Bid for a Biba

The Retro look is chic yet again. Classic clothes by top designers are popping up all over the place, and auctions are the best place to pick up a bargain or pay for a turkey.
THE FLAMBOYANT gear of the Sixties and Seventies comes under the spotlight next Tuesday at Christie's South Kensington's annual auction of street fashion, now in its fifth year.

There is no catwalk. Coats, dresses and suits, designed by such ghostly names as Jean Muir, Ossie Clarke or Tommy Nutter, are held up limply by porters, as enthusiasts of retro fashion bid for them.

After decades in mothballs, these period relics are once again plunged into a mini-whirlpool of fashion, with its still-changing ins and outs, and inscrutable trends.

Prices are low. The typical lot is estimated at pounds 150-pounds 250 and hidden reserves (minimum prices) are seldom placed on lots estimated under pounds 200. Lots are regularly carried off for as little as pounds 23 for, for instance, a red striped velvet waistcoat "said to have belonged to Acker Bilk".

Although the sales regularly clear around 70 per cent of lots, they raise totals of only pounds 40,000-pounds 50,000 - hardly a money-spinner for the auctioneers, who keep them going because they look trendy and attract young new bidders. So bargain hunters benefit.

Ironically, the current hot ticket is not any of the big designer names, but Biba, the Kensington fashion and lifestyle shop that closed in 1974 (and has recently been revived). Its name has acquired couturier status.

Where could you buy new a dashing Biba-style full-length tapestry coat, worked with a dense design of scrolling flowers and acanthus leaves with frogged fastenings? No couturier is designing such sumptuous pieces these days. The Next shops, then? Or Warehouse? Not a chance. You would have to have it made. The material alone would cost you about pounds 160 - then add a tailor's bill of pounds 500 or so.

The authentic Biba specimen for sale at South Ken on Tuesday dates from about 1970 and is estimated pounds 300-pounds 500. Designed for women, it would suit a slim, vain man. But even if you had one like it made up, it would still not carry the magic BIBA label. Just look at those puffy shoulders and elongated sleeves. A real period piece.

Biba buffs know the gear so well, that they will probably not be bothered by the absence of a Biba label on the three-quarter length fake leopardskin coat, estimated pounds 200-pounds 250, and cautiously catalogued as "probably BIBA". It's Biba all right; an identical full-length version with label intact fetched a whopping pounds 460 in last year's sale, well above the estimated pounds 100-pounds 150.

A hoard of unsold stock from Biba's Paris shop is in the sale. There are five lots, each consisting of 10 T-shirts with Biba logo, 10 Biba- logo pots of face powder, 10 of eye shadow, and a Biba plastic bag - enough to solve your Christmas present problem in one go. Estimate pounds 150-pounds 250 per lot.

Jean Muir's reputation has not survived the auctioneer's block. So if her classy, minimalist dresses in plain colours suit you, get bidding. At the last two sales, much of the clothing bearing her name - although without reserve - was left unsold. Which probably means that some people loathe it.

This year, the auctioneers have rejected most of the Jean Muir gear they were offered. But there are still two exclusively Jean Muir lots: one containing three of her typical jersey dresses, the other a loose-fitting black suede jacket together with a full-length alpaca coat, trimmed in leather. They are offered, disdainfully, without estimate - which means that less than pounds 200 is expected. Her suede pieces are the least unpopular. Somebody may get a bargain.

Zandra Rhodes's early printed textiles, which made her name, sell well, but are seldom expensive. Among Janet Street Porter's cast-offs which appeared in last year's sale, was a pleated coat of blue silk, labelled "A Zandra Rhodes Sample" with her famous "Indian Feather Sunspray" design of 1970. Estimated pounds 200-pounds 300, it made a respectable pounds 207. A Rhodes "Snail Flower" coat of about 1970 made pounds 690 in a post-sale deal after failing to sell.

Six mid-Seventies' Rhodes pieces - four dresses, a blouse and a shirt - are lotted together without estimate in Tuesday's sale. They are among 10 re-offered lots left over from the Street-Porter sale.

Rhodes's punk gear is less successful. Even a punk dress from her 1977 "Conceptual Chic" show was left unsold last year. The cult name in punk is still Vivienne Westwood. A pair of black sateen bondage trousers with an authentic label, "Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, Seditionaries Exclusive", together with a Sex Pistols T-shirt, made pounds 437 two years ago, more than double the pounds 150-pounds 200 estimate.

Leading the bidding for authentic punk memorabilia is a Brighton-based coterie of thirty and fortysomethings who both collect and wear it. They go for more seditionary gear than Westwood's eleven-layer pink crinoline dress and brown leather bustier, which found buyers at pounds 195 and pounds 138 last year.

Nutter and Clarke enthusiasts should note that most men's clothes sell badly. A big Tweed Nutter suit in the forthcoming sale is without estimate. So is a suit, a shirt and a tie of his, lotted together. The dandyish Mr Fish, who once clothed Sir Roy Strong, is regarded as more historic. Expect to pay pounds 400 for one of his velvet jackets.

To sell well, men's wear has to be flamboyant. Three traffic-stopping blouses by Emilio Pucci - a popular name - are estimated pounds 250-pounds 450. A bundle of Fifties ties, including Salvador Dali's "Spiral Into Space" raised pounds 253 two years ago.

There is some cross-over with the pop memorabilia market. Clothes with doubtful provenance - like that Acker Bilk jacket - tend to end up in Street Fashion sales. Others are genuine "association" items. A Dior gentlemen's anaconda full-length coat of about 1974 made pounds 805 - helped by the fact that it had once been owned by Klaus von Bulow.

Beware the whims of the saleroom. A pair of transparent yellow rubberised ankle boots by Mary Quant fetched an astonishing pounds 690 two years ago. A scarlet pair fetched the same price. As a result, four more identical pairs appeared at last year's sale. Not one of them found a buyer.

Street Fashion, Tuesday 8 September (2pm): Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (call 0171-581 7611)