In which I ask singer, songwriter, actress and model, Jane Birkin, what’s the best outift you’ve ever worn?
Oh gosh, what have they sent? That’s not the greatest outfit I’ve ever worn! It’s okay because it’s big. That’s what I wear these days: men’s clothes that are too big—cashmere jersey tops and trousers. Maybe this is a recent version of the best outfit ever, but it’s not the all-time best outfit ever.
Perhaps the all-time best outfit is what I’ll wear tonight [to go on The Tonight Show]. It’s a smoking suit by Saint Laurent. It is the same kind of smoking, in fact, that I’ve been wearing for 50 years. That makes it best: the enduring quality. But it’s somewhat larger because it’s a man’s one. I used to wear one for a woman, but now it is the man’s smoking that makes me look quite fragile, sleek. That’s why it’s nice, wearing men’s clothes. One looks sort of smooth. In a woman’s dress, I’d probably look quite horrid. No, much better in men’s clothes.
I just find it terribly difficult to find shoes because as I get dizzy onstage, it’s better not to wear anything high because I might just fall over. Larger pants cover my very ungainly tennis shoes. They’re the most comfortable shoes in the world, but they’re most ungainly. I saw someone wearing some boots yesterday, a boy, and he said they’d come from Rag & Bone and I said, “All right then I’ll be off there to buy them.” But I haven’t gone in time for the show tonight. I don’t know what Iggy Pop will be wearing, but with luck, we won’t see our legs too much.
Iggy Pop and I will perform on the Tonight Show. On Friday, I’ll perform a whole show at the Beacon Theatre of Serge [Gainsbourg]’s songs that he wrote for me. Most of the saddest songs that he wrote were after our separation. Those were also the best songs.
My daughter, Charlotte, is going to sing “Johnny Jane,” which was the signature tune for “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” the film segment. We did the rehearsal yesterday. She was so touching. Iggy will perform, too, he is such good fun because he in fact already knows all of Serge’s work. It’s fun to be with people who appreciate the author as much as I do, as much as the public does. The performance will be done with a 60-piece orchestra by Nobu.
I went to Japan when they had the tsunami—my daughter Kate, who died, rang me up and said, “We should go.” I’d just come out of chemotherapy, so a bit more radioactivity didn’t matter to me very much. Everyone else was going the other way and when I arrived. I sang a few tiny concerts to keep people’s morale going and on the sites where the awful wave had come in. There was a pianist there, too. I thought he was frightfully good, but I hadn’t realized that he was equally a composer. Equally a great orchestrator for movie music.
When I got the suggestion to do all Serge’s songs at the theater here with a symphony orchestra, I said, “okay, if Nobuyuki Nakajima will do the orchestrations for me, I’ll do it.” Because then I knew people would not get bored. He agreed. Phillipe Le Richomme will direct—he’s been with me for 50 years, and with Serge. He’s always the one to tell me what would be good taste or not for Serge’s songs, or how to do them. He chose the songs.
I haven’t always maintained the principle of wearing bigger clothes to look sleeker cause I used to look quite sleek all on my own. By that I mean, I used to wear jeans and a man’s jacket and that was it—a bit like Celine’s collection this year, with an old tie as a scarf or something. I used to make up stuff [with my clothes]; that was fun in the old days. You could do that sort of thing: wear evening dresses back to front because it amused you, with a brooch on the stomach.
The photos you can find on the internet—those outfits are all made-up clothes. That was great fun.
I had and wore a very short dress by Paco Rabanne, only I took off about 10 inches of metal from the bottom so you could see my shorts. The English wore more outrageously short garb than the prudent French. They all stayed in good taste, whereas we couldn’t give a damn. We had the arrogance of youth, thinking that we were doing everything much better.
I had this basket and if they wouldn’t let us into the restaurant, Serge and I would walk out of the restaurant, even if it was Maxim’s.
That was really good fun. But I’m getting older. I fell down a staircase six years ago and broke five vertebrae and they filled it up with concrete. Now my torso is shorter than it used to be. I think I’ve shrunk six inches. My daughters now are much bigger than I was, whereas I used to be proudly above them.
