashmere in black, with a hood on it. It’s perfect for travelling, I loved it so much I bought it for my daughters Charlotte and Lou.
I used to always take my Monkey. When Serge died, I put Monkey in his coffin. So now I know where he is – I was always afraid I’d lose him, he was with me for fifty years. I used to take photos of the children with me when I travelled, I’d have all their press cuttings in my diary.
I always travel with a book. But what I really love is buying trashy magazines as I’m getting onto an aeroplane. Normally I never buy them, but when I travel I buy every one and read them on the plane.
I go through Duty Free and I don’t know how people manage to be so chic! I buy everything! I can’t resist. Sisley – I pick that up in airports – there’s a pump that’s wonderful that you can use day and night. In Germany, if you can find Dr Hauschka it’s a bit of a thrill. I love their rose deodorant and I love their lip balm, and they’ve got a rose cream that’s quite nice to put on your legs. I use a MAC colour for my lips, ‘Soar’ and I rub it on my cheeks, an eyebrow pencil, and a fluid foundation by Givenchy, Eclat Matissme to cover up blotches. I bought some eyeshadow at the airport thinking I’ll wear it for the shows, Chanel’s Ombre Premiere 24 in Chocolate Brown, but I hate mascara. I always use Embryolisse on my face and legs, and have it handy on-flight as well, and take it all in my Burlington washbag.
“I go through Duty Free and I don’t know how people manage to be so chic! I buy everything! I can’t resist. Sisley – I pick that up in airports – there’s a pump that’s wonderful that you can use day and night.”
To help recognise luggage at pick-up, I’ve tried putting a red ribbon around my case – though when I was at Tokyo airport I had to tie a plastic bag on the handle, I had nothing else. Now I have the Panama luggage tag in red, which is very pretty. I carry my passport in my coat pocket, safely enclosed in the Panama passport cover.
I live in such clutter, so it’s quite nice to go to these zen rooms where you’ve just got your laptop and your suitcase, but I make a mess of it in a relatively short time. I pull things out all over the bed, I’m not organised in any way. When I was with Serge, I used to take my own bed cover, my own cushion, my own light. All my own books, of course. Painting material. One was in the same hotel for weeks sometimes, but now I’m in and out. If I can beg a sheet from them to cover up their luxurious sofas so Dolly doesn’t dribble on them, I’m lucky.
“I’ve stolen a few cushions from Air France. I used to steal from Maxims, all the waiters were in on it. I used to fill my basket with all their plates.”
In the old day’s I lived at L’Hôtel with Serge for about a year. I think we stayed in every room – I liked the little ones best. The walls were made of felt and the breakfast was so sweet because they always had silver coffee pots and croissants on silver plates – you felt very spoilt. I thought it was so expensive that Serge would ruin himself!
In terms of ‘borrowing’ things from hotels, I’ve stolen a few cushions from Air France. I used to steal from Maxims, but all the waiters were in on it. I used to fill my basket with all their plates. I even had the silverware under my shirt once, and when I went to sign autographs on the way out it all fell out
I’ve learned that I constantly leave my things in the wardrobe that we’re always chasing up after – so if I put anything into a wardrobe I’m bound to leave it behind. I don’t bother anymore.
Parisian Beauty and Style…
The French are more sophisticated, but perhaps the English are more original. Though you couldn’t get more original than Serge. Or Olivier Rolin. And Lou’s father, Jacques Doillon. Maybe the English are more eccentric. I came to Paris for the first time because I was sent to a finishing school. The French girls used to mock us in the Metro, they could see we were English because we were so badly dressed. They were all impeccable but they were all quite the same. It wasn’t yet the swinging Sixties, and we didn’t know how to turn ourselves out.
“The French girls used to mock us in the Metro, they could see we were English because we were so badly dressed.”
In 1968 it was our turn! Fashion was no longer for the chic 35-year-old Parisians, it was for the English too. I was always just wearing a t-shirt on the King’s Road that cost five quid and loved my basket that came from Soho that was Portuguese and also cost a quid. That was what was so wonderful. In Paris, they thought you were very daring wearing such short skirts, but everybody did at home. It didn’t worry me at all what people thought of me.
Every time I travel I get so excited about what I can buy from where I’m going. I go with a really big suitcase that’s half full and come back laden – when I went to Canada I came back with a suitcase full of bacon. Then there was another time where I bought a grill made out of iron from a restaurant in Rio. From Ramallah I bought a barbeque, and lots of olive oil that I transported back in little Evian bottles.
Finally, on the art of travel…
I love travelling. I stayed in this house for two years when my daughter Kate died, and then I got ill and I was in hospital all the time. Now that they’ve given me the OK, I realise how boring it is to stay at home. It’s a luxury to be able to travel.
When we were children we never really left England. I went to the South of France once; everything was exciting, everything. The chocolate drink you had in the morning, the smell of Ambre Solaire on the beaches… The boy who put the beach things out, who was so gorgeous and didn’t believe I was fifteen and went off with a spotty girl who had enormous bosoms, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just too unfair!’ I showed him my passport and everything to prove it. He was called Dada or Baba or something. He was gorgeous. My happiest memories were of childhood. It’s difficult to find something quite so good afterwards. Perhaps you shouldn’t have a happy childhood and then everything just gets better.
“I went to the South of France once; everything was exciting, everything. The chocolate drink you had in the morning, the smell of Ambre Solaire on the beaches…”
I always go back to places I’ve visited. If you discover something when you’re alone you just want to cry; you want someone else to discover it too. Traveling is never quite as fun as it is when you do a show because then you’re with people who know the place and you can discover restaurants that aren’t at all show-off, or touristy.
Photographed by Annemarieke van Drimmelen for Smythson