Time to get back to Biba

By Brigit Grant, October 18, 2012
Biba's Autumn Winter Collection 2012

Biba's Autumn Winter Collection 2012

I’ve always been rather keen on wellingtons and will never forget my favourite pair. Long, bronze with golden flecks, I loved them and kept them by my bed so I could look fashionable in a sudden flood.

To be honest, there were few tropical storms in north-west London in 1974, but had there been, I doubt this 10-year-old would have risked wetting her wellingtons because they were from Biba.

It was my trend-setting Auntie Barbara who first introduced the family to the joys of shopping at the epic seven-storey HQ that was Biba in London’s Kensington, and it became our wardrobe destination of choice. Not only was it Primark-like in pricing, there was a children’s department filled with giant papier-mache mushrooms, communal changing rooms and clothing lines that bridged the gap between baby and adult — albeit featuring smudgy stripes and mulberry-coloured dresses.

The list of things to enjoy at Biba were infinite: the art deco interior, feather boas, Edwardian high-neck shirts and sought-after Bardot-esque gingham dresses and matching headscarves — all of which are now on show at the “Biba and Beyond” exhibition in Brighton.

It was there last weekend that I saw a sparkling gold version of my beloved wellington boots in a glass case, which confirmed their vintage status in the inspired collection that
Barbara Hulanicki created as the founder of the label, and the originator of a look that captured young womens’ hippy hearts. Should you happen to have any Biba originals, keep them safe as they go for considerable sums at auction and Kate Moss is a keen buyer.

Inspired by the fashions of the early 20th century, Hulanicki, who spent her childhood living in Jerusalem where her father was the Polish consul, made bias-cut dresses and skinny-fit tops that were not entirely suited to latke lovers, but that didn’t stop them wearing them. Just as we now follow Twiggy to sensible M&S separates, in the 1970s fashion-lovers held onto the hem of the model’s floor-length faux fur Biba leopard coat and then bought their own.

Biba monotone 70's dress

Biba monotone 70's dress

The coat Twiggy wore is in the exhibition, along with many signature designs that enabled Biba (named after Hulanicki’s sister) to go from a small mail-order company to a respected funky fashion house. Sadly, Biba the emporium closed in 1975 and Hulanicki, now 76, lives in Miami where she conjures up award-winning hotel interiors in the art deco district.

A foray back into fashion in 2009 at the invitation of Sir Phillip Green saw Hulanicki designing a capsule collection for Top Shop, but in spite of its popularity there has been no indication that there will be any more — at least not with Ms H at the helm.

Biba now belongs to House of Fraser and since its relaunch in 2010 with Jewish model Daisy Lowe fronting the ad campaign, the label has become the department stores’ bestseller. It still has a retro vibe with a glimmer of the Golden Age of Hollywood that Hulanicki was so passionate about. But she is on record as saying that she feels her label “is now too pricey”.

While I believe she has a valid point, there is something about the autumn/winter 2012 collection at House of Fraser that takes me back to my childhood, when my mother and Auntie Barbara looked fabulous in animal-print shirts, flared trousers and maxi coats, while I wore my Biba wellingtons. If you can capture those kinds of memories with clothing, it’s worth investing.

‘BIBA and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki’ is at the Royal Pavillion in Brighton until April 2013. www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk

Last updated: 3:31pm, October 18 2012