Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Bit of Biba

Anyone who knows me expects my eyes to glaze over and a far-away dreamy look to appear when I hear the word "Biba". I am being transported back to a magical time and place, all the more so because it was gone so quickly and not ever forgotten. Ask me about Biba and you'd better have six hours to listen. Before I get all angora-kitten-nostalgic let me give you the hard facts why Biba is so memorable:

> It began on a vision and a shoestring with no real business plan and was an immediate success.

> Biba appeared at just the right moment. The Beatles were at the height of their popularity, everything Swinging London was cool, young women of the 60s were far different from any other era. They were working; they had disposable income; fashion was meant to be fun, and Biba was cheap.

> It was the first time a designer, Barbara Hulanicki, took styles from many vintages, mixed them all together and showed them off with current hair and makeup. She raided Victorian, Edwardian, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s archives for her inspiration. The Biba girl was dreamy and a little sullen. She could be a vixen or a child-woman. There was never just one look but it was always Biba.

> Everything Biba produced was in the same off-kilter color palette. Black of course. Aubergine, old rose, puce, muddled cocoa, taupe, twice washed evergreen. Not only would everything work together it was as distinctive as if you wore (the very distinctive) label on the outside.

> As a merchandising concept Biba grew to brand everything— from blouses and skirts to baked beans and dog biscuits. You could go Biba from cradle to grave. That of course was its undoing.

The first Biba store opened in London in Kensington in 1964. It was the brainchild of Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon. Barbara had trained as a fashion illustrator. Her first success as a designer was in selling simple, cheap frocks for young women through the newspaper. A second store in the neighborhood replaced the first a year later. There was only ever one branch, briefly, in Brighton, Barbara's home town. 1969 saw Biba move onto Kensington High Street in yet a larger store. In 1968 the company launched a mail order catalogue with iconic photography and graphics.
Illustrations from the mail order catalogue
A collection of Biba looks
You went to Biba immediately after throwing your suitcase in your hotel room. Jet lag? What jeg lag? And you went every day thereafter because every day meant new merchandise. It was stocked floor to ceiling. You could put together an entire look, head to toe, for what a dress alone might set you back elsewhere. The store was kept purposely dark, the rock music blaring. There were sales assistants who were living mannequins. They weren't really there to help you and would not speak unless spoken to.
Living mannequins aka salesgirls at Biba
A few things stand out that I bought: a rubberized raincoat in a lilac-tinged grey— cut high under the arms, puffed sleeves (imagine puffing rubber!), funnel neck, A-line. It was 100% waterproof outside and and a sweat lodge inside, a dirty pink jersey collarless coat and matching stovepipe pants, and a soupy green jersey jumpsuit. I learned early on that wearing a jumpsuit all day could be challenging. I brought back a pile of felted jersey cloche flapper hats for my office mates. 

Don't think we were running over to London every few months; we weren't. But I had a British friend who was kind enough to send me the catalogues. I selected what I wanted. She ordered them sent to her then shipped the lot to me in New York. It seemed to take months, but it was so worth it.

In the early 70s Biba struck a deal with Bergdorf Goodman to open a Biba sub-shop in the New York store. Far from the answer to my prayers, the clothes were disappointingly basic and priced as per Bergdorf's not Biba. However, I was able to restock my favorite Biba lipstick in Mahogany. I paid $10 a tube, equal to $46 today.

In 1974 Biba took over a 1930's era department store, Derry & Toms, also on Kensington High Street. This was a massive undertaking, from the basement to the roof garden. It featured children's and men's departments, home furnishings, a food hall, restaurant, etc. It became a celebrity hangout and, naturally, a tourist attraction. But it was too much of an undertaking. Managers were called in who ultimately deposed the founders and creative forces. While it didn't implode it might as well have. "Big Biba" closed in 1975. I was there once for about five minutes. It just made me uncomfortable, and I didn't understand why until many years later after my first trip to Disneyworld.

Barbara Hulanicki in the 1970s
Barbara today
Barbara Hulanicki is an interesting study. She didn't let the demise of Biba pull her down. She went on to become a successful interior designer, especially in Miami and the Caribbean. She hasn't been cooperative or too kind regarding various relaunches under the Biba name (none of which have involved her), but she continues to design clothing, home items, and interiors. She wrote a wrenchingly honest autobigraphy about her Biba experience. My guess is that for her too, it was a magical time.
The face of Biba in a photograph by Sarah Moon


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