If this dress was so damn popular, and sold in such vast numbers that Barbara and Fitz struggled to keep up with orders, then why on earth have I never seen it outside of these photos by John French? Does anyone own it? Do any museums possess it? Does anyone remember owning it? Anybody??
The room is large, brown-ceilinged, brown-carpeted and the wallpaper is edged with stripes that remind you of nineteen-thirties’ cinema architecture. It is the office of Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz Simon who together are BIBA.
Barbara curls over the arm of the sofa in the curvy kind of art nouveau shape she has made famous again in furnishings.
“When do I show a new clothes collection to Fitz? Never!” Barbara laughs at the idea. “It’s got nothing to do with men. They mustn’t decide what ladies like to wear.”
Herein lies the success of the Biba empire, a look, an environment, some say a way of life, created by one girl whose husband knows when not to interfere. “I haven’t a creative idea in my head and I’m colour blind,” he says. “What Barbara wants to do, what she feels is right, is absolutely up to her.”
How right is proved by the tide of events which has swept BIBA from her first poky back-street dolly-girl clothes shop into a seven-floor Kensington, London, store. For in September, 1973, the entire building that used to be Derry & Toms, a monument of British store tradition, will be filled from top to bottom by BIBA. A Biba that is bigger, more influential than ever before.
From eve shadow through to refrigerators, from hairslides to washing machines, from underslips to sauce-pans, the Biba look will permeate our lives.
Barbara’s trademark began with a fluid body-clinging style in clothes made up in old-fashioned fabrics with old-fashioned prints in smoky, sleepy colours. Everything about them was soft and slithery and nostalgic. She loved old things. “Modern ones are so cold,” she said.
So what Barbara began in 1964 was the “granny look” but she sold it to dolly girls and the Biba Way of Life had begun. Though you may never have been one of the eager crowd straining the corners of her first pint-sized boutique in West London, you have been affected just the same.
For Barbara, a fragile-faced girl with the. straight blonde hair of a child, wide high cheekbones, fine hairline eyebrows, has turned out to be the powerhouse for an explosion in looks. No one could seem shyer: no one could appear less dominating or more likely to mind her own business. That merely shows how misleading appearances can be. For when you look in the shops and see slinky little crêpe dresses, pretty puffed sleeves, romantic shirring, tucking and bias cuts, they may not say BIBA on their labels but, make no mistake, it’s Barbara from whom the whole idea of them sprang. When you glamorize the furnishings of your house with satin cushions or switch to romantic old Tiffany lampshades of satin and fringe or hunt down some graceful junk—she is the girl who set free this feeling for the pretty ideas of the past. “I need things that have lived,” she says.
And when in 1970 she produced a range of make-ups in oil portrait tones, inevitably we deepened our facial colour schemes and left the hard lines off our eyes. Such clumsy artifices simply were not the BIBA Way of Life.
How Barbara developed that distinctive taste which marks all her work is an interesting conjecture. We know she is Polish by birth and parentage but came to this country as a small girl and was brought up with her two sisters in Hove, Sussex.
We imagine, then, a child who, like her father, loved to draw: a gentle environment which fostered her soft and romantic style of sketching. When she came out of Brighton Art School and moved to London to draw for the papers, the Slavonic stamp in her own looks also characterized the girls she sketched. They were cool gentle blondes with spun-glass features, soft hair done simply, no gawky edges. Whether she knew it or not, she drew herself. We picture an elegant home too. As a. friend of hers told me: “Plushy fabrics, high ceilings, decorative cornices—all the paraphernalia of Edwardian elegance we’re beginning to yearn for and appreciate again—Barbara lived with these and it’s largely thanks to her that we’re getting a taste of them back.”
Looking at Barbara’s wallpapers, cushions, lampshades and ornaments, at the mauve and moody bedrooms of friends who have decorated decorated in the Biba style, I agree. The astonishing thing is that her ideas took seed—and survived—in the op, pop, and Space era of the sixties. Clean functional lines in clothes and homes were the order of the day.
