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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Play's the Thing

The little book that started it all

It's short— 144  7" x 9" pages— and will take you 45 minutes to read. The play based on the book has been performed thousands of times around the world. I saw a delightful local performance this week. It resonates.

The premise behind Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir is her life in clothes. Through simplistic, childlike renderings and poignant text, the clothes rekindle memories. Some were related to an event in her life. Some were the clothes that defined a person, like her grandmother. Originally written for her children, with copies given to a few friends, Ilene was completely surprised at interest from a publisher. The book is a constant seller and has been followed by four others in a similar vein.

Ilene Beckerman
A "self portrait"

"Love, Loss and What I Wore" was configured into a play in 2008 by Nora and Delia Ephron, with multiple speaking parts. Ilene's nickname is Gingy, and that's her character. Four other actresses assume multiple roles in mini vignettes and perform as a Greek chorus in segments tagged "Clotheslines", riffing on everything from the color black to what goes on (or doesn't) in fitting rooms.

Ilene's technique was such a simple premise with which to reflect on your own life. We don't all have her gift of recall, but photographs can trigger remembrances. I challenge you to pull out a handful of random photos from the scrapbook. Were the clothes themselves important to you? A special dress for a special occasion? How did that play out? Was the photo taken on just an ordinary day? What do you remember about yourself that day? It can be a revealing exercise.

Here's two from me. I've never forgotten what happened the night I wore that dress. I'd completely forgotten about the snowsuit, and I think you'll understand why.

June, 1948
I was almost six. 
The occasion was a party celebrating my 15-year-old sister's Confirmation, a practice meant to replace bar- and bat- mitzvah's in Reform Jewish congrgations. It entailed a party the size and scope of a Sweet Sixteen. Hers was held at the Wade Park Manor in Cleveland. My parents were not party people— givers or go-ers— so this was a big deal. The dress was a silky jersey fabric (like a good nightgown). Pale, pale blue with a pale pink bow appliqued across the bodice. Beautifully done as I remember not being able to see the stitches that kept it attached. Pale blue silk socks (that kept slipping down), white shoes and, yes, that's a bow in my hair. I was always squinting in pictures as of course you had to face the sun. That night, at the party, I chased an older boy into the men's room. I guess he was trying to get away from me. Or else he really had to go. That incident was the stuff of endless family retelling— and some embarrassment when I was introduced to said "boy" (now 19) years later.

Winter, 1948
Age six and in the first grade.
Squinting but happy. Why? I hated the cold. Maybe I had just gotten out there or maybe it was time to go in? The snowsuit was red and green plaid with yellow accent lines. The matchings pants were green and padded. Fat pants. "Stadium boots"— brown rubber, zipped up the front with a fake fur collar around the edge. Lined in something furry too. I liked them as they looked just like the boots my sister and mother wore. What I had completely forgotten was the buttons. Look closely. A snow suit would have zipped for protection from the elements. But I hated the zipper and could never get the two prongs to line up at the bottom so it would zip up. My teacher got so tired of zipping me in for recess, lunch and going home that she sent me with a note to my mother instructing her to replace the zipper with buttons. Which she did. To this day I kind of sort of hate zippers. At the Lovely Boutique Where I Work I still feel a mini ping of panic when a customer asks for help with a zipper, and I often call for assistance, for someone's "magic touch".

All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
— Sean O'Casey

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michelle Obama's First Oscar

The winning Oscar

No, Michelle Obama has not received an early award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences— yet— but she did wear Oscar de la Renta for the first time this week. The uber-successful New York-based designer's clothing had not made it to the Obama closet until now. He was becoming conspicuous by his absence, despite Michelle having worn a custom made cocktail dress designed by Oscar's son Moises five years ago. Ironically she wore the Oscar to a cocktail party at the White House where the senior Mr. de la Renta had been invited but declined to attend.

