Sunday, October 26, 2014

What I Read: The Biba Years 1963-1975

For those of you hesitant to plunk down $60 to add this to your collection but interested enough to read on, here's more about "The Biba Years 1963-1975" than I posted in my "look what I just got" blog of October 2.

As expected, this is the most complete Biba compilation to date. And that includes "From A to Biba", Barbara Hulanicki's autobiography, and "Big Biba", all about the last store. The latter goes into more detail on that particular one, but I still think the two years of Big Biba were a questionable experiment. The loss of it was not so much the loss of a building than the end of Biba as a presence.

"The Biba Years" meticulously traces Barbara's history. She was born in Poland in l936. The family, fleeing the Nazis, emigrated to Palestine in 1938. We learn the circumstances that brought her widowed mother and three daughters to Brighton to live with a half sister. Once and for all, Biba was not Barbara's nickname. That belonged to the youngest girl, named Biruta. Art school in Brighton, a move to London, a career as a fashion illustrator, a meeting with her future husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, the advent of a small mail-order business ("Biba's Postal Boutique"), a store, another store, a bigger store yet, international success, a gigantic store, an implosion, picking up the pieces.* As in most real life, you can't make these things up. Even if Biba had never touched many of us, it would still make a compelling story.

Why the enduring fascination with Biba?

Biba as a "thing" was the sum of many parts:
* Timing (the emergence of youth culture in the '60s)
* Inspiration from the past (the first time the thirties and forties were mined for their appeal)
* Head to toe vision (by one designer)
* Limited availability (not many stores, few mail-order offerings)
* Affordability (without any loss of cache)

It required a commitment. You couldn't just add a piece of Biba to your outfit. When you wore Biba you had to attempt the total look. The colorways were unique, as were the fits. She uses the term "matchy-matchy" unapologetically. Of course I cringed a little. In these days of mix-and-match being modern, it surprised me to learn that Barbara believed in matching everything— hats, bags, shoes, the whole shebang.

Biba was a state of mind. As an American it meant you'd been to London; you knew what was hip and where to find it; you led the life to wear it (something in the arts for certain).

Does Biba still resonate? When you look at pictures of the clothes photographed on standard mannequins and precisely lit, it may be hard to see what the fuss was about. There are some pieces I would indeed die to own, but others are simplistic and seem familiar. Familiar perhaps because we've seen those silhouettes over and over since the '60s. Revolutionary then = old-hat now.

It was a grand idea that failed. What went wrong? Are there lessons to be learned? Don't get too big? Don't sell out to corporate interests? Never give up? Barbara has had an amazing life since, full of successful projects that have taken her talents to new directions. Not in this book, but she is quoted as saying, "Now whenever I finish something I take some photographs and say 'goodbye'. When you lose everything, you realize that the only thing you have is what's in your head."

"To Michelle from her friend Barbara"
(don't I wish...)

*Despite many revivals of Biba, Barbara Hulanicki has had nothing to do with any of them. Presently House of Fraser carries a whole line, using original logos and all. Barbara and her husband (true partners in all things Biba), lost control of the rights when they took on investors to create more capital in 1969. They were never able to get them back and were forbidden to use "Biba" in any venture. Barbara continues to design under her own name. 

Thanks to online magazine "Betty" for neat shots of the book

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