What’s Going On December 15th?

Next year marks a very special anniversary within the fashion world; in August, it will be fifty years since one of the most famous stores in the world first opened its doors to hordes of wild, stylish young things. It was to become more than a shop, growing into a whole new look, influencing a young generation and becoming something of an iconic monument within London’s fashion history; I am referring, of course, to Biba.

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Biba was the brain child of designer Barbara Hulanicki, who, with the help of her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon, opened her first store in Kensington, London, in 1964. Hulanicki was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1936, but she and her family were forced to move to England after her father was assassinated in 1948, in Palestine. Here, she studied at Art School in Brighton, which helped her to find a career as a freelance fashion illustrator, working for top magazines such as Vogue and Tatler.

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Initially, Biba was just a small mail order company, “Biba’s Postal Boutique;” however, after a pink gingham shift dress, similar to that worn by Brigitte Bardot, appeared in the Daily Mail, the company were inundated with orders. Hulanicki’s success began to spiral.

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When she and her husband opened their first store on Abingdon Road, Kensington, they were flocked by a stampede of stylish young women, who had cleared the shop by 11 o’clock. As time went on, this was to become something of a trend, as every new outfit was met with a wildly enthusiastic crowd, with people often queuing up after the store had sold out to wait for the next delivery.

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The shop quickly became known for its decadent, stylish atmosphere and its distinctive interior décor. Inspired by both the Art Nouveau and the Art Deco styles, the Boutique was also filled with ornate Victorian furniture and antiques. Accessories spilled from bowls around the shop, whilst clothes hung from quirky hat stands. Quite often, clothes which had been seen on Friday night TV would be available to buy on Saturday mornings. The shop became the coolest hangout for some of the coolest people of the day, including David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Anna Wintour herself began her illustrious career as a Biba employee; it certainly was the embodiment of style in the 1960s.

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By the 1970s, the store’s success was such that Hulanicki had to relocate to the much larger space of the seven-storey department store, Derry and Toms. The designer refurbished the entire building in a beautiful Art Deco style, transforming each floor into its own mini shop; from a floor for children, to a floor dedicated to homeware and interior design. Here, everything moved up a step as the clothes became more expensive, and the style of both the pieces on sale and the shop itself grew more sophisticated. Hulanicki threw glamorous roof parties for celebrities, and the fifth floor restaurant fast became a hangout for both ordinary shoppers and the social elite. They even had their own food hall, which sold Biba baked beans from baked-bean-shaped containers, Biba dog food out of dog-shaped containers, and so on.

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Unfortunately, financial difficulties meant that Hulanicki and Fitz had to sell a large proportion of their Empire. In doing so, they were for the most part forced to relinquish creative control; both decided to leave Biba to pursue new projects, and within just a few years, the shop had closed its doors.

Although Biba’s lifespan was reasonably short, its social and cultural impact knew no such limits. What became known as “The Biba Look” was perhaps one of the most significant and iconic of the 1960s, and often when we look back on the decade, it is The Biba Look we envision.

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Halunicki’s designs largely consisted of what she called “Auntie Colors;” mulberries, blueberries, rusts and plums, “like a funeral,” as the designer described them. Fashions of the 1940s and 50s had focused largely on emphasising the feminine, hourglass silhoette, but Halunicki’s designs drew the attention to the legs, and she seemed to be utilising and creating innovative outfits for a completely new type of woman.

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Hulanicki described her clientèle as “postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people: a designer’s dream. It didn’t take much for them to look outstanding.” The so called “Biba dolly” was “pretty and young. She had an upturned nose, rosy cheeks and a skinny body with long asparagus legs and tiny feet. She was square-shouldered and quite flat-chested. Her head was perched on a long, swanlike neck. Her face was a perfect oval, her lids were heavy with long, spiky lashes. She looked sweet but was as hard as nails. She did what she felt like at that moment and had no mum to influence her judgement.”

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An interesting description, and one which probably isolated a great deal of people, but the Biba dolly soon became a force to be reckoned with. The coming of the miniskirt was perhaps the biggest fashion explosion of the 1960s. Whilst it was Mary Quant who first showed this daring new style, it was Barbara Halunicki who really pushed it out onto the highstreet, thus transforming it into the widespread phenomenon that it eventually became.

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Mini-length Biba smock dresses were also hugely on trend, and Hulanicki did not hold back, adorning her designs with beautiful patterns, often inspired by those of the Art Nouveau period. The clothes really were made for the tiny frames that Hulanicki described, and her apparent love for making clothes for smaller frames is perhaps an early precedent of the ideal designer’s model today. The appearance of icons like Twiggy, who wore the new fashions of designers such as Hulanicki so well, helped to completely transform the preferred silhouette of the day from curvaceous to waif-like, a look which still dominates the catwalks and fashion magazines today. Hulanicki herself said she “starved and starved” in an attempt to fit into her own designs.

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However, part of the reason that Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba Empire was, and is, so important, is not down to the designs themselves (as incredibly influential as they were), but to the way in which those designs were sold. Hulanicki and her husband were, at least at the beginning, little more than a pair of entrepreneurs, who took on a very hands-on role within their business; they even took their baby and their dog into the shop when they were working. They were incredibly in touch with their customers, and what those customers wanted; much more so than successful high street shops today.

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However, Biba was to pave the way for those shops with which we are so familiar today, such as the eternally popular Topshop and H&M. It was farewell to dull, postwar dowdiness, and hello to colourfully creative and daring ensembles for the decidedly modern woman. More importantly, the shop was constantly churning out fresh, innovative pieces at prices that young girls of the day could actually afford.

“It was meant to be disposable clothing,” Hulanicki explains. “No guilt – you could buy things and then, when you were done with them, give them to someone else. Everything was £3.”

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Hulanicki had, in essence, created the first highstreet store for young people, giving them style and quality for minimal prices. I found this short clip from the BBC, featuring Hulanicki and one of her celebrity patrons of the day, Twiggy, talking about the influence that Biba has had over the years; click here and have a watch of the third video on the right. I really like what she says about well-designed clothes not having to be expensive.

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However, one thing that has been lost in the forty years since Biba shut down is perhaps the one thing which really helped secure its success; that is, the personal touch, which made everything from the clothes to the atmosphere feel so unique. Indeed, they made sure that each piece was not made more than a few hundred times, so that customers would endlessly keep coming back for more, and that there would be no danger of an outfit becoming “common.”

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As if to go against this very ideal of individuality, there have been several attempts to relaunch the Biba brand over the decades, none of which Hulanicki herself has been affiliated with in any way, and none of which have been nearly as successful and influential as the original Biba. Hulanicki herself is now an interior designer, saying that she would not go back down the clothing path, and would not “touch Biba with a bargepole.” That particular time in her life has long come to an end, and the exciting era within which she worked has also become a memory; but that legacy of affordable, well-tailored individuality is something that the highstreet stores of today should definitely remember.

Happy December 15th!

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