But: “I don’t believe fashion is dictated by the lives we lead,” said Barbara. And predicted long, really long day skirts at the height of the mini: sludgey prunes, greys and purples in the heat of the Courreges white and red craze: flat silky hair when towering, back-brushed domes were in their prime: and old-world furnishings when the Technological Revolution was upon us.
How did she sense we would take to these alien things? Sagittarians, she was born on December 9, 1938, are supposed to be strong on intuition! In her bones she felt that people would retaliate against the growing speed, rush and noise by dressing and furnishing in a nostalgic style.
“Old things are interesting be cause they have a lot of workman ship, a lot of feeling,” Barbara says. “I have to design new thing,, for mass production but I try to give them the look of attention.
“It’s a struggle. Today people know what they like—and they like clothes on the bias with frills and a handworked look. It is increasingly difficult for manufacturers to produce what I want—good machinists are hard to come by. But we fight on.”
Barbara always fights for the colours of her make-ups, her tights, her boots, her bags, sends them back time and again. The shades must be exactly right because they have to match clothes, even furnishings. “I’ve made myself awful problems by co-ordinating everything but working girls and busy wives haven’t time to charge around matching one thing to another. They want to buy it all in one go.” It is Barbara’s ability to see the whole picture which makes people call her enterprise a way of life. She shrugs at the suggestion. “All I’ve done is try to provide what I need myself! At the time I started, people used to talk about investing money in a dress. What a crazy idea that would be now! Imagine always feeling a dress was something to feel guilty about unless it was a sound investment. Fashion should be as cheap as possible so that it can be lighthearted,” she says.
Everything of Barbara’s is blindingly recognizable and usually worn by several women -in any moderately crowded room, but such is the standing of Biba that it is one-up-womanship to be wearing it. Her sway is incredible. Quite vulgar plastic baubles and brooches are all right—Biba says so. Armholes cut fiendishly narrow are okay–Biba has made them so. She it was who plunged clothes-shopping into darkness and beset it with the deafening throb of pop. These things don’t go with your romantic, nostalgic look, I complain to her. “One gets both extremes today,” she replies. “That’s what’s fun.”
Fun it certainly is for Barbara. She gets a big kick out of the sheer audacity of some of her clothes—leopard print heels on platform shoes, big leopard print gauntlets on gloves, sequinned tops and culottes to wear with felt hats and veils. Wearing’ a camel coloured sweater with quietly matching pants —but swinging a foot shod in an outrageous five-inch heeled shoe!—she declares:
“The charm today is in all the contradictions. The tarts look like ladies in good mink coats and crocodile bags and shoes. And the ladies look tarty in platform soles and ankle straps.” It’s this humour that her few critics don’t catch on to. The fancy dress element in Biba is a chuckle, a chuckle we needed. The potted palms and the curly bentwood hat-stands. The knee-length ropes of coloured beads and the bizarre tassels. At the time she began Biba, Barbara was visiting couture fashion collections in London, Paris and Rome to sketch clothes for the newspapers. “Dozens of little black padded numbers. They were stiff, self-conscious, serious and boring.”
It was the pompousness of fashion she was out to slay, and she is still at it. “All the really grisly fabrics are coming back,” she warns with great relish. “Cheap shiny nylons we used to sneer at—they’ll look marvellous, though. They’re stretchier, softer. People will never get into hard clothes again.”
Biba salesgirls do not offer assistance—it is rumoured they would get the sack. Barbara is also responsible for communal changing rooms, which lots of us hate, but the owners of Biba can worry all the way to the bank about that! “If we provided individual rooms for every customer, half the store would be changing rooms,” says Barbara.
Biba is now not just a London store, but a world-wide selling organization. They compute the quantities in which Biba will stock and sell Barbara’s creations, chase suppliers, arrange the link-ups which have built up the company into a world-wide industry selling clothes in America and cosmetics all over the world. Dorothy Perkins, the chain which stocks Biba make-up through Britain, has a seventy-five per cent holding in Biba and is behind the huge new store.
