While in Brighton I visited the Brighton Museum with the sole purpose of visiting the Biba and Beyond exhibition. The exhibition covers the career of the designer behind Biba, Barbara Hulanicki. This is going to be along post so I’m doing it in two parts.
The History of Biba
Barbara Hulanicki studied art at Brighton School of Art, after finishing her studies she went on to win a beachwear design competition in The Evening Standard in 1955. Her career in fashion began when she worked s a fashion illustrator with her work appearing in numerous fashion magazines including Vogue.
Biba began it’s life as a mail order company selling her designs through newspapers, its first major success was with a Bridgette Bardot style Gingham dress which they had advertised in The Daily Mail which received 4000 the morning after the advert appeared.
As the mail order business gained in popularity Hulanicki acquired a shop in Arbington Road in Kensington in 1964 as a means of storing the stock which she could no longer fit in her home. Within an hour of the store opening all the dresses had sold out and her husband had to bring more. Biba was iconic from the offset.
Biba was especially popular because the clothes were not expensive. They appealed to young shoppers who weren’t catered for elsewhere and both the sizes and the sales staff were tiny. Biba started to get a cult following as young girls aspired to look like celebrities and they could afford to buy popular styles that emulated their idols.
Biba opened its second shop in 1965 on Kensington Church Street as well as running several mail order catalogues so that Biba shoppers didn’t have to travel to London. Another shop followed on Kensington High Street in 1969.
In 1974 Biba moved to a huge seven storey department store, which not only sold the iconic Biba fashion brand, but also men’s and children’s wear, books, home decor and store also had its own food hall. The department store was known as ‘Big Biba’. The store had a department full of Biba branded items and you could buy the logo on almost anything! The site also featured The Kensington Roof Gardens which can still be visited today.
Biba Red Lentils and Instant Coffee were amongst other branded products available at Big Biba (above)
Soap Flakes and Biba Gift Vouchers (below)
The Biba brand was solely marketed at teenagers and girls in their teens and early thirties who due to post war austerity had small frames and suited the small cuts of Biba’s styles. Biba clothes came in muted colours such as browns, plums, and rust reds, which would grow to be very popular colours during the seventies. The cuts of the clothes were tight under the arms and the skirts were very short. Hulanicki followed in the footsteps of Mary Quant and brought the mini skirt onto the high street.
After struggling with the finances of running such a large business Hulanicki sold 75% of Biba to Dorothy Perkins and Dennis Day. After disagreements over creative control Hulanicki left the company and in 1975 the shop was closed.
Biba has been relaunched several time since it’s closure without the involvement of Hulanicki and has never rekindled its former success.
It’s actually really sad to think of a company that is so iconic to British fashion dying out. However Hulanicki has continued to have an amazing career which I will cover in Part two of this post.
Here are some pictures I took at the amazing exhibition.
Loomout for my follow up post which should be up this weekend, where I will be talking about Barbara Hulanicki’s continued career and will be sharing lot’s more pictures from the exhibition.
If you’d like to go along for yourself details can be found here