How We Met: Jane Birkin & Lyn Harris

'I wanted it to smell like my brother's hair, my father's pipe, the Metro in the old days'


Jane Birkin, 63, is an actress, singer and model, best known for 'Je t'aime...Moi Non Plus', her 1969 duet with her second husband Serge Gainsbourg. She has appeared in more than 70 films in French and English, working with directors including Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda, and has forged her own career as a singer-songwriter. She lives in Normandy and Paris

I met Lyn because of a mutual friend [the photographer] Gabrielle Crawford, who I have known for years. I've never really liked scents, probably because of going to Harrods with my mother when I was five and being overpowered in the lifts by five ladies all wearing different perfumes. But my brother was making the film Perfume [which came out in 2006], doing a lot of research into the history and techniques of perfume-making, and I thought I'd try to make one with everything I like.

Lyn had a wonderful laboratory in London, where I spent hours. She has been a sweetheart because she didn't mind me telling her all the things I didn't like about perfume. I wanted it to smell like my brother's hair, my father's pipe, dusty old books, the Metro in the old days. But since I couldn't really have those things, we had to think of something else.

She took it in a very psychological vein. We talked a lot about places and things that I enjoy and are important to me – like sitting in a coffee shop in Istanbul with all the cats under the table. It was like she was trying to do a portrait of me in scent.

When I doodled a few drawings on to some paper as I was talking she snatched it and said, "Let's put this on the bottle." It's nice to have someone say that what you have made is pretty or interesting.

I didn't tell my children I was making the perfume, but Charlotte [Gainsbourg] went through [the hypermarket] Bon Marché the other day and said, "They're selling your perfume," then [my other daughter] Lou [Doillon] told me they were selling it in New York. I'm always surprised people like it. And men like it, too. But then I met a man with my bag [the Hermès Birkin] yesterday, so I suppose anything goes.

When you do something that represents yourself and it's not understood by others, you realise that you don't correspond with anybody else. Which is fine and I've done it on lots of things, on plays and films and records. So when Lyn made this and told me it sells well, it was a lovely surprise and I'm very grateful to her.

Lyn Harris, 43, is a classically trained perfumier. She founded luxury perfume company Miller Harris in 2000, creating bespoke scents for a small number of clients each year in addition to her collection of fragrances for body and home. Her perfumed candles found fame earlier this year when Samantha Cameron gave a set to Michelle Obama. She lives in Primrose Hill, London

I've known Gabrielle for a long time and she came up with the idea for Jane and I to work together. She said she'd like to introduce us because Jane had always been unsure about her fragrance. Serge apparently used to buy her Guerlain and Chanel and all the traditional ones, and she never really felt they were "her".

I was excited to meet her, as she's such an icon. We met in my lab in Notting Hill and she was great – quite eccentric, very easy to be around, didn't stop talking. Her thought process is all over the place, but that's because she is so interested in everything. She is full of references – literature, film, music. I think she had confidence in me because Gabrielle knew me very well and liked me, so Jane trusted me and accepted me quite easily.

Jane was very different from my usual clients. People normally just come once, then leave me to create the scent, whereas with Jane it was a two-year rapport, sending vials back and forth between us. One month we'd be in one direction and then she'd go back down another route. But I'm very used to that, because I can be like that in my own process.

I think Serge was a great influence in the fragrance; she told me a lot about him. He had a great part in her life. It's mad when she tells stories from that time, because they involve all these incredible people and places and events. She's part of an amazing era. It's not showing off, though, it's completely natural – that was her life.

We wouldn't have been interested in making a celebrity fragrance – most are gone in six months; it's such an appalling market. So we are quite protective of Jane's scent. We didn't push it too hard but I think she hit a nerve with what she created – she really is a true artist. At the launch everyone said, "This is so different", and for the first time I felt, "Oh my God, this isn't my fragrance." But that's what my job is about.

I want to do everything with integrity and Jane is a great example of someone who does that. She's very committed to her political campaigning. She genuinely cares about other people and the world.

Jane has had a lot of grief in her life, but she copes and it's inspiring to look at a strong woman living by herself. It reminds me that you don't have to rely on a man. She loves her life, her family, her dog. She walks out of her front door in Paris and will say "Bonjour" to everybody. She's a great woman.

To buy Jane Birkin's fragrance L'Air de Rien or to view the new Miller Harris range of botanical wallpapers, see millerharris.com

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