BibaFashion house (1936 - )
In the 1960s illustrator BARBARA HULANICKI (1936-) and her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon established the small mail order company Biba to respond to the demand from Britain’s youth for affordable, age-appropriate clothing. Her art nouveau-inspired designs define Britain’s transition from the 60s to the 70s.
Biba was an instant success: after opening its first store in Kensington in 1966 the company quickly expanded through three more stores in the next 10 years. This expansion culminated in the seven-storey Derry & Toms department store, known as Big Biba, Britain’s first Superstore boutique, attracting up to a million visitors a week, and second only in popularity to the Tower of London as a tourist attraction.
Biba’s downfall was almost as quick as its inception. In 1969 Biba Ltd. was formed and Dorothy Perkins became a major stakeholder. Four years later British Land acquired Dorothy Perkins, but the property crash of 1974 forced them to close the store and to sell the rights to the Biba name. Hulanicki moved to Miami where she now lives and works as a successful interior designer.
In 2006 Micheal Pearce re-launched Biba (now BIBA), with Bella Freud as the company’s creative director. This contemporary incarnation of Biba draws influence from Hulanicki’s original designs, this time aiming them at an more expensive market. In 2007 Manny Mashouf, chairman and founder of the fashion retailer Bebe, bought out 60% of BIBA and Pearce became CEO, taking control of the brand’s creative growth.
© Design Museum and British Council
Q & A with Barbara Hulanicki
Q. When did you first become interested in designing clothing?
A. When I was about 10 years old. I came from a family of stylish women; my aunt and my mother were both very fashionable. Then I went to art school where I started with general courses in painting, but found I was really enjoying fashion illustration. After two years I wanted to be independent from family life, so I took a job at an illustrating studio in Covent Garden. I started out making tea and eventually progressed into drawing corsets – it was a long hard job.
Q. What effect did this experience have on you and on your own designs?
A. It was up to me to make the clothes look nice through my drawings, and I would end up giving the clothes more credit then they deserved. I felt this was rather fraudulent, but that was the only way magazines could do it. Photographers are cumbersome and expensive, while illustrators can tuck everything they need under an arm and be off to Paris. Paris was an amazing experience, but all the clothes I saw were for 30 year olds. I was earning money but there was nothing to buy, it was that frustration that got me into design.
Q. Why did you leave the company and begin designing yourself?
A. My husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, encouraged me to focus on drawing. He also believed that mail order was the way of the future. At one point we had so many bits and pieces hanging around that we decided to open our Cromwell road flat as a store and sell them. We hung all these pieces up, turned up the music really loud, and I was amazed when all these people arrived, and that was just the lunch hour! It got to the point that people would show up in the middle of the night.
Q. But you managed to do it. Was that an unexpected surprise or was it what you initially anticipated?
A. If your ear is to the ground and you’re of that market it is quite easy to have a feel for what people want, because you know what they have been talking about. A shop is fantastic for a designer because you get an immediate reaction. You don’t have all the intermediaries; the buyers coming in and the accountants. It’s direct: if someone likes something they buy it, and you see it happen.
Q. In 1964 your pink gingham dress, featured in the Daily Mail, brought in 17,000 orders. How did you react to this success?
A. We were both very shocked. Our flat was filled with postal orders. Have you ever tried to cash that many postal orders? We suddenly had to buy thousands of yards of gingham, so we were in touch with suppliers from all over the UK. We were lucky; our order was so huge that we could get manufacturers to produce exactly what we wanted.
Q. How were your designs responding to the existing Mod silhouettes of the time?
A. I didn’t like those silhouettes at all. As an illustrator I found them too graphic. They didn’t actually work on the body, my designs were much more three-dimensional. Those designs looked great on skinny girls, while my dresses made people look as thin as possible. When you start drawing you are very graphically aware of what proportions should be. I wanted them – the clothes and the people – to look like drawings.
Q. Your primary palette consisted of dark colours; the ‘Auntie colours’ (mauves, browns, plums, rusts, etc.) were inspired by your Aunt Sophie’s tastes. Why did you use these colours that you once disliked so much?
A. These are colours that look good in England. Bright and primary colours don’t look good because the light’s far too grey here. These deep colours can look far more vibrant in English light. They were the colours that my aunt tried to force on me, that I hated as a child, but I realized at a certain point that I liked them; that they were engrained in me.
Q. Your first shop only had one article of clothing in it?
A. I had found this amazing chemist shop on Abingdon Road that we bought and filled it in the manner of a mail order. We had about 400 of the same brown striped chocolate smock in one size. I opened the door on a Saturday and went to the back, when I came out and the shop was full of girls, and I thought: Wow! Everything sold out very fast. We had this sort of blessing by Kathy McGowan, presenter and “queen” of fashion at Ready Steady Go. After she wore Biba everyone from the programme and all the music people started shopping there.
