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IT'S ALL ABOUT BIBA! LONDON'S FIRST LIFESTYLE BRAND GETS AN EXHIBITION AT LAST

"Biba was the first of its kind and lived a short, spectacularly successful life. With its meteoric rise and quick downfall, the fashion brand perfectly encapsulated the spirit of '60s youth culture." says Martin Pel, curator of The Biba Story, 1964-1975 at the Fashion & Textile Museum.

A lifestyle brand synonymous with '60s nostalgia, Biba was honoured on March 22nd with its own exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum curated by Martin Pel. In an exclusive interview with the Biba expert, we delve into the label’s impressive legacy and the resilience of its co-founder and former fashion illustrator Barbara Hulanicki.


Image courtesy of Alamy Images

For the typical fashion fanatic, the phrase ''’60s fashion" conjures a cavalcade of Mod cuts, optical patterns, André Courrèges futurism and Mary Quant miniskirts. Unlike the aforementioned designers, the 1964 Biba boutique (originally a mail order company) managed to capture the era's zeitgeist while also being inexpensive. "Twiggy used to go to Biba when was a schoolgirl because it was the only place to buy affordable trendy clothes" says Pel, who has authored, co-authored and edited a handful of Biba books including Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki (2012)


Much of its success boils down to its illustrious mail-order catalogues; which were shot by talented photographers like Helmut Newton, James Wedge, Harri Peccinotti and Sarah Moon. Each spread went beyond the textbook layouts of typical catalogues; featuring elegant dioramas and advertorials of models in situ with the furniture and accessories comprising the “Biba lifestyle.” 


These tomes attracted customers across the United Kingdom (including a young Annie Lennox in Scotland), and brought them in droves to the Big Biba department store, which opened in Kensington in 1973. It was in this Art Deco building that the full Biba experience was enjoyed. There were rails of the latest fashions, a food hall, homeware section, a rose tea garden and an enigmatic restaurant-cum-nightclub on the fifth floor called the Rainbow Rooms. The ultimate place to be, it became a hang-out and concert hall for rock stars such as the New York Dolls and Liberace. 


A Fashion Empire

Fashion-forward visitors to Pel’s exhibition can look forward to an assortment of beautifully crafted designs like a grey, leopard print trouser suit that has been donated by former Biba staff and friends of Hunalnicki. The curator is particularly excited to display a reconstruction of the famed Gingham dress that was commissioned by the Daily Mirror’s fashion editor Felicity Green and shot by the society photographer John French in 1964. At the time, the pink-gingham sleeveless shift frock and matching triangular kerchief made fashion history. Initially expected to haul in a modest sum, its spot illustrating an article on women in business in The Daily Mirror saw Biba receive over 17,000 of orders. 



Soon afterwards, Hunlanicki expanded her mail order company and opened Biba’s first boutique in London's Abingdon Road with the help of her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon in September 1964. Some would say that this moment marked the beginning of Hulanicki's fashion empire. It evolved into a spectacular paragon of affordable on-trend fashion that only lasted eleven years, but whose impression on the hearts and wardrobes of young Mods must not be underestimated. 


The One & Only Barbara Hunlanicki

Pel first met Hunlanicki in 2009 and has often consulted her expertise when writing Biba related works and curating this year's exhibition. When she was twelve, the Polish born designer moved with her sisters and mother to England from Palestine after her father was assassinated. "Barbara became the emotional head of the family," says Pel. "She used drawing to escape from a new world where she didn’t know much English and had become quite difficult." Having developed a passion for drawing, she won a fashion competition advertised in the Evening Standard In 1955, and saw a swimwear outfit she designed made flesh by the British fashion designer Norman Hartnell



Hulanicki illustrations. Images courtesy of Collingsby Gallery


"This was the first moment that she realised she could transfer her drawing skills to fashion illustration," states Pel. Hulanicki then pursued a career in fashion illustration after studying at Brighton Art College in the late 1950s. Her skills were soon recognised by the fashion industry, and she was invited to cover the fashion shows of revered houses like Chanel and Dior. Travelling to catwalks in Paris, London and Milan among others, her success was celebrated by a double page article in British Vogue '64. Seeing that photography was overtaking the need for illustration, "she then naturally progressed into fashion design," says Pel. Keenly aware of the lack of clothes that were accessible to young women, Hunlanicki focused her eye on bold silhouettes and patterns reminiscent of the clothes her mother made throughout her childhood. 


