A chance encounter on a plane in 1980 led to the conception of the worlds' most iconic and coveted handbag
Vale Jane Birkin, “chanteuse, actrice, icon de style,” as the excellent French national radio station FIP described her during a tribute this afternoon. Birkin’s achievements were manifold, as well as her many accomplishments in music and drama, she was arguably the greatest embodiment of cultural entente cordiale there has ever been.
The woman herself, however, was wryly aware—and drily amused—about the reality of her name’s legacy. As she told me at the Hermès Fall 2012 show in March that year: “now when I go to America to sing they say Birkin? Like the bag? I say ‘Yes indeed: and the bag will now sing’.”
That day Birkin was unassumingly sitting at L’École des Beaux-Arts, waiting to see Christophe Lemaire’s collection for the house (Lemaire made some of the best-ever Hermès collections, it’s worth pointing out). To fill the time, she kindly shared her first-hand account of how the most famous, influential, and desired handbag in all the world was born, back in 1981.
Jane Birkin, front row at the fall 2012 Hermès show, with her Birkin bag.
“I remember it perfectly well! I’d been upgraded by Air France on a flight to London, and I found myself sitting next to a man [the visionary Jean-Louis Dumas of Hermès]. I’m not quite sure what type of bag I had with me—my husband Jacques Doillon had reversed his car over my basket, crushed it on purpose not too days before. [Dumas] thought I deserved more.”
“Little did he know that on this airplane journey, when everything fell out of whatever bag I had, the man next to me said, ‘you should have one with pockets.’ I said, ‘the day Hermès makes one with pockets I will have that.’ And he said: “‘but I am Hermès, and I will put pockets in for you’.”
“I said ‘why don’t you make a handbag that is bigger than the Kelly but smaller than Serge’s suitcase?’ And he said ‘well, what would it be like?’ And I think I drew it on the sick bag—or the not-be-sick bag. And he said ‘I’ll make it for you’.”
Birkin then explained that when she “bowled along” some time later to the Hermès to purchase the result of her in-flight special order, Dumas suggested instead that he give Birkin the bag in exchange for her lending her surname to christen the design.
She said: “I was very flattered! They’ve turned it into the success we know today.” She then added that Hermès paid her an annual royalty (£30,000 in 2011), which was then passed on to her nominated charities. That day Jane Birkin was wearing a black Birkin, clearly much used and loved (although she said not the original), whose straps were entwined with beaded bracelets, a miniature harmonica, and even an Hermès watch. About the watch, she said: “I don’t like to wear them, but sometimes you need the time.”