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Book Club: The Biba Years, 1963-1975

Posted by Meghan
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For someone like me who was born into a world post-Biba, it’s almost impossible to imagine the world as it was during those few years in when the London highstreet brand Biba rose meteorically to becoming the ultimate tastemaker for everything in the 70s. For those of us uninitiated, the recently published book, “The Biba Years: 193-1975” by Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki and Martin Pel paints a very detailed and sumptuous image. The book starts at the very beginning with Barbara’s childhood and introduces the seeds in her upbringing which would later germinate into the founding principles of the Biba empire, charts the progression from its beginnings as a small boutique and mail-order clothing business to its ultimate arrival as the Big Biba deluxe department store experience on Kensington High Street and beyond.

Barbara Hulanicki, through the intensity of her vision, completely altered the aesthetics of the time. She shunned the dainty and delicate pastels and frumpy casuals in favor of richly muted colors like rust, olive, and her signature bruised purple which she swathed the Biba brand in. She wanted glamor and decadence, a revival of dressing up for almost any occasion, and was forever inspired by the heyday of 1930s Hollywood. The Biba brand may have been just clothes in the start, but soon became an empire of womenswear, shoes, children’s clothes, menswear, housewares, furniture, bric-a-brac, and of course cosmetics––Biba put it’s mark on nearly everything. In the vein of old department stores, Big Biba had a restaurant lounge called The Rainbow Room which became a nightclub with musical performances at night. Biba was the place to be in London in the 70s and the affordable prices made it available to anyone who was willing to clamor their way through the throng of people trying to get the latest style of suede knee high boot on a Saturday morning. Everyone, even the most famous celebrities of the day, loved to spend time at Biba. Biba brought like minded people of the most fashionable ilk together under one lavish and resplendent roof.

The book itself is like a contained version of the Biba ethos. It’s weighty and luxurious feeling (and reasonably priced), with lots of beautiful and rare images of the Biba years, including copies of catalogues shot by the likes of Helmut Newton in 1969. The text is filled with many anecdotes from Barbara herself about the experience of Biba behind the scenes––allegedly, Anjelica Huston lifted a couple of items from the store in her younger years without paying, and Elvis Presley was rumored to have wanted to play The Rainbow Room. The book also tells the story of the fall of Biba at the hands of investors who saw a new vision for Biba and Barbara’s many endeavors after Biba as a fashion designer in Brazil, an interior designer in Miami, and the opening of her boutiques in London and New York in the 80s and 90s. It’s the complete telling of the life of Barbara Hulanicki, who, though not in name, is the life and soul of the Biba brand.

(L) The Biba Years Book Cover. (R) Twiggy in the Rainbow Room, Big Biba, London, Vogue, December 1973, photo by Justin de Villeneuve.

 

Biba catalogue, February 1969. Staphanie Farrow photographed by Hans Feurer.

 

Biba catalogue, October 1968. Vicki Wise photographed by Hans Feurer.

 

Biba catalogue, April 1968. Madeleine Smith photographed by Donald Silverstein.

 

(L) Big Biba cosmetics displays, London, 1973, photo by Tim White. (R) Men's shoe display at Big Biba, London, 1974, photo by Tim Street-Porter.

 

(L) Pauline Stone modelling Hulanicki's pink gingham dress, back view, Daily Mirror, May 1964, by John French. (R) Shop assistants (from left, Michelle and Nicole Hellier, and Susy and Rosy Young) at Biba, 19-21 Kensington Church Street, London, 1967 by Caroline Gillies.

 

Barbara Hulanicki wearing a fun-fur coat, 1974, photo by Mick Rock.

 

(L) Barbara Hulanicki, working drawing of the first Biba's Postal Boutique Skirt, 1963. (R) Biba's "Op art" dress modelled outside Biba, 87 Abingdon Road, London, 1965.

 

(L) Contact sheet of Jo Dingemans modelling for a Biba Cosmetics photoshoot, 1971, photo by Barbara Hulanicki. (R) Couture department at Biba, 120 Kensington High Street, London. 'The Boutique Business,' Daily Telegraph Magazine (17 July 1970), photo by Brian Duffy.

 

(L) Biba, two-piece satin polyester wedding ensenble, Britain, 1970. (M) Biba, 'banana'-print corduroy cotton dress, Britain, 1969. (R) Biba, daisy-print cotton jumpsuit and hat, Britain, 1965.

 

(L) Biba, satin-weave cotton trouser suit, Britain, 1974. (R) Biba, striped lamé 'Regency' dress, Britain, 1974. (R) Biba, child's printed cotton dungarees, Britain, 1973.

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