Biba forever: reviving the fashions of the Sixties

26 July 2016 ( 11 September 2018 )

Biba, the clothing and homewares brand, will forever be associated with the Swinging Sixties, so why is it still so revered today?




'Two seminal teen experiences: buying my first LP – David Bowie’s Hunky Dory – and daring to shop at Biba, that impossibly hip boutique in High Street Kensington,' says Saga's journalist Tiffany Daneff,

'This was the early Seventies and the T-shirt has long since worn out, but, even now, I find I sometimes wear it in my dreams. Made from soft brown cotton, it was a perfect cut; so flattering, with a wide scoop neck, long flared sleeves that came tight to the wrist and the row of little buttons all the way down the front. I had never owned anything so lovely. It was made in a factory in Leicester that used to make underwear and long johns, as Barbara Hulanicki, founder of Biba, told me on the phone from Miami where she runs her design studio.

'During that interview I'd picture her in statutory black tailored trouser suit with that famously sharp blonde fringe and had it in my head that she was going to be brusque, someone not to suffer fools. How could you not, given the life she’s lived?' 

Barbara Hulanicki launched the first mail-order youth fashion catalogue in Britain in 1963, enabling girls everywhere to buy clothes that until then could be found only in London. She opened the Biba shop in 1964 on Abingdon Road in London, the coolest, grooviest, sexiest clothes shop the world had – and, perhaps without exaggeration, has – ever seen. Mick Jagger came to ogle the panda-eyed girls, the décor was dark, decadent and delicious, the goings-on were legendary and the clothes so hip it hurt. She came up with the smoky kohl and neon lipstick Biba make-up range that defined the era.

By 1973 the so-called ‘Big Biba’ was launched as a department store on High Street Kensington in London and ran over seven floors.

It sold food, furniture, clothes and more and was one of the UK’s first ‘lifestyle’ stores.


A department store that wasn't about profit 

The point about Biba, as Barbara wrote in her autobiography From A to Biba (£7.80 on the Saga Bookshop), was making beautiful clothes as affordable as possible. It was never about profit. She and her late husband and business partner Fitz (Stephen Fitz-Simon) started selling from home, turning their bedroom into a changing room. Three shops followed. Then, in 1972, they opened the vast Biba department store in the old seven-storey Derry & Toms building in Kensington.

The couple transformed this Art Deco cavern into a kind of hippy Harrods that sold everything from leopard-print underpants to dog food. Penguins and flamingos wandered the famous roof gardens where Tony Curtis came for tea. The Rainbow Room was the place to eat (and be seen eating) and the outrageous New York Dolls made their UK debut there in November 1973. 

Top photographer Helmut Newton and models such as Stephanie Farrow (younger sister of Mia) worked for nothing and you never knew who might drop by, from Brigitte Bardot to Princess Anne, all attracted by the sheer glamour of the clothes.

Everyone who ever owned a piece of Biba goes dewy-eyed at the recollection. ‘It’s amazing,’ says Martin Pel, curator of a Biba exhibition. ‘They all become so passionate. These were special clothes. Look at this.’ He produces a fake fur-trimmed jacket with Hulanicki’s hallmark long arms and skinny torso. Unlike a couture item, it’s not lined, which kept prices down, but the seams are perfect. This is the magic that made women feel and look so special.

What look inspires her now? Street fashion. ‘Runway fashion is an art form, a visual excitement for the bored fashion press. It’s very exotic and the girls are so skinny they look good in any old thing, and these days it is any old thing – but it’s disastrous for the public. It has terrified them back to T-shirts.’

Homage to the miniskirt

Biba goes bust

To cut a long story very short, in 1975 Biba went bust because it expanded too quickly, had to sell 75% of its shares and lost control of the business. Barabara closed the store and threw all the Biba memorabilia (or at least most of it) off a mountain in Brazil, before reinventing herself as a commercial hotel and club designer in Miami – Ronnie Wood and Gloria Estefan are clients. Not bad for a Polish-born refugee who arrived in England in 1948 following the assassination of her father, the Polish Consul General in Palestine.

The original Biba label has been bought and sold many times since then. House of Fraser relaunched the Biba label in September 2010. The products were designed by House of Fraser and included print blouses, faux fur coats, evening dresses and t-shirts with the name Biba on.

House of Fraser said at the time: "Although it's not a retro collection, we drew on the heritage of Biba and its archives to ensure that we remained true to the brand's ethos. New Biba embraces the mood of the original brand, and is made relevant for today's market."

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Barbara’s fashion rules

• ‘There are two types of clothes. Clothes for other people and clothes for yourself. Just because something looks good on someone else doesn’t mean you’ve got to wear it. The sooner you learn that the better.’

• ‘Most people suit certain colours and they should stick with them. Fashion changes all the time, but ignore other colours.’

