- Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History
Biba occupies a legendary place in the history of fashion, streetwear and retail. In just over a decade, Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon succeeded in embedding their shop firmly within the hearts and memories of a generation of consumers. Arguably the inventors of the ‘designer lifestyle,’ the shop has become synonymous with the epitome of cool, subversive fashion in the late 60s. Big Biba, opened in 1973 under the moniker ‘the most beautiful store in the world,’ really was just that. Reviving the 1930s on the bodies of its shoppers at around the same time that Cabaret was reviving it in movie theatres, it epitomised an affordable elegance and a timeless chic with a hefty dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. Art Deco fantasies were enacted among giant mushrooms, Egyptian-style changing rooms and lashings of leopard print. And if that wasn’t enough there were always the flamingos on the roof. I have been obsessed with Biba for as long as I can remember, mainly due to a green dress owned by my mother, and spurred on by reading Barbara Hulanicki’s autobiography as a teenager.
My other Biba ensemble (it comes with wide-leg trousers) from one of Liz Tregenza‘s eBay sales, formerly belonged to Naomi Thompson. Hulanicki said it was one of her favourite tops… Biba label on my mother’s dress
The dress lingered in the background of my childhood as a reminder of my mother’s exotic life before I was born; its extravagance mimicked the contents of our dressing up box, yet this was far too precious to be considered a plaything. The heaviness of the soft towelling complimented the rich emerald green colour, and the luxurious medieval sleeves and gathered shoulders exemplify the historical decadence that Hulanicki’s designs were famed for in the late 60s and early 70s. The dress has a varied history of being worn by many people, as evidenced by the alterations: taken up by shorter friends, stitched down the front by friends for whom modesty prevailed; every stitch marking a new wearer imprinting their story for future generations. The current exhibition on Barbara Hulanicki in Brighton showcases a number of Biba pieces, but it was the catalogue from an earlier exhibition - Biba: The Label, The Lifestyle, The Look in Newcastle in the mid 90s – that helped me to date my mum’s dress to 1972.
I’m not alone in my devotion to Biba. Many former customers – and those of us too young to have seen the stores – are enamoured with the brand as a lost snapshot of British retail magic. Consistent attempts to revive the brand in recent years have fallen on deaf ears – people inherently know that no one will truly be able to recreate the phenomenon – a sentiment also felt in the furore over the Ossie Clark relaunch. It’s interesting in this respect that the relaunch model which works in Paris doesn’t seem to work so well in London – possibly because we feel passionately that these brands were part of the democratising process of fashion and we don’t want to see them usurped by high end prices or low-end retail environments. The egalitarian nature of British street wear seems at odds with the Parisian model of fashion Houses continuing after their creator’s death or retirement; something that couture labels such as Hardy Amies seem to have less of a problem adjusting to.
Style sleuth: A Biba badge owned by my mother (and now by me), and the same badge featuring in a Nova fashion shoot, March 1971 (on the model’s hat)
Yet another failed revival from the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was Nova magazine, which relaunched in 2000 and subsequently folded the following year. Correlations between Biba and Nova are manifold. Aesthetic similarities exist in the use of shared photographers such as Sarah Moon and Helmut Newton (the Biba mail order catalogue, when launched, was designed to resemble a fashion spread from Nova), and the short life span that each enjoyed also connects them: Nova only existed for ten years in its initial incarnation. But more than the facts of their existence, it is the way that these items are passionately remembered by customers and readers alike that forges an indelible bond between them.
Left and centre: Shoot in Nova from March 1972; right: shoot in Nova featuring Biba turban and dress (on the left), February 1972
Biba has come to symbolise the meritocracy that the sixties allegedly gave birth to, with clientele including not only the working class ‘Biba girl,’ but also celebrities such as pop stars and actresses and even young aristocrats. Debate rages over whether the clothing was as affordable as we are led to believe (contemporary reports in trade magazines Drapers’ Record and Men’s Wear both dispute this), but when Biba launched their mail order catalogues in 1968 the system was truly egalitarian in its extension of urban street fashion to regional and suburban areas.
I was recently lucky enough to meet Barbara Hulanicki herself at the launch of her new book. I was somewhat starstruck, as you can see from my ‘rabbit in headlights’ expression
My clothes have soul, emotion goes into them in the design, and they are picked for emotional reasons. This is their impact.
- Hulanicki, in British Clothing Manufacturer, December 1969
Personal testimonies are a big part of Biba exhibitions, featuring at the current show in Brighton and Biba: The Label, The Lifestyle, The Look in 1993 (the fact that these were both successful outside of London highlights the success of the mail order business). The predisposition towards emotional hyperbole is reflected in Hulanicki’s autobiography, dedicated to ‘All Optimists, Fatalists and Dreamers,’ with a tendency to anthropomorphise the clothing, using a lexicon of compassion that has resonated with Biba consumers throughout the decades.
A machine cannot imitate the magic a human being can inject into a dress. You can make a sample in the workroom that is simple and has soul. When it comes back to you from a manufacturer it may seem identical but lack any feeling. I would pat and talk to a rail of dresses to put some life into them. It was amazing what a difference this made.
- Barbara Hulanicki in her autobiography, From A to Biba (1983)
Biba and Beyond exhibition in Brighton
While Hulanicki situates the financial success of Biba purely within the sphere of sentiment, it can’t be denied that the Biba stores developed sophisticated technological and promotional strategies that were more likely the root of its success, along with the simple recipe of having a great product. It was heralded in trade journals as a retail phenomenon in terms of store interior, selling techniques (or lack of), and merchandising. In 1974 Drapers’ Record ran a feature on the advanced technology (“the first of its kind in Britain”) that the store used to achieve “rapid analysis of fashion trends.” And the proliferation of celebrities such as Cathy McGown wearing the clothes has been hailed as an early example of product placement. That Biba is perpetually cited as the first ‘designer lifestyle brand’ also demonstrates an understanding of marketing and brand awareness that was pretty ahead of its time.
The infamous Biba baked beans; the Biba floor at Big Biba. Both from Welcome to Big Biba by Steven Thomas and Alwyn Turner. I recently interviewed Alwyn Turner at the V&A, you can listen to the full conversation here at theatreVOICE
Biba is a poignant example of the place that fashion and clothing can inhabit within emotional memory. For many people their Biba items are stashed away in a personal treasure trove, beloved heirlooms waiting to be passed to future generations. When Big Biba closed its doors in 1975 the boom of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ had morphed into a period of high inflation with industrial strikes, the three day week and increased consumer prices following the onset of decimalisation. Encapsulating such a fleeting moment, Biba has become a very personal and significant recollection for many women, a crucial reference point to their teenage and young adult lives, to the extent that it is not unknown for people to name their pets, and even children, after the store, as Hulanicki recounts in her autobiography. Clothing – perhaps more than any other form of material culture – is central to the lived experience of most people due to its proximity to the body. This is nowhere more evident than in the memories of successive generations of Biba fans, myself included, as passed down through my mother’s dress.