A Moises not an Oscar

The party was part of a White House Fashion Education Workshop that brought together students and fashion pros including designers, business people and journalists. What fun and hooray! Although Michelle Obama has been a First Lady fashionista of a high order, the event "took this to a new level, embracing the importance of fashion as an industry for the future."*

Mrs. Obama's tenure may be "winding down" (with only two years and two months to go), but she has established herself as a first and foremost first lady of fashion. Yes, we all wanted to look like Jackie, but Jackie just wanted to look like herself. Michelle is aware of the attention she draws and the power she has to direct it. Then there are the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, who are growing up before our eyes and always look well groomed and appropriately dressed (hopefully without too much nagging from mom).

Photogenic and fashionable First Family

Michelle uses her visibility both to promote new designers and ensure the credibility of the old guard. Among those she's worn:
Jason Wu
Prabal Gurung
Duro Olowu
Alexander McQueen
Tracy Reese
Thom Browne
Narciso Rodriguez
Diane von Furstenburg
Maria Cornejo
Naeem Khan
Georgina Chapman
Natalia Koval

Whose is that last name? Natalia Koval is a Ukranian student at the Fashion Institute of Technology whose dress Michelle wore on October 9 as part of the fashion workshop. Natalia was one of 26 students at the school asked to design a dress for an unnamed celebrity. This was a spot-on choice as it shows off Michelle's great arms and flatters her hipline. Natalia, go directly to the head of the class.

* Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, October 12, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fashion's Name Game

Who'll revive Poiret?

You've heard of musical chairs? Fashion is a game of musical hangers. A piece in The New York Times (10/5/14), aptly titled "Split Seams", set forth the news that Peter Copping is leaving the French couture house of Nina Ricci (possibly to go to Oscar de la Renta in New York), and Guillaume Henry is leaving Carven (possibly to go to Nina Ricci). This was on top of Jean Paul Gautier closing his ready-to-wear line. That last comes almost as a relief, because nowadays it seems he would just get someone else to do it.

This isn't only happening in Paris, of course. Thomas Burberry himself hasn't designed a raincoat for years. He died in 1926. Burberry is designed by Christopher Bailey. Calvin Klein retired in 2003; Francisco Costa is his replacement. But that's Fashion as Business. French fashion has always seemed above the fray, but now you truly need a scorecard. The names of the French couture houses are dripping with history. Some of the greats have shuttered (sadly no more Paul Poiret), but many are just being designed by other people. To wit:

Dior  Raf Simons
Balenciaga  Alexander Wang
Chanel  Karl Lagerfeld
Ricci  Peter Copping*
Lanvin  Alber Elbaz
Givenchy  Ricardo Tisci
Balmain  Olivier Rousteing
Valentino  Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri
Ungaro  Fausto Puglisi
Carven  Guillame Henry*
Vuitton  Nicolas Ghesquiere
St. Laurent  Hedi Slimane
Vionnet  Hussein Chalayan

Does the length of this list strike you as a little screwy? Many of these designers are so talented they surely deserve to helm their own labels, not be linked with someone else. But would you rather own a Valentino or a Chiuri?

With the exception of Karl Lagerfeld, who has picked apart and tortured Chanel for the past 31 years, the work of many bear little resemblance to that of the masters before them. I shudder to think what Valentino, Givenchy or even Calvin Klein must think when they see what their names are serving up. Perhaps they're like me when I saw my old house again for the first time in ten years. They don't completely look.

* Stay tuned

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Women We Love: Norma Shearer

Norma, not Moira

When I was a kid, and ballerina-obsessed on account of "The Red Shoes", the only Shearer I knew was the star of that 1948 film, Moira Shearer. A gorgeous, delicate redhead, Moira was originally a ballerina with Sadler Wells and was no doubt responsible for millions of little girls begging their mothers for ballet lessons. I was one of them, but the request fell on deaf ears. Possibly because my mother could see my two left feet; most likely because lessons didn't fit the budget.