• ‘If you have great legs, wear fabulous tights and fabulous shoes. If you don’t, wear boots.’

• ‘Older people make the terrible mistake of buying clothes only for an occasion. You should buy clothes when you find something that speaks to you (assuming you can afford it) and then find an occasion to wear it.’ 

How to adapt 1970s fashion today

Two Biba wedding moments remembered

Margaret Howe, retired teacher and company secretary, wore Biba at her wedding in Grimsby, 1969

‘I first saw my wedding dress on the cover of The Telegraph Magazine and straight away rang up and ordered it. I think it cost six guineas, which was relatively cheap even then. It was beautifully made and fitted me perfectly though I had to make a full-length undergarment as it was completely see through.

‘I insisted on wearing a cameo at the neck like the model in the magazine. My husband wore a yellow shirt. My two nieces were bridesmaids and I made them orange and cream dresses with Victorian sleeves that went with those of the Biba dress.

‘I also bought myself a pink going-away Biba trouser suit. I chose the fine needlecord jacket and the jumbo cord coat and butcher’s boy cap. I did wear some strange clothes then, but I had been at London College of Fashion.

‘My sister and I loved the mail-order Biba catalogue. It was high fashion that was accessible to the masses.’

Jill Richter, writer and artist, married in London, 1965

‘I wore a Biba jumpsuit at my wedding to Daniel Richter, an American mime artist who later played the lead ape man in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also worked with John and Yoko and directed the Imagine video.

‘We were living in London and, one day, as we were walking past Harrods, we saw a girl wearing a black trouser suit with tiny flowers on it, so I went up and asked her where she had got it. I went round to Barbara Hulanicki’s house off Kensington High Street to get myself one. When it came to the wedding I had to go and see what Barbara had. I thought the jumpsuit was so beautiful and it was terribly unusual at that time. I had a matching cloche hat and two strings of Biba ebony beads.

‘Our photograph was published on the front page of the Evening Standard not just because of the way we looked – at that time we were also involved in putting on the first Beat Poetry conference at the Royal Albert Hall.’

How to make the jumpsuit work for you

The Biba collector

J Anna Ludlow is a Biba collector and bought pieces from the original Biba in the Sixties. Lynette Peck of lovelysvintageemporium.com interviews her:

Why do you think the original Biba is still of interest and the pieces so sought after?

'I think the resurgence of Barbara (Hulanicki, the founder) and her partnerships with George at ASDA and House of Fraser, as well as her high profile appearances with Twiggy and Kate Moss at various exhibitions have embedded her into the consciousness of a new generation.

'Much is also known of her Miami connection, and refurbishments of mega rock star homes and Miami Beach hotels. Those of us who remained loyal to the ethos - even as we witnessed the collapse of Big Biba (one of the Biba shops), the self-imposed exile of this icon of fashion and her widowhood - were pleased as punch when she re-established herself!

'I hope that anyone new to Barbara does understand just how truly innovative and inspirational she was to those of us who really did live through the original Biba experience.'

When did you start collecting Biba pieces and why?

'1969; it was quite a year! I was introduced to Biba by my friend and fellow student Caroline.

'I'd gone to visit her so we could exchange notes about our art school aspirations and we talked about her elder sister Julia who was in London and had just completed her drama course. Julia had discovered Biba while there and sent her little sister the first catalogue.

'In the catalogue was the precious opportunity to apply to go on the mailing list and receive future catalogues.

'It was quite different in those days - no instant internet sign up - so the catalogues were my first collectibles although I didn't think of them as such, just that they were mine!'

What are your favourite pieces in your collection?

'I suppose nostalgically the catalogues should be my favourites, especially as my mother had kept them safe long after I had left home.

'But I also had shelves of jars that followed me to all the places I lived in. They were (and still are) always on show and I never tire of them.

'I adored all the clothing and I bought tights in most shades of plum, pink and sludgy greens and browns. It was such a novelty to have coloured tights that weren't as thick as sacking!

'I have a dark purple dress with sweetheart neckline, peplum and flared sleeves that must count as a mega piece of favourite, as it is now threadbare through wear and tear.'

What pieces do you not have from Biba that you have always wanted to own?

'The red and white spotted mushroom seating that was in the kiddie area and a full black and gold dinner service.'

What should new collectors of old Biba look out for when sourcing for their own collection?

'There seems to be a lot of Biba memorabilia available as it comes out of attics and gets sold on auction and other internet sales sites, but any new collector would probably be disappointed if they wanted to get a full set of anything.

'I would suggest they get one of the illustrated books available and have a good look at what was available and what they like the look of.

'Research on the internet to see what is available and the price it commands. Then decide on a budget and stick to it - you never know, they may just find exactly what they want!'

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Vintage sixties and seventies fashion

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