Fashion Labels – Biba

Fashion Labels – Biba

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Fashion Scene 3

Claire Mahoney takes a look at some of the iconic fashion labels of the 60s – kicking off with Biba.

Next time you wander down the high street and pick up that bargain dress or bag from the likes of Top Shop or H&M, remember that you have a lady called Barbara Hulanicki to thank.

Halunicki was the founder of Biba, the iconic 60s fashion label which has been credited as the first company to make clothes that young people could not only wear – but afford.

Ironically, when we think of Biba today, the name conjures up images of rather opulent-looking bell-sleeved gowns and frilly blouses. But founder Hulanicki’s vision was very much style on a shoe-string.

In the early 1960s London was indeed starting to swing but most young people couldn’t afford what the likes of Ossie Clarke and Andre Courreges were producing on a month’s wages let alone a weeks.

Hulanicki saw that fashion needed to be fast and that if an outfit was seen on Ready Steady Go on a Friday then the show’s hip fans should be able to go out and buy it on a Saturday so they could wear it the following night.

“The market was instant for that age group. They wanted it there and then. They didn’t want to wait, as they didn’t look to the future in any way.” she said.

Hulanicki was originally a freelance fashion illustrator and teamed up with her partner and soon to be husband Stephen Fitz-Simon – or Fitz as he was known. He was an ex-advertising man whose flair for the fashion business helped transform the company from a mail-only outlet to a giant department store which, very much like Harrods is today – became one of London’s biggest attractions.

Biba’s Postal Boutique took out its first proper advert in 1963. It was for a maxi skirt and was available in a rather Edwardian palette of brown, mustard, black and red. But it was a simple 60s shift, advertised in the Daily Mirror the following year, that really propelled the business forward and provided the financial footstool that enabled Halunicki to make the step-up to opening her first shop on the Abingdon Road in Kensington.

The dress is question was made in cool gingham, with a rolling neck-line and key-hole back and it came with a matching head-scarf. The best bit, however, was the price – only 25 shillings. Not surprisingly, the dress sold in its thousands (17,000 to be precise) – sales that were boosted even further when Bridget Bardot sported it in ‘And God Created Woman’.

But it wasn’t just the price point that made Biba such an instant hit with the hip crowd. Going shopping at a Biba store was an event in itself. The first shop was housed in an old chemists. There was no space for changing rooms so most of the girls used to get changed behind a screen, but often the atmosphere was so frenzied they didn’t bother. It was no surprise then that boyfriends and other male hangers-on decided it was the place to be.

The interior of the shop was a Bohemian mix of plush velvet upholstery and Victoriana. Clothes weren’t displayed on rails but on coat stands. The girls that worked in the shop were mainly eager, doe-eyed would-be models who were allowed to take home a Biba dress every week. No-one that shopped there would be over thirty years old.

But what of the designs? Well, as well as shift dresses and minis, Biba’s real fashion game-changers left more to the imagination. Hulanicki’s trousers suits and cat suits in pinstripes and abstract prints echoed the new-found freedoms of that generation. They were comfortable, practical and allowed you to move. Let’s not forget that trousers on women were still something of a novelty for those of a certain generation. When Ready Steady Go presenter Cathy McGowan wore a trouser suit to an evening event at The Savoy in London in 1965 – she was actually thrown out!

Hulanicki designs also looked to the past – in particular, The Victorian and Edwardian eras. Alongside the mini-skirts in the Biba boutique would also be floor-length satin gowns and skirts. This was old-school glamour which wasn’t picked up again by the mainstream until the second half of the 60s. Hulanicki’s colour palette was also more sombre – ‘Auntie’ colours as she called them. Burgundy’s, browns and golds, echoes of Art Nouveau and the complete opposite of the primary shades of Pop Art. Biba clothes were also known for their tiny fit. The Biba dolly was perhaps personified by Twiggy who had many outfits designed for her by Hulanicki.

The growth of Biba was a quick as its demise. By 1966 they had moved to bigger premises on Kensington Church Street and in 1969 they opened the Biba department store and then in 1973 Big Biba opened in Kensington High Street. It was seven-storeys with a restaurant and sold everything thing from bags to baked beans. But by 1975 it had to close.

The brand has been resurrected several times since most recently and most successfully for House of Fraser. Although Hulanicki maintains that its various reincarnations are still too expensive.

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Claire Mahoney

At the age of 13 mod made perfect sense to me. I liked the look and the attitude - but most of all I liked the music. Secret Affair was my entry point, but they were soon playing second fiddle in my affections to The Jam. Paul Weller, of course, proceeded to break mine and many others hearts in 1982, when he put an end to that particular musical roller coaster – but what it meant was that, uninterested in anything else that was happening in music at the time, I had to look back. I was lucky enough to be given two plastic bags full of 60s 45s by my uncle who used to stock the jukeboxes back in the day. Their contents included a number of Stax originals, plus the Who and the Small Faces, as well as Motown classics from The Four Tops and the Supremes. So, when Phil Collins charted in the mid 80s with 'You Can't Hurry Love' it was nice to be able to say: “I've got the original of that!” It became quite an irritating habit of mine over the years. These days I still enjoy discovering new, old music, be it soul, rnb or jazz, as well as witnessing mod taken another turn among today's youth with bands like The Strypes. My day job as a journalist means I am lucky enough to be able to write about music and modernism now and again. Other than that you'll find me mostly on the dance floor or on eBay still looking for that perfect A line dress.

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November 20, 2015 By : Category : Articles,Fashion,Front Page,News,Style Tags:, , ,
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