Barbara and her husband work from early morning to eight and nine o’clock at night, often for long unbroken periods—then they spot a gap and fly off somewhere like Istanbul for a long weekend with Withold, their five year old son. They are a tight, devoted threesome and—in this publicity-minded age—very private people indeed. It is a fetish with them. Their home, furnished from top to bottom in Biba products, is a fortress. For all her beauty, Barbara hates having photographs taken. She is scared to be seen on television or heard on radio and would faint if she had to address a group. She is a doer, not a talker. Although she is backed by a strong team, most of whom have been with her the full eight years of Biba’s existence, she herself designs the prototypes of every line and is never influenced by other fashion pundits. That is her claim. In fashion I would say it is a justified one. She does her own thing and that is what has made her a cult.
In furnishing, WOMAN Home Editor Edith Blair says: “Barbara came in at a time when young people were wanting to make their homes glamorous, but hadn’t the antiques, old china, Victoriana their parents owned. Biba introduced excitement with inexpensive ideas. Her dyed feathers are marvellous—you don’t have to buy flowers or plants. Her fringing brought a cosiness into decor. Satin and huge cushions look romantic. Her softer look as penetrated many homes.”
Woman magazine, December 23rd 1972
It’s a funny old world. One of the main reasons the regular Biba relaunches have failed so dismally, each time since 1975, has been the price issue. Barbara Hulanicki, whether you agree with her or not, has always had a firm belief in affordable, fast fashion. £200 for a middling quality dress, as seen in the most recent attempts to reignite the brand, is simply not acceptable in an age of fast, cheap fashion and quirky high-end designers with real personality and bite. To whom are they appealing? I’m afraid I judge people who buy House of Fraser Biba. I just can’t help myself. So there can be little or no cachet to buying that gear, from either Biba geeks or fashion freaks. And the quality isn’t good enough to be seen alongside the likes of Jaegar and Hobbs for the ‘medium’ level appeal.
Biba was cheap, cheerful, young and undeniably cool. Nothing has come close. Primark has the prices, Topshop supposedly has the cool and youth, but none of them have the quality or uniqueness of their oft-copied ancestor. Yes, I said quality. Biba might have had a reputation for badly-made clothes but it simply wasn’t true. It was an assumption, based on the price. And fair enough, it wasn’t couture-quality, but it was no worse than anything being produced by Saint Laurent for his Rive Gauche, Ossie Clark and other British Boutique designers of the era. Certainly a cut above anything being made by many big name designers, these days.
My vintage Bibas are beautifully well-made. They couldn’t have survived forty-odd years otherwise. A seam might have deteriorated here, a small moth-hole appeared there, and perhaps a zip has busted after a particularly raucous night out. But I’ve seen Paris couture from a mere ten years earlier in a far sorrier state than that.
So if shop-floor Bibas are still doing the trick after four decades, can you imagine what a couture Biba must have been like? And if Barbara was baulking at a higher-than-usual price tag for a voluminous jersey dress (which I own) and feared it wouldn’t sell (it sold out), then what on earth was she thinking about offering a coat for 120 guineas?
I had heard vague things about Biba couture over the years, but I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen anything like this article before. I do so wish I could see some Biba couture pieces now. The original owners must have remembered they were such, so I would hope that the provenance would be forever attached to the piece as it passed from careful owner to careful owner.
Dreamy. And certainly not hindered by some incredible photos by the legendary Helmut Newton and footwear by The Chelsea Cobbler.
Observer Magazine, 19th January 1969.
254 Kensington High Street, W8
Biba, probably the best known of all the boutiques, began business six years ago with a mail order offer of a gingham shift and scarf for 25s, because fashion illustrator Barbara Hulanicki thought it was impossible to buy inexpensive well designed clothes and decided to do something about it. At the end of last year, in premises 16 times the size of the original boutique in Abingdon Road, Biba opened as a store selling not only clothes but also accessories, make up and home furnishings, Barbara Hulanicki’s distinctive style is carried through all her designs, sold only at the store and by mail order catalogue. She works with her husband, Stephen Fitzsimon.
Hair by Barbara Hulanicki. Photos by Duffy.
