In London in the early 1960s, the fashion scene was beginning to 'swing'. Mary Quant and many others pushed hemlines higher and higher, the King's Road on a Saturday afternoon was a fashion parade, and The Beatles were wanting to hold your hand from every shop doorway. It is a common misconception that the sea-change in fashion was somehow 'of the people': it was not quite like that. The new designers were, initially at least, almost as exclusively priced as the old Chanel, Dior etc, which was fine for the Chelsea types, but young women elsewhere were struggling to copy the fashions in their magazines. Very soon, throughout the country they were buying their Petticoat, 17 and Honey and doing their best to emulate the fashions therein. The cleverest and most nimble fingers were much in demand amongst their friends, and it was from this background that Barbara Hulanicki began a small mail-order business, named after her sister, Biba.
With the aid of good press coverage1, the mail-order business soon spawned a small and chaotic shop in Abingdon Road, Kensington. This was very quickly followed by a move to Kensington Church Street, just off the busy High Street with its several large department stores. There was a further move into a small shop in the High Street in 1969, followed, in 1973, by the audacious takeover of one of the big, though now rather dilapidated, department stores, Derry and Toms. The refurbishment of this giant store was a marvel in its time - a complete conversion to the Biba look throughout, from the doormats to the roof garden, the toilets to the food hall - and it was more than a little lavish in the Art Deco style of the original store. 'It will never work', said the wise old men of retailing. They were right; two years later, the store closed.
The Biba Look
Barbara Hulanicki was not part of mainstream fashion. She had little to do with mini-skirts, see-through shirts, geometric designs, bold colours, hipster trousers and all the other hallmarks of what we now think of as 1960s fashion. She was a maverick, on her own in Kensington and not in Chelsea or Soho. Her main influences seemed to be the 1920s flappers and Edwardian tassles and shawls. Her skirts were long and flowing, her sleeves were long and tight, and materials included velvet and satin; her colours were often black, dark browns, plums, grey and dusky pink. Patterns, when used, were tiny with the emphasis on plain colour. Biba girls were skinny, with big eyes, and their hair styles favoured misty curls and not the crops of Vidal Sassoon.
In the shops, dresses were displayed on bentwood hat and coat stands, draped with scarves, hats and belts. There was much black glass, with gilt and silver fittings. Carpets, where used, were thick and opulent. In the store, the whole style was carried through to cosmetics, furnishings, stationery, men's clothing, bed linen and everything else that the store sold, including baked beans in a black tin with the ubiquitous gold logo. It was a unique and wonderful experiment.
Almost until the end prices were kept reasonably low, at least for women's fashion, and the style varied little through the years, with, perhaps, some concessions to 'glam-rock' at the end.
And then It Closed
In retrospect, the move to the store was too great a jump, and under-capitalised, relying upon a gamble that the 'Biba Look' would have a large enough fan-base. There were some basic mistakes in the use of space; for example hatstands are not effective display stands, and only a small proportion of the floor area given over to sales - a concept that can be made to work now, but didn't then. The new store took Biba away from women's fashion into many, many different products where, perhaps, their styling touch was not so certain: it was a true department store. To add to the difficulties, the project was started in an economic upturn, lived its short life in a downturn, and was financed totally with borrowed money.
The brand lives on, in cosmetics and jewellery most importantly, and every few years some nostalgic entrepreneur has a go at reviving the Biba Look, buying the copyright on old designs and reproducing some. In spite of periodic re-visits to the sixties and seventies, Biba is somehow missed, having always been, perhaps, a little 'out of the loop'. Those who still have a few Biba bits and pieces should perhaps guard them carefully for their grandchildren and some future Antiques Roadshow.
Barbara Hulanicki has lived in Miami for some years, and designs the interiors of luxury hotels.