"Biba was very much Barbara's personal expression and a love note to her family," says Pel. Indeed, family values proved intrinsic to Biba's business model. Hunlanicki christened the brand after her younger sister and crafted clothing lines for children, men and women, as well as patterned wallpapers, and stationery. This range transformed Biba into a living, breathing unit of the family home. "You could literally live, eat, sleep and breathe the Biba lifestyle," says Pel, who has collected a variety of the brand's cosmetics, soups, wines and even baked beans for the exhibition. 


Inside Big Biba’s Artistic Interiors

Crucially, Big Biba amplified its charm by embracing the aesthetics of bygone eras (an uncharacteristic move for '60s brands, who typically conformed to a post-Second World War sentiment of capitalising on the new). "Barbara was the complete opposite and her shops reflected their built-in history," explains Pel. Indeed, when the designer acquired a Victorian building desecrated with modernist interiors, she restored it to its former glory with Art Deco wallpapers, a colour palette inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and objects drawing on Alphonse Mucha and Sarah Bernhardt. But she didn’t stop there! The eclectic interior combined elements of Hollywood's Golden Age with eccentric displays, such as a giant Snoopy and his doghouse in the children's department. 


Biba interior, 1970s. Images courtesy of Alamy.


This formula of old-age sophisticated melodrama traversed throughout Biba’s seasonal lines and brand makeup. It was reflected in the 19th century Art Nouveau Celtic knot that formed its logo, as well as the plum pigments and dramatic makeup looks illustrating its catalogues. "The looks weren't usually pretty in a conventional sense and could be quite extreme," says Pel. "You could have blue eyeshadow, blue lipstick, blue blush, or even a blue wig." Similar to how Paris’ Le Bon Marché transformed shopping into a social event and popularised the Parisian woman archetype in 1852, Biba became a theatre of fashion glamour and poster-child for the stylish youth and household. According to Pel, it was a veritable playground for families, teenagers, models, singers and TV celebrities like Cilla Black and Cathy McGowan.


"Buying a Biba garment was an investment and people still wear its clothes. They haven't lost their shape or style,” says Pel. “I would love for the exhibition to remind visitors that if you buy carefully, you can wear inexpensive clothes for a long time." But it wasn't just Biba's sustainable backbone that has made its appeal timeless, as crowds swarmed the shop floor to bag the latest must-wear item, Biba's clothing lines evolved alongside the changing tastes of the modern woman. "As the Biba girl grew into a woman, with a career and a home, the brand supplied her with everything that she would need," says Pel. "The store developed from the point of view of being a woman, rather than simply reflecting what was going on in fashion." From sensual silhouettes in the late '60s to a '50s inspired revival in the '70s, Hunlanicki was careful to adapt her primarily Mod collections to the mood of the moment. 



Images via Alamy


Long Live Biba!

Despite its booming popularity, Biba's short life on the high street meant that it closed its doors in 1975. In an attempt to save the label, Dorothy Perkins and Dennis Day made a 75% stake that saw the formation of Biba Ltd. But following disagreements with the board over creative control, Hunlanicki left the company and the store closed again after two years. Further attempts to relaunch the brand in the late 2000s were also unsuccessful. Since then, there's been a musical, documentary and a handful of mentions in films like Made in Dagenham (2010) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)


As for Hulanicki, the end of Biba "was like losing a child," says Pel. She moved to Brazil soon afterwards and then to Miami in the late '80s, where she made a splash designing interiors for Art Deco hotels and rock stars like Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones. "She has been credited as being the spark that reignited Miami," says Pel, who reports that she received the keys to the city from the mayor only two months ago. "She may be 87 but there's no stopping her creative drive! She's incredible, and is always working on something." 


Not one to revisit the past, Hunlinicki was initially hesitant to reprise her time at Biba when she was first approached by Pel all those years ago. But her enthusiasm for the exhibition has been unfailing. "We talk on the phone regularly and I send her images of the show," says Pel, crediting her involvement in its curation. He’s audibly excited to unveil the displays to Hunlanicki, who has made the journey from Miami to London to see it. And we can’t wait to join her!




 

Raegan Rubin is London-based freelance journalist specialised in art and fashion history, subcultures, social justice, sustainability, LGBTQ+ and Fetish culture.


Martin Pel is curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton. He has curated numerous exhibitions including Lee Miller: Dressed (2023), Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion (2019), and Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki (2012). He has authored, co-authored and edited four books including The Biba Years 1963 – 1974 (V&A Publishing, 2014).


The Biba Story, 1964-1975 is on at the Fashion & Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, from 22 March 2024 – 8 September 2024.

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