Another uncredited image from David Bond’s book. Well, at least it actually states Biba this time (although it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work that one out). This is my dream world. Biba clothes. Dried flowers and feathers. Curls. Sequins. Headscarves…. Suffice it to say, I would like to dive in head first.
Conclusion: We were all in a daze.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that Mr Brownwindsor was sitting there chatting to Sylvia Ayton and I utterly failed to ask her to sign my Boutique book, which was sitting in my bag.
Conclusion: I’m useless.
However, I did get Lee Bender to sign my copy of her new book. And she recognised my nudey lady blouse immediately. Hurrah! Geek heaven…
I’m generally a bit squeaky and shy when it comes to asking questions in front of a huge audience of people. I can talk to a much admired designer up close and where only they witness my idiocy. But, after much cajoling beforehand, I realised I simply had to ask the question I’d been dying to ask since I wrote this blog [almost exactly] three years ago.
“How do you feel about being copied yourself* these days? Particularly with the Kate Moss for Topshop…..” I think I might have trailed off at this point because a look of thunder crossed her face. I squeaked inwardly, fearing I may have offended. But it turned out that she was just registering her anger at exactly the same thing that I had been angry about. She mentioned having seen a blog about it; I exclaimed that it was my blog, my dress. “Aha! I thought you looked familiar!”.
*She had spoken about her own experiences of taking inspiration from vintage pieces.
Terrifyingly fabulous when you realise your idols actually see what you write about them. I had the same stomach flip when John Bates said he had seen my website. I often forget, and I ramble on about them in the same way I would ramble on about Ossie Clark, knowing full well I can’t offend him.
Anyway, the talk itself was great. Albeit not quite sufficient for a complete geek like me. Certain people (mainly my boyfriend) keep having to gently but firmly remind me that of course I’m not going to be satisfied with whatever book/documentary/q&a session I’m witnessing. I already know most of what they’re talking about. I’m seeking the finer details. Dates, times, people, evidence. Sadly, it’s the lot of the fashion historian.
Which is also my problem with the new Bus Stop book. On balance, I would say it’s definitely worth owning (the more I look at it, the less I see the flaws). And mine holds greater importance now it’s actually got her dedication inside. But it’s not the most gorgeously produced book in the world, the design/layout leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s a crying shame that it will probably be the only one we’ll see on Lee and her work.
The problem is limited resources. She didn’t keep anything (by her own admission – you should have heard the gasps when she mentioned donating things to charity a few years back) so mostly it is filled with her illustrations. Which are very lovely. But I’m a geek. And I need information laid out in timeline form, or at least vaguely timeline-ish, and I need dates on photos. I need better quality scans of photos. But again, I am being pernickety because quite a few of the magazine photos within are from magazines I already own and could scan myself (and clean them up a bit in photoshop).
There was limited research going on, and many things slipped under the radar. Par exemple…
Oh yes. If books were produced by Miss Peelpants, they’d probably be the geekiest books in the world. But I’m not even being THAT geeky really. There are photos of Joan Collins and Barbara Bach in Bus Stop gear, presumably because those were the only ones they thought they had evidence of.
Also, there are so many Bus Stop fanatics and collectors out there; any of us would have been happy to have had our garments photographed professionally I’m sure.
My favourite part of the evening, weirdly, was the slight hint of anti-Bibaness. Which might surprise you, because I really do love Biba and Barbara Hulanicki and clearly am never afraid to express this through my blog and website. But I’m not unaware of her flaws. And I’m also starting to get a bit bored with the Biba dominance in coverage of the era.
As Lee herself, and others I chatted to afterwards, pointed out; Bus Stop clothes were made for women. Women with boobs and a bum. Barbara was designing for women with legs up to their armpits and no boobs. I don’t have the most generous bosom in the world, but Biba squishes me out in all directions sometimes. I appreciate the boldness of that as a design decision (the flagrant “if you’re not this shape, tough, you’ll wear the clothes and hope they make you look that shape” attitude) but it doesn’t always work when you need your clothes to work. Which is why I’m always wittering on about Lee Bender making wearable gear; she just WAS.
