Biba is back... and its millionaire creator is none too happy about it
The greatest name in Sixties fashion is being relaunched as a label, without the founder. By Steve Bloomfield
Sunday 29 January 2006
Biba is back. The store that was as much a symbol of the Swinging Sixties as the Mini Cooper is to be relaunched as a fashion label. But the woman who created it - and whose personal vision of elegantly wasted decadence earned Biba followers from Mick Jagger to the Princess Royal - has nothing to do with the relaunch, and she does not approve.
Barbara Hulanicki was used to seeing rock stars, Hollywood idols and royalty among her shimmering silks and feather boas after she started Biba in 1963. Brigitte Bardot caused a near-riot by stripping to her underwear in the open-plan changing rooms.
David and Angie Bowie took tea with flamingos on the roof of its lavish seven-storey Art Deco store in Kensington. Princess Anne was a fan.
Biba closed in chaos in 1975. But now a fashion entrepreneur has licensed the name and will use it to launch a new range of clothes and accessories next month. Ms Hulanicki has told The Independent on Sunday that she is "baffled" by the way the former one-woman brand is being resurrected without her, and finds it "very, very painful".
The Biba look - creamy skin, ruby cheeks, cupid lips and big eyelashes - has returned from history to become ubiquitous in the fashion of 2006. Seen on most of the models strutting autumn catwalks, it also inspires Alison Goldfrapp, the singer who is one of British pop's most stylish new icons. She has been described as "a Biba beauty reincarnated". And the clothes - with their lace, appliqué and touches of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, the Victorian and the Edwardian - have influenced recent collections by almost every major fashion house, most notably Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Original items that cost very little three decades ago can sell for £1,000 a time on eBay.
Michael Pearce, the man credited with bringing Ugg boots to the UK, says his new Biba label will embody the same spirit as the original. "It is a wonderful British icon," he says. "We want to pay homage. She [Ms Hulanicki] invented the high street."
The original Biba was based on an idea that was revolutionary in its time: high fashion at prices most young women could afford. "That is what Philip Green [of Topshop] is doing now - you make it as cheap as possible," says Mr Pearce. "We cannot compete with that. It is impossible to replicate what she did in that way." So instead the new Biba will draw inspiration from the old, with shoes and bags designed by Tony Cappiello and clothes by Bella Freud.
Yet Barbara Hulanicki believes the new Biba will betray its heritage. "It is very, very painful," says the wealthy 69-year-old, who is now a successful interior designer living in Miami. "The truth to it is not there. This is not the same time, so it cannot be the same thing. I have seen one or two items in various magazines and they look very nice, but it was a very emotional thing, it was not just a series of bags."
She started Biba as a mail-order company in 1963 with her husband, just as the drabness of post-war fashion was being blown away by new boutiques. Cathy McGowan wore Biba dresses to introduce the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on Ready Steady Go!, the hippest television show on the planet for a while. Biba evolved as the Seventies began and pop looked for ways to grow up. At its peak, it was "a theme park devoted to elegantly wasted decadence," says Alwyn W Turner, author of The Biba Experience. "If you shared Barbara's love of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Victoriana and Hollywood glamour, this was your spiritual home."
With dazzling colours, glamorous assistants and pounding music, Biba also introduced the idea that shopping was done with friends, as a way of defining yourselves and becoming the people you wanted to be.
"I didn't see why inexpensive things couldn't be well-designed," says Ms Hulanicki now. "In that period there were no nice things in the mass market. There was no choice, nothing."
Biba clothes were also exclusive: only small numbers of each item were made. Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, says it was her favourite shop as a teenager. "When I was young you didn't have the high street, it was Biba and Kensington Market for me."
Big Biba opened in a seven-storey Art Deco building in Kensington High Street in September 1973. It sold everything from wallpaper and paint to food (there were even baked beans in black and gold Biba cans), but most visitors wanted to gawp and not buy. The store closed two years later, after the partners who had helped grow the company sold the trademark, without Ms Hulanicki's permission. At the end clothes were piled on the floor and customers carried them off for free.
Wayne Hemingway, founder of the fashion label Red or Dead, prefers to remember Biba as "massively influential, the first designer label for ordinary women." Growing up in Morecambe, Lancashire, he watched his mother make clothes from Biba patterns. "A big day out was a trip to London to visit the Biba store," he said yesterday. "Biba was the biggest thing ever to happen in women's fashion."
That is all in the past now, says its founder. The new label will be launched with a private view in Paris next month and a show in London in the autumn. But Barbara Hulanicki, the woman who was Biba, will not be there.
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