Moira, not Norma
Checking out Norma

At the library I would repeatedly check out a picture book of old Hollywood stars. Norma Shearer was among them, but I thought she might have been Moira's mother. It wasn't until advanced adulthood and the birth of Turner Classic Movies that I got to see Norma in the flesh, so to speak, on celluloid. My first exposure was the fabulous "The Women". The story pretty much revolves around her, though she is surrounded by a glorious gaggle of co-stars acting their hearts out. Not to forget gowns by Adrian— in color— as the finale of this b&w movie. Since then, I perk up at the mention of "Norma Shearer" and try to catch her films when they appear on TCM.

Norma Shearer's appeal is her grown-up-girl-next-door good looks. She's wholesome but not saccharine with a twinkle that lets you know she'll try anything. She was the girly-girl women would love for a friend and men would just love. She was not a comedienne or tragedienne but injected a lot of life into dramatic parts. Norma was one of very few who transitioned from silents to talkies. The charm she gave her role in "The Divorcee" (1930), portraying a "good-girl-gone-bad", earned her an Academy Award and more sophisticated parts.

Conrad Nagel as mesmerized by the divorcee Norma

It didn't hurt that she was Mrs. Irving Thalberg. He was the charismatic head of production at MGM studios. You may recognize the name from the Irving Thalberg award presented at the Academy Awards for exceptionally high standards in film making. Norma and Irving skirted around a romantic relationship for years before going public and marrying in 1927. His untimely death in 1936 is part of Hollywood history.

Mrs. and Mr. Thalberg

As for Norma, she always worked hard to overcome supposed physical limitations ranging from "bad legs" to a "cast eye" (me, I see none of that). Some of her later films were not great choices. "Marie Antoinette" had her wearing a silly blonde wig and "Her Cardboard Lover" in 1942 was her last film. She did know what camera angles worked best, and she felt she knew when it was time to leave the spotlight.

Following her retirement she married a 12-years-younger man and "withdrew from the Glamour side of Hollywood, preferring anonymity". Janet Leigh credited Norma Shearer for mentoring her during her early days in Hollywood as well as helping many other aspiring actors. But quietly. She died in 1983 at age 80.

Heard but not seen, 1951

Hollywood, where there are "more stars than there are in the heavens"*. And more than you may know. Norma Shearer is worth discovering.

*According to Louis B. Mayer of MGM

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What to Read: The Biba Years 1963-1975

Published only a week ago, I received my copy this morning and flipped through it immediately to make sure I didn't buy a pig in a poke. I'm happy to tell you this one just might be the Biba book to have. Written by Barbara Hulanicki (Biba herself), that means she has finally embraced the amazing event that was Biba and fully acknowledges its legacy.

Barbara Hulanicki has skirted around this for years (fashion pun— sorry). Who can blame her? The demise of Biba was tragic and life-altering. She survived by embracing another profession altogether, and is a quite successful interior designer of commercial properties whose sunny, whimsical work is light years from the misty, Gothic romanticism that we associate with Biba. Her co-author is Martin Pel, curator of Costume and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Bibaphiles know that Brighton scores high in the Biba story. It's where Barbara grew up and attended art school. The book is published by V&A Publishing of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In other words, this one has street cred.

Vintage Barbara...
...Barbara today

For those of you who need the facts, "The Biba Years" measures 10" x 11 1/2" and comes in at 248 pages of heavy, semi-gloss stock. The hard cover is printed with the cover image, so there's no paper one to become dog-eared. It's a "coffee table book" with great pictures— of the clothing, store interiors, sketches, etc., but there seems like plenty to read as well. As promised there are facsimiles of the six Biba mail order catalogues (of which I have one actual in my possession), but they are matchbook size and hard to decipher. I'll see if a magnifier reveals the prices, which will make you cry by today's comparison. Not considered cricket to call it "Biba", I guess, but a last chapter covers Barbara's work from 1975-2014.

I've put my copy down, for now, as this one will be a Treat of the first order to dip and delve into— with clean hands!