The actual rivalry with Biba was touched on, she told a brief story about both her and Barbara ending up in the same Kensington restaurant one night and being kept well apart by their companions, but this just made me even more sad. Biba gets two or three books, glossily and hard-backedly dedicated to the high altar of art deco fabulousness. Bus Stop will probably only ever get this one, making it look like the ‘also-ran’ it never was. But I’m immensely glad it even exists, quite frankly.
Someone (preferably not Topshop, although they owe her big time) needs to give Lee Bender the opportunity to design a new range of clothes. Hulanicki’s range for Topshop was such a crushing disappointment; I would dearly love to see someone who REALLY wants to do it, and isn’t just ‘phoning it in’, making a huge success with fresh, wearable designs and an understanding of women’s bodies.
Ok, I officially love whoever is doing these weird music/fashion video crossovers, all seemingly taken from London Aktuell.
Mary Quant (in her best period, IMVHO, of the early Seventies), Biba and Mr Freedom (I love the shots actually outside the shop! Insanely groovy.). Lushness…..
And lastly, fashion by Laura. Whoever that might be. Love the red coat towards the end though….
Oh my goodness*, I am in fashion and music heaven….
*I cannot use the abbreviation ‘OMG’ any more. Not since I found myself scanning a book in a strange Brighton bookshop which used it as an abbreviation for ‘Oversized Male Genitalia’. Hilarious but impossible to put out of my head now….
Biba were spearheading the Seventies revival of all things antique, including the ‘lounge’ culture. Spectacular gowns and peignoir sets were made ostensibly for the bedroom but far too good to be restricted to it.
This incredible peignoir set of dress and dressing gown is made in a distinctively Victorian / Edwardian style, with voluminous amounts of fabric and lavish ruffled hems, necklines and sleeves. You can do some serious swishing in this set, believe me – the photos don’t even show just how much volume there is!
What baffles me is the inverse ratio between the rarity of Foale and Tuffin, and the prices they command. I think Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin were arguably a greater talent than Mary Quant. And they certainly knew when to call it quits and draw back gracefully from the fashion world (they both ‘retired’ in 1973 to spend more time with their families). Licensing? They wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Yes, MQ, I’m looking at you in your waterproof poncho – don’t think I can’t see you! 😉
Their early work was vibrant, youthful, fun and always exquisitely tailored. They originated trouser suits for women (yet another creative theft by Yves Saint Laurent ensured they rarely get credited for this – more rantings on him some other time…), used the ‘op art’ trend in a quirky way (rather like my other passion, John Bates) and helped build the Carnaby Street image – the driving force behind the emergence of Britain as a world leader in fashion.
They moved easily into the softer look of the late 60s and early 70s, continuing to favour Liberty prints and did all sorts of lovely frilled and flared things. In retrospect, their decision to quit in 1973 seems really rather intelligent. The mid-late 70s saw the crash and burn phenomenon of so many designers, Ossie Clark and Barbara Hulanicki at Biba being the most notable casualties. So they got out at the right time.
Their work is fairly rare. Goodness only knows why, you can hardly miss the label! They were a popular fixture in Vogue and a big part of the Youthquake British Invasion of the USA in 1965.
However, in recent months (after loudly bemoaning the non-existence of ANY F&T pieces in my personal collection) I seem to have accumulated a nice little collection of their work. I still sit here, look at the frocks and think; “How the HECK did I manage that?”. I have my limits as to how much I will pay for pieces for my collection, it’s just that the prices have been shockingly low for what they are. Even the recent Kerry Taylor auctions sale for Sothebys sold two Foale and Tuffin frocks (early 70s) for the opening bid of £100. I recall one of the major US auction houses sold two Foales not that long ago for a similar price.
So, while I can’t complain on a personal level that the prices aren’t really reflecting the rarity and beauty of their work – it does seem utterly wrong. Mary Quant’s work is fairly cheap these days – especially considering her cultural importance. But F&T didn’t license their names to death. So in reality, they should be making a whole lot more.
Just a little rant. I feel much the same way about Gerald McCann. I guess I’ll just have to keep collecting these labels rather than selling them! *sigh*