When it comes to buying the perfect present, it’s reassuring to know that even someone as legendarily stylish as Jane Birkin could get it wrong. The fabled actress, singer, model and fashion muse bought her daughter Lou Doillon a Cartier watch for her 18th birthday — but it wasn’t quite what she wanted. “I went to change it,” Doillon says with a smile, when we meet at a studio in Paris. “I swapped it for a Cartier Tank watch because I liked the shape better.”
Twenty-three years later, Doillon’s tastes are more in accordance with her mother’s. Now 41, she wears a Baignoire on her wrist, the very style Birkin bought her aged 18. “Back then I was a squareish young girl and I preferred the [square] shape of the Tank. But the shape of the Baignoire is much more to my liking today. There’s something nice about it having no angles, especially when I’m always writing, drawing and running late. It’s soft. You’re never going to hurt anyone with it.”
Dress, £5,650, Balenciaga. Baignoire de Cartier watch in yellow gold with leather strap, £6,600, Cartier
Doillon — herself a multihyphenate musician-actress-model — and her half-sister the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, endured the ultimate hurt when their beloved mother died in July, aged 76, at her home in Paris. Born in London, Birkin was France’s favourite “petite Anglaise”; the president, Emmanuel Macron, called her “a French icon” who “embodied freedom” and “sang the most beautiful words in our language”. But while the French adored Birkin’s Englishness, the British equally adored her Frenchness, not least her famous association with Hermès. While sitting next to its CEO on a flight, she remarked that the fêted luxury brand ought to design a bag with more pockets, and he whipped out a sick bag and sketched a prototype of the Birkin, which remains one of the most covetable handbags in the world.
Birkin’s death is still a raw memory and Doillon is processing her grief, yet she brings up memories of her mother naturally. Doillon recently attended the Lumière film festival in Lyons, which was staging a tribute to Birkin in recognition of her contribution to French cinema. One of the movies shown was Comédie!, the last film Birkin collaborated on with the noted French film director Jacques Doillon, her partner at the time and Lou’s father. “In the very first shot she comes into the house and what does she have on her wrist? A Baignoire!” Doillon exclaims. “I was amazed. I didn’t know she had one. Although the only jewellery in the family is from Cartier. We’re not a very blingy family, but when we do have jewellery it has always been Cartier. My mum was the one buying jewellery for my father. Then he would buy the same for her, so they would have matching things.”
Doillon may look quintessentially Parisian — she grew up in the city — but in person, with her self-deprecating sense of humour, she’s also unmistakably English. Her accent is almost comically English, peppered with archaic turns of phrase that hint at a childhood spent watching 1950s TV shows. “I know by heart every single Hancock’s Half Hour,” she says, laughing. “I remember a guy once asking me when I was from, not where I was from. I have an extremely old-fashioned English accent.”
Denim top, £790, and jeans, £880, Alaïa. Clash de Cartier earrings in rose gold with diamonds, £11,100, Juste un Clou necklace in yellow gold, £12,800, Baignoire de Cartier watch in yellow gold, £25,100, and Clash de Cartier ring in rose gold, £2,290, Cartier
In the sense that it’s eclectic, her style is English too. Today she’s wearing a Paris Review cap, Celine black cords and cowboy boots, a red cashmere jumper and an oversized coat found in a thrift shop in Rome. “And my lucky socks,” she adds, pulling up one from inside her boot. “I always have one pair a year that I decide will be lucky.”
If her socks are lucky, her hair is even more fortunate. I apologise for asking “the boring hair question”, explaining that Brits are even more obsessed with Parisian women’s hair than their dress sense. “Not overwashing. If there’s a volume shampoo, I’m running the other way. What is the European obsession with volume shampoo?”
She never blow-dries it and tries not to brush it either. “As soon as someone comes close with my enemies, the brush or comb, I scream ‘Fingers!’ If they brush, the whole magic will become fuzzy like a Furby and then it’s over. Doing nothing to your hair takes dedication,” she says. Her fringe is low maintenance too. “I cut it myself with kitchen scissors. It works two times out of three. And when it doesn’t you’ll have a few weeks where you’ll get really interesting work done because you will not go out of the house,” she says jokingly. Or maybe she’s serious. Has she ever grown it out? “A couple of times. It was a joke that my mum would always brush it away. She always said I should not have one. And I always told her that I didn’t actually have an option.” Why? “I have an absolute absence of forehead,” she says, deadpan.
