Saturday, 26 March 2011


Biba is one of those things I thought I knew about, but on closer inspection I was woefully mis-informed. I'll come back to this point later. My face-palm moment came as the result of watching the excellent documentary Beyond Biba (website here), which profiles the life and work of the British fashion designer with the improbable name of Barbara Hulanicki.

The young Hulanicki had a nerve-racking escape from Israel after her diplomat father was assassinated at the start of World War II. A precocious child, she settled in what she found to be a dull wartime England. Art college followed and she went on to set up the fashion label Biba, which defined the zeitgeist of the late 60s and early 70s. The ‘fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes’ was the look for the best part of decade thanks to the brand and its distinctive visual aesthetics. Hulanicki and her late husband Stephen Fitz-Simon first set up a shop in the fashionable King's Road area of London, which, on the back of their opulent but affordable clothes, they swiftly outgrew. They ended up in their flagship store - a seven-floor Art Deco temple of a shop which attracted a million customers every week. Alas, the company became over-stretched and, after disagreements with new owners, Hulanicki left and the brand went into decline. It was effectively defunct by the late 70s.

You get some idea of the look of the brand from the images below. Hulanicki cleverly mixed deco, Egyptian, gypsy and 60s looks to form a confident, bold melange which proved irresistible. I vaguely knew of the brand as I grew up and, from what little I had seen, assumed from the gold, black and sparkles that it was an early 1980s entity. Clearly I was out by about 15 years, which is either testament to my stupidity or (I would prefer to think) Biba just being way ahead of the curve.

The label rose from the grave in 2006, sans Hulanicki, and was re-launched a second time in 2009 under the House of Fraser, where it has seen some success.

You can see the Biba Wiki here.

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1 comment:

  1. ahhh - used to shop at both branches - coming down to the smoke on the train and doing the stalls at kenny market - i remember noddies nipples and lots of ramshackle small plots selling loon pants and buying snake skin boots - then it was across the road to shop in biba - the market premises i think became the store but it was all happening in kensington high street - i dont remember it being in chelsea ......