New Yorkers are flocking to Barbara Hulanicki's new fashion store. Liesl Schillinger finds the spirit of Biba alive and well
It was 20 years ago today, more or less, that Biba gave its name away. But in April, Biba came back - not in Kensington High Street, but in the choice "Ladies' Mile" of Manhattan's Chelsea, a flaneur's paradise crammed with cafes, health clubs, eclectic high-end boutiques, and gleaming low-priced superstores. The Biba name is off-limits, having been sold, but Biba creatrix Barbara Hulanicki, the Warhol of London fashion in the far-out Sixties and Seventies, still has her genius to declare.

"It took us 20 years to recover from our last experience, but now all the cobwebs are out," she sighs contentedly, standing amid her new "violently colourful" finery. The de rigueur drab palette of the old Biba is gone. After seven years spent soaking up colour in Miami Beach, where she redecorated a fleet of grand old Art Deco hotels, Hulanicki has come to New York with a riot of colours, re-fashioning the styles that she herself invented to fit America's full-throttle Sixties and Seventies revivals.

In the new shop, Fitz&Fitz (named after her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon, and her son Witold), Hulanicki has made no attempt to recreate the fab theme-parky Biba headquarters of the Sixties. But still, the New York HQ breathes Terry Gilliam fantasy, complete with nineteen-foot ceilings, menacing air-ducts, dangling inverted metal salad bowl lamps ("from the Bowery"), painted cement floors, and futuristic aluminium sales counters, upon which bright vests, neckties and scarves lie displayed in tidy rows, like so many fillets of whiting and sole at a fishmonger's. Clusters of fetchingly outlandish garments flicker orange, purple, and gold from scattered industrial garment racks.

As we talk, passers-by, pony-tailed and neon-garbed, multi-racial and pan-sexual, peer through the windows of the door, desolate to find that the shop's just closed and they've missed their chance to pick up a purple pique Sergeant Pepper jacket for $120 (pounds 80), or a few floppy, inexpensive cloth hats, lamp-ball-fringed sheer lace bolero jackets, or swingy dresses for $20-$70 (pounds l4 -pounds 45). In their haste to lay hands on a bona fide Fitz&Fitz article, shoppers have been known to snap up the purple and fuchsia feather boas that Hulanicki strews about the place for ornament.

New York has given Hulanicki a rousing and indulgent welcome. The Sixties are venerated here, as everywhere, but America's particular susceptibility to the cult of celebrity means that Hulanicki's status as Biba high priestess casts a spell. Serene, whisky-voiced and choicely cheekboned, glamorous yet somehow self-effacing, she acknowledges the worship, and at the same time confesses herself a little stunned by its intensity.

"The enthusiasm is terrific," she says. "Women come in here wearing their old Bibas from 30 years ago and tell me 'Look, they still fit!' People are much more appreciative than in England." She has learned, she says, not to expect longevity in the fashion business; but it is hard not to be hopeful for the moment.

In the past two weeks, Hulanicki and Fitz&Fitz have been written up twice in the New York Times, heralded in New York magazine as a "Best Bet," and eulogized in the New York Post and in the trendy downtown magazine Paper (whose motto, "The Most Stolen Magazine with the Cutest Readers" may be taken literally). The New York Post promptly advised its readers to stop wearing black in deference to Hulanicki's tastes, and considerately published her abridged 12-step programme for ending addiction to that colour, which begins: "Buy one accessory in a colour. Wear it a lot"; and ends hopefully: "Soon you will find that black is your accessory colour." Hulanicki herself seems to have fallen off the wagon; today she wears a loose black jacket, black pants, black sneakers, and a colourless T- shirt.

"I stay in monochrome because otherwise it gets confusing," she says, by way of an excuse. "But colour is selling." She has sold out of her raw silk blouses with spiky Cruella De Ville cuffs, in royal blue, aqua, purple, fuchsia, and other colours, but a few black silk blouses remain. "People are lazy," Hulanicki explains. "One woman came in and said, 'I'd love to have colours, but I can't be bothered.' She bought a black shirt."

Hulanicki touts her fashions as "disposable" clothes. "All clothing is disposable," she insists. "No matter who designed it or how much it cost, it gets shattered in the wash. With mine, when that happens, people can afford to just go and buy it again." And chances are that if they do go back and buy again, Hulanicki will notice; because she is almost always on the premises - as are her husband, who works on the business end of Fitz&Fitz, and her son, who manages the music (today's highlight: Queen's "You're My Best Friend").

This ultra-hip boutique may be the first ever Mom-and-Pop high fashion store. "Hear that Fitz?" Hulanicki calls up to the rafters. "Wot?" comes a bellow from above. "We're a Mom-and-Pop high fashion store!" she crows. "Very good," he responds.

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