Doillon, aged 12, with her mother, Jane Birkin, 1994; and with her sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg (left), 2016
GETTY IMAGES; REX SHUTTERSTOCK
Her mother’s fringe was one of Birkin’s enduring style legacies, along with miniskirts, mary-janes, borrowing from men’s wardrobes and the pairing of white shirts with jeans. As a child Doillon was not impressed. “To be raised by someone so absolutely casual, I was rebellious to that. I hated casual chic and couldn’t stand the combo of white T-shirt, blue jeans and Converse. It was the definition of a bloody nightmare for me.”
To rebel she became “the Christmas tree”, festooning herself with the adornments her mother so studiously eschewed. “My whole family would take vengeance. Each time they found something mad, kooky or weird, they would get it for me for Christmas, then wait for me to put it all on tog-ether.” Which she did: one memorable look was made up of a smock dress, a black tutu, purple leggings, red Converse, her grandfather’s jacket “from the war” and a top hat in the style of the Artful Dodger. “It was clownish but it made every-one smile.”
Having a British mother and a French father, Doillon has often pondered each country’s obsession with the other’s style. “It’s a strange thing,” she muses. “What’s lovely is that there’s as much admiration and curiosity on both sides.” And perhaps equal influence too. “One of the biggest representations of casual chic is my mum, who is English and not French at all. But she changed all French style by moving here, and this ping-pong between England and France keeps on going.”
Bodysuit, £1,580, Alaïa. Jacket, £2,650, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Shoes, POA, Miu Miu. Clash de Cartier earrings in rose gold, £11,100, Panthère de Cartier bracelet in yellow gold with onyx, black lacquer and tsavorite garnets, £43,900, and Clash de Cartier ring in rose gold, £2,290, Cartier
She gives the best definition of Parisian style that I’ve ever heard. “In Paris there is a level of snobbery that leads women not to tolerate the idea that it looks obvious they’ve made an effort. So one has to underplay it because to imply effort would be embarrassing. It would also show that there’s a limit. Whereas if you haven’t done the hair, or you have the sexy dress but haven’t done the face, there is a mystery — that maybe if you did do the whole thing you could be ravishing. But we’ll never know. We’ve stopped short of doing it and taken a step back.”
Whereas British women tend to go the whole way? “They’ve gone a mile further than the way,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know that place existed. It’s wonderful. I’m very English in the fact that I have always dressed up. I find that there can be humour in dressing up. In this, everyone in France sees me as British and eccentric.”
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Doillon is a mother too — her eldest son (with the musician Thomas-John Mitchell), Marlowe, is 21, and she also has a 15-month-old son, Laszlo, with her boyfriend, the illustrator Stéphane Manel. Laszlo accompanied her on her seven-week stint in Rome, where she was filming Quasi a Casa, an Italian comedy. “My mother was one of the first women in France to have taken me [to work] in the Eighties. She was very modern. She thought being a mum was supersexy, so she kind of flaunted me around.”
Doillon loved being in Rome, not least for the opportunity it afforded her to be exiled from Paris. “For sure I accepted this movie as a way of running away. With my sister we went through years of nightmare. As anyone familiar with a long disease knows [Birkin was first diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002], it was very, very hard. To bounce back was extremely complicated, and actually, to be scratched out of your country, your language and the job that you normally do was quite wonderful.” She also found it cathartic to assume the role of another character. “To have people picking you up at 4am and not knowing when you’ll be back, to have someone taking over [your life] was perfect. Not physically, because I am now shattered,” she says, laughing.
Doillon on stage with her band in May; with her elder son, Marlowe Mitchell, at Milan Fashion Week in 2020
And then there was the city itself. “There was something glorious in being surrounded by all that history and beauty. I spent a couple of weeks in Paris where no one would dare say the word ‘mum’ in front of me. In Rome you will hear it 60 times an hour. It was great to hear people say, ‘This is the pasta from my mum,’ or, ‘I’m calling my mum now.’ I had never realised how obsessed Italians are with their mothers.”
Wasn’t that tough, to keep being reminded of her own mother’s absence? “At first. But after a while you think it’s funny to have gone into exile in a place where everyone has a very strong relationship to mothers, even every church. I’m not religious, but seeing all these insane paintings, and the beauty of seeing a Caravaggio every morning before going to work, felt bigger than life.”
For now Doillon’s life will shrink again by choice, as she takes a much-needed break. When life feels challenging, what does she try to do to spark joy? “I talk a lot,” she says simply. “You can find humour in every situation, especially the dark ones.” Spoken like a true Englishwoman.
Styling: Ray Tetauira. Hair: Sayaka Otama at WSM. Make-up: Hugo Villard at Calliste. Nails: Fanny Santa Rita at Call My Agent. Photographer’s assistant: Alexandre Levouadec. Post-production: Nitty Gritty, Berlin. Thanks to: Merci Paris and Studio Henry Architecture
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