Barbara Hulanicki, legendary co-founder of Biba, can be relied on to not stay out of the news for too long. And now she’s in the spotlight again, thanks to her new book, co-written with Martin Pel — The Biba Years: 1963-1975 (V&A Publishing, £35). The new tome is bound to appeal to all those who, like us, loved her classic memoir, From A to Biba: The Autobiography of Barbara Hulanicki.
A major mover and shaker of the 70s, Barbara, who first worked as a fashion illustrator for the likes of Vogue and the Evening Standard, was one of the heroines of our book, 70s Style & Design. In fact, we had the pleasure of interviewing her, and Biba featured heavily in our chapter Belle Epoque, which celebrates the decade’s revival of the Jazz Age.
The new book is a welcome reminder of Barbara and her late husband Stephen Fitz-Simon’s label, which was revolutionary for making hip fashion affordable to all. It charts its history from its beginnings as a mail-order catalogue to its glorious apogee — the Big Biba emporium in the former Art Deco department store Derry & Toms on Kensington High Street, which opened in 1973 and touted everything from foxy, faux-fur, 40s-style boleros and lipsticks in shades like prune — inspired by the make-up of Hollywood’s silent-movie mavens — to beautifully packaged, own-brand baked beans. Big Biba was groundbreaking for peddling an entire lifestyle that cultural commentator Peter York dubbed ‘Bibataste’. Indeed, Biba was more than just a shop: it was an ultra-trendy hangout and cultural phenomenon.
The book is jampacked with Barbara’s personal family snaps, illustrations, pages from the Biba catalogues photographed by the super-snappers of the day: Sarah Moon, Helmut Newton, Hans Feurer, Harry Peccinotti… There are shots of Grace Coddington and Jean Shrimpton sporting Biba togs; images of Big Biba’s Deco-tastic interiors (designed by Whitmore-Thomas), and even a 1973 Gay News ad for a New York Dolls gig at Big Biba’s Rainbow Room (where many a hip band performed)!
Big Biba might be synonymous with resurrecting old Hollywood’s unadulterated glamour — Hulanicki idolised Greta Garbo — but in fact it was far more eclectic, not to say totally in tune with the early 70s zeitgeist. It picked up on the era’s key trends, as our book explores: 1950s kitsch, 60s pop art, the Victoriana craze and back-to-nature movement. Indeed, Hulanicki wittily decorated different rooms according to these themes — there was the French food market decked out in a rustic, Provencal style, the supermarket-style food hall with its super-sized cans that referenced pop artists Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg and the Kitsch department groaning with — to quote writer Bevis Hillier — ‘ashtrays like miniature loos, school of Tretchikoff paintings and urinating cupids’.
Sadly, Big Biba closed down in 1975. In 1969, the label had signed a business partnership with Dorothy Perkins, which was acquired by property investment company British Land in 1973. It was all downhill from there, with British Land wanting to maximise the building’s financial potential — which meant ripping the soul out of Biba. Harsh strip lighting replaced the store’s deliciously moody, black or chocolate brown interiors, one of Biba’s hallmarks. A new team of managers was installed. Soon, business began to evaporate and Barbara was even banned from talking to staff members. She and Stephen were effectively frozen out.
To quote from the end of Barbara’s new book: ‘Biba was a product and symptom of postwar consumer society. In an overwhelmingly corporate world, it was an experiment and, more significantly, an experience that will never be repeated.’
Yet Biba’s indomitable spirit lives on: Barbara, now based in Miami, is a successful interior designer (she has created the interiors of some of record producer Chris Blackwell snazzy hotels). She also designs homeware and fashion lines for companies such as Graham & Brown and Target, all bearing the unmistakable, endlessly influential Biba stamp, from its palette of black, wine, silver and gold to its Art Nouveau and Deco motifs…
Biba is dead; long live Biba.