Charlotte kindly said she wouldn’t put on too high [a pair of] heels for the show on Friday. If I wear high heels I get dizzy because of the lights, so I need to be in flat, sort of boys’ tennis shoes. If the girls suddenly wear six-inch heels, I look like a gnome.
But it’s all fine. I don’t care anymore for dress; I just like to wear things that are frightfully comfortable. I can no longer bear with things that itch. And you could get cashmere that’s really cheap these days. A big cashmere jersey v-neck to give you a nice neck, and a T-shirt, and some men’s trousers and a big coat. None of that costs very much. I would think a carry-all bag is just as good as any bag because you don’t want something too heavy on one arm. I’d like to find one that I could sling over my shoulder these days. Most of them are made in cotton that you can pick up in department stores. It’s just too heavy on one side and I’m too old.
Yes, I’d like a canvas tote, or even better: wearing men’s trousers. Fill your pockets like your father used to with handkerchiefs and makeup in one pocket and a sanitary towel in the other one. That’s what you need, not much.
Back then, I had my basket, and my basket has become such a well-known thing. Lou’s father [Jacques Doillon], who is very Puritan, he didn’t like things to be—I can’t remember what the word is, when it’s very famous? He didn’t like gimmicky things and he thought the basket had become a bit of a gimmick. I’d been using a basket since I was 17 in my first play. It was just a Portuguese basket.
Anyhow, he ran over it with his car and it happened to be that very day that I was taking a plane to London and I put all my stuff in a sort of a camel stomach or something horrid. I used my notepad agenda to store paper and cards and when I went into the plane, everything fell all over the floor, as usual. I’m not a very tidy person.
The very tidy man who was sitting next door to me said, “Well you should have pockets in your agenda—all your photos and press cuttings about your children and all that wouldn’t be flying all over the place.” I said, “Well what can you do when Hermès doesn’t make them with pockets?”
He said, “But I am Hermès.”
It was Mr. Dumas. He said, “Hand over your agenda. I’ll have it made for you,” and I said, “Why don’t you make a bag that’s about four times the Kelly, so we can stuff all our stuff in and not bother to shut it?” I drew it on a napkin and he rang me about a month later saying, “It’s waiting for you at Hermès.”
It was in cardboard and it was lovely looking and he said, “Look, all the girls are so crazy about it—the ones who have made the cardboard one—can we call it your name?”
There’s only been one other name apart from his own grandfather for a picnic basket, it was Grace Kelly. I was so flattered. I said, “Oh wow, yes, of course you can.” He said, “Well, I’ll give you the bag.” I chose the leather and the clasps and he handed it over. It’s become the most famous bag in the world and, as it were, it came from the fact that Jacques Doillon didn’t like my gimmick.
The last question from any reporter is always about the bag. But it’s no bother, how can it be? Because of the bag, even these days when frankly I make no effort whatsoever, I am still something in fashion, and I think I can thank the bag for that.
It reminds me of what people say about “Je t’aime…moi non plus.” Am I bothered when asked about it? When I hear it, I go back to when I was 18, no, 20, and then I think, Gosh, I was tied to Serge Gainsbourg from 20 years old until the day he died. Though this was not one, he wrote many, many songs for me, and he’s as well looked up to as if he were [Guillaume] Apollinaire. It was like living with Apollinaire!
When I used to tell him to shut up and come home when we were at the club and I was fed up with being there at four o’clock in the morning. I would say, “Please Serge, let’s go home.” Now I feel as if I was saying it to Fredrick Chopin—saying, “Oh Frederick, please stop playing.” An old nag.
I am thankful to him; I suppose performing his songs here is another way of thanking him by making the most beautiful concert that I could possibly do with all that he gave me when frankly, I can hardly be proud, because it’s not my bit.
So I can’t be crass about all that. But it’s easier not to be crass when you’ve got something to say for yourself. I’ve got a record that I just finished writing. It will be out by June. I start a film in May. I don’t have to worry about keeping on. Everyone wants for their advance. As long as you’ve got your own back, you can keep your head up high. As told to Leandra Medine
Photos via Getty Images.