Q. What were you thinking about when you designed your fabrics?
A. Again, it was the flow of a drawing and the influence of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. At the time we thought we were doing something so new, but now the prints are 100% from the 1960s[check this with the writer – it’s not at all clear what she means].
Q. You obviously love to challenge yourself. Was there ever a point where you felt you had gone too far?
A. No, people kept expecting more and more. When you have power and popularity all these doors open for you; you say you want something people come running. Every time someone came in with a fabric, I could develop something new with it. And with the shop I wasn’t only thinking of clothes. As things developed we needed the cosmetics and the shoes and the accessories. Everything began to work as one and it became really interesting.
Q. How did it feel to see your designs achieved on such a big scale?
A. It was never big enough - there was always a bigger one around the corner. Done there and onto the next. We moved over two years, but it was a very natural progression: we had the money and we needed the space.
Q. How had you envisioned Biba evolving from the beginning and what surprised you about how it actually evolved?
A. It didn’t surprise me at all. To us, it wasn’t going that fast, it just looks like that now. It was evolving very naturally. When you work so steadily from morning to night you gather a lot of energy that is self-perpetuating. It just evolves. It is like moving on to new shoes when your old ones are wearing out, and then next pair better be higher than the last one.
Q. What part of the experience did you enjoy the most?
A. Everything, I am one of those people who doesn’t do anything unless they are 100% involved and enjoying it.
Q & A with Michael Pearce
Q. What was the impetus to re-launch Biba in 2006?
A. Biba is one of the great fashion brands of the last 50 years and it has been such an influence on most designers over the past 10 years that it deserved to take its place amongst the fashion elite.
Q. What is your role in the current company?
A. I am CEO and the other major shareholder. I am responsible for the creative and the growth of the brand and the business.
Q. What are the challenges of working in shadow of a company with such a monumental history?
A. The challenges are very real, mostly to fulfill the media's very high expectations of the label due to the affection with which it is held.
Q. What is the relationship between the original Biba and the current BIBA? What similarities and differences exist?
A. The new BIBA still has large doses of the original DNA of the brand: the Englishness, the escapism, the fantasy, the humour and the womanly spirit.
Q. What innovations have modernized the brand?
A. The innovations are the quality and finish of the collection, the much 'harder' street approach and the luxury accessories.
Q. What characterizes the new Biba brand?
A. Prints are still very important, but colours are much stronger and fits are more varied.
Q. Biba’s success was significantly related to its timely cultural relevance. What is the brand’s cultural significance to contemporary society/culture?
A. BIBA is even more relevant today. Too much fashion is joyless and lacks spirit. There is not another label on the market that carries that wild irreverence of 60s London.
Q. The original Biba customer was a mid to late teenage girl looking for trendy and affordable clothing, how has the Biba customer changed?
A. After 30 years the landscape is very different; those girls are now shopping the High St (which BIBA helped invent!). We see our customer as more 25 to 35.
Q. How would you like to see Biba develop in the future? What aims do you have for the brand?
A. We are planning London's flagship BIBA store to open in the Spring of 2008.
© Design Museum and British Council 2007
1936 Born in Warsaw, Poland.
1948 Moves to London with her mother and two sisters, Beatrice and Biba, to stay with their wealthy Aunt Sophie in Brighton.
1955 Studies at Brighton Art College and wins the London Evening Standard competition for beachwear.
1957 Leaves college to work as a fashion illustrator for Helen Jardin Artists, drawing for titles such as Vogue, Tatler, Womens Wear Daily, The Times and the Daily Express.
1961 Marries Stephen Fitz-Simon.
1963 Starts mail order company Biba with her husband.
1964 Biba sells 17,000 of a pink gingham dress featured in the Daily Mirror and the first Biba boutique opens at 87 Abingdon Road, Kensington.
1966 Biba moves to 19-21 Kensington Church Street and Time magazine names Biba ‘the most in shop’ for girls.
1969 Biba moves to High Street Kensington.
1969 Formation of Biba Ltd, with Dorothy Perkins as the majority shareholder.
1970 Launch of Biba Cosmetics
1971 A Biba boutique opens in the Bergdorf Goodman store, New York.
1972 Biba launches first range of cosmetics aimed at black women.
1973 British Land buys out Dorothy Perkins and Biba moves to the seven-storey Derry & Toms department store.
1975 The British Land Company closes Biba after the previous year’s property crash.
1977 The rights to the Biba name are sold.
1988 A new Biba shop opens on Conduit Street, but lasts only two years.
2006 Michael Pearce re-launchs Biba with Belle Freud as creative director.
2007 Sixty percent of Biba is bought by Manny Mashouf and Michael Pearce becomes creative director and CEO.
© Design Museum and British Council 2007
Barbara Hulanicki, From A to Biba, V&A Publications, 2007 (OR Hutchinson & C. Ltd, 1983)
Biba: The Biba Experience, Alwyn W. Turner, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2004
Steven Thomas, Welcome to Big Biba: Inside the Most Beautiful Store in the World, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1988
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