When the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle decided 15 months ago to stage a retrospective on Biba, fashion store for Sixties swingers, the organisers launched a nationwide 'Bring Out Your Biba' campaign, to encourage former customers to search through their cupboards. The gallery received thousands of replies and inquiries, as well as offers of clothes and memories. The exhibition, which opens next Friday, has struck a chord with a generation.
Biba was more than just a clothes shop. It was a shopping experience that answered the needs of a young generation enthusiastic for fashion, for the shock of the new. Biba attracted women of every age: mothers and daughters, models and film stars, such as Twiggy and Julie Christie, even royalty - all leapt on to the bandwagon of fast-moving fashion with strong elements of retro styling. The shop democratised fashion, making it accessible to the young and low-paid. Henceforth, no one had to look to the Paris catwalks and sigh with envy, because at Biba fashion was happening right before their eyes - and everyone could have a share in it.
Iris Griffin, now 62, used to queue up with her daughter outside the Biba shop in Kensington Church Street on Saturday mornings. 'It was the coloured knee-high suede boots that excited us; we went every week. And the word got around: they were mauve, they were pink, and they were so cheap. Biba seemed to put out things that ordinary girls liked.
'You can't imagine what Biba was like to our eyes: all those feather boas and hats and spangly tops,' she says. 'The clothes were so different from anything else around.'
Christine Archer, now a 47-year-old teacher living in Kingston, bought one of the earliest Biba products: a dress and matching headscarf, advertised in the Daily Mirror. For the exhibition, she has donated an outfit she wore to a wedding in 1969 - a knee-length coat over flared dogtooth trousers and a crepe blouse, with pink suede boots and a huge black straw cartwheel hat that, she says, 'wouldn't fit in the Mini'.
Ms Archer is a strong admirer of Barbara Hulanicki, who founded Biba and designed most of the items. 'I always thought Mary Quant was more expensive, and she didn't do the all-co-ordinated looks. Barbara Hulanicki was affordable and just as good as any French or Italian designers. The clothes were very carefully cut.'
Ms Archer used to make special trips up from Bristol to Hulanicki's Abingdon Road shop. Later she went to the shops in Kensington Church Street and Kensington High Street, and, finally, to Derry and Toms, the celebrated four-floor store that Biba took over in Kensington High Street. 'Shopping at Biba was a real social event, particularly in the small shops,' she recalls. 'People sat at window seats and met their friends. But I was always a bit disappointed with Derry and Toms. It didn't have quite the same atmosphere.'
Sheila Pilkington, now 50, was manageress of Dorothy Perkins, directly opposite Biba in Kensington Church Street. 'The shop was dark and mysterious, very art nouveau, and incredibly tatty with piles of clothes all over the floor. The staff were very laid-back. We used to receive deliveries on behalf of Biba, but they never bothered to come and pick anything up.'
If the Biba girls were laid-back, it was because they felt themselves to be special. Mandy Bentley, 36, who worked at Derry and Toms for three years, says: 'I served all the celebrities - David and Angie Bowie, Bianca Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Valerie Singleton. But we didn't get that excited. We thought we were famous in our own right because people came in and asked if they could take our photo. I suppose it went to our heads a bit.
'There was a lot of lunacy among the staff. We were supposed to be the wild children of the Seventies, and the press was always going on about Biba girls caught with dope and in orgies. They exaggerated, although we did have a lot of fun. I remember being told off for having sword fights with feathers and plumes in the shop. I wore a uniform of brown dungarees, T-shirt and a hat which I hated.'
Like many of the Biba girls, Ms Bentley looks back to those days with unabashed
nostalgia. 'All of us should have an opportunity to be original once in our lives,' she says. 'Biba gave us that chance. If Barbara Hulanicki opened another shop now and took us old cronies back, I'd be the first there - and I would take my daughters along, too. Mind you, they'd have to change our name. We'd be the Biba Golden Girls.'
Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon, a husband-and-wife retail team made in heaven, opened their first shop in 1963 in an old chemist's store in Abingdon Road, Kensington; they painted the walls navy blue and hung long curtains with a plum and navy William Morris print.
Ms Hulanicki was determined to break with all the traditional ways of doing business. Her shop was the first to stay open until 8pm, she played Beatles' hits loud to turn on the shoppers, and turned a blind eye when customers stripped off to try on her clothes.
Ms Hulanicki now lives in Miami, where she designs fantasy interiors for hotels. I phoned her last week to ask what she made of the continued enthusiasm for Biba. 'I'm a bit shocked, to tell the truth. You think this sort of thing will only happen after you're dead.'
Right from the beginning, she said, Biba was a social meeting place rather than merely a shop. For years, Ms Hulanicki used to receive letters from people who met at Biba, courted at Biba on Saturday afternoons, named their babies Biba, and wrapped them up in Biba purple nappies.
The fun came to an end in the mid-1970s after Ms Hulanicki had lost control of the business to Dorothy Perkins. She slowly watched her empire subside in a series of boardroom battles that are described in painful detail in her autobiography, From A to Biba, published in 1983.
Allan Thomas, who designed prints for Biba on a freelance basis after graduating from Central School of Art in 1972, believes that the business also lost its creative energy in those final years. 'The big mistake was that they didn't shift the image. Fiorucci followed a similar formula, but he moved on and kept undating. By 1975, I was trying to show them new prints, but they always wanted the same, the typical Biba. They should have known that nothing is for ever in fashion.'
Like many who remember the original Biba, Thomas has reservations about today's early Seventies revival. 'Frankly, it was one of the ugliest periods of fashion. Much of it was absolutely dire.'
Hulanicki thinks this Seventies revival won't last long in its present form. 'When designers start using spots, stripes and leopard skin, you know they're in trouble. The interest in Biba suggests that fashion is in a transition stage. It's the start of a new feeling, but designers still have to develop their own look.'
Biba fashion was made for women with tiny shoulders and asparagus legs. Few women who bought Biba can still wear their clothes. Ms Bentley says: 'I have a black jersey dress in size eight, the anorexic norm for that time. There's no way I can get into it now.'
Years later, Ms Hulanicki frankly acknowledged that some of her clothes were uncomfortable. She said that the celebrated Biba smocks 'itched and stopped the girls' arms from bending'. Her long, skinny sleeves were 'so tight they hindered the circulation'. In the early days, she admits, her best customers were 'post-war babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein and grew up into beautiful, skinny people: a designer's dream'.
This week she pointed out that technological advances in fashion might make her clothes fit rather more successfully today. 'We never had stretch fabrics with Lycra, fabrics that move with the body.'
Itchy and uncomfortable, or stretchy and versatile, teenagers of the Nineties don't worry about such trifles. In the spring of 1993, the Biba look is back in again. To be young, size eight, and dressed in Biba (or a contemporary imitation), is to be in heaven. The shops may be history, but the spirit lives on.
'Biba, the Label, the Lifestyle, the Look' opens at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on 19 February till 6 June; at Aberdeen Art Gallery from 3 to 31 July; and Leicester Museum and Art Gallery from 21 August to 14 November.
An exhibition of photographs by Justin de Villeneuve, 'The Five Years, 1968-1973', opens on 9 May at the Northcote Gallery, Battersea.
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