I have this dress in dark blue. (It’s the notorious £50 dress which Barbara Hulanicki feared wouldn’t sell because of the high price. It sold out.) One of these days, I’m actually going to find the occasion to wear it…
It’s a funny old world. One of the main reasons the regular Biba relaunches have failed so dismally, each time since 1975, has been the price issue. Barbara Hulanicki, whether you agree with her or not, has always had a firm belief in affordable, fast fashion. £200 for a middling quality dress, as seen in the most recent attempts to reignite the brand, is simply not acceptable in an age of fast, cheap fashion and quirky high-end designers with real personality and bite. To whom are they appealing? I’m afraid I judge people who buy House of Fraser Biba. I just can’t help myself. So there can be little or no cachet to buying that gear, from either Biba geeks or fashion freaks. And the quality isn’t good enough to be seen alongside the likes of Jaegar and Hobbs for the ‘medium’ level appeal.
Biba was cheap, cheerful, young and undeniably cool. Nothing has come close. Primark has the prices, Topshop supposedly has the cool and youth, but none of them have the quality or uniqueness of their oft-copied ancestor. Yes, I said quality. Biba might have had a reputation for badly-made clothes but it simply wasn’t true. It was an assumption, based on the price. And fair enough, it wasn’t couture-quality, but it was no worse than anything being produced by Saint Laurent for his Rive Gauche, Ossie Clark and other British Boutique designers of the era. Certainly a cut above anything being made by many big name designers, these days.
My vintage Bibas are beautifully well-made. They couldn’t have survived forty-odd years otherwise. A seam might have deteriorated here, a small moth-hole appeared there, and perhaps a zip has busted after a particularly raucous night out. But I’ve seen Paris couture from a mere ten years earlier in a far sorrier state than that.
So if shop-floor Bibas are still doing the trick after four decades, can you imagine what a couture Biba must have been like? And if Barbara was baulking at a higher-than-usual price tag for a voluminous jersey dress (which I own) and feared it wouldn’t sell (it sold out), then what on earth was she thinking about offering a coat for 120 guineas?
I had heard vague things about Biba couture over the years, but I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen anything like this article before. I do so wish I could see some Biba couture pieces now. The original owners must have remembered they were such, so I would hope that the provenance would be forever attached to the piece as it passed from careful owner to careful owner.
Dreamy. And certainly not hindered by some incredible photos by the legendary Helmut Newton and footwear by The Chelsea Cobbler.
Observer Magazine, 19th January 1969.
The amazing Mr Brownwindsor has furnished me with a much-desired copy of the [would be a cult if anyone knew about it] film Side by Side. From 1975, it has a lot to recommend it if you are anything like me and care not for plot or characterisation when there’s glam rock groups, immensely outrageous clothes and period location shooting involved. Even my beloved Fox make an appearance.
Most amazingly, there’s an incredible segment recorded on location at the Biba rooftop restaurant. Wicker peacock chairs, fringed lampshades et al. An incredible, and rare, insight into the then-soon-to-be-lost world of Big Biba and one which seems to have itself largely been lost in the mists of time.
254 Kensington High Street, W8
Biba, probably the best known of all the boutiques, began business six years ago with a mail order offer of a gingham shift and scarf for 25s, because fashion illustrator Barbara Hulanicki thought it was impossible to buy inexpensive well designed clothes and decided to do something about it. At the end of last year, in premises 16 times the size of the original boutique in Abingdon Road, Biba opened as a store selling not only clothes but also accessories, make up and home furnishings, Barbara Hulanicki’s distinctive style is carried through all her designs, sold only at the store and by mail order catalogue. She works with her husband, Stephen Fitzsimon.
Hair by Barbara Hulanicki. Photos by Duffy.
I have just listed a rare piece of Biba menswear over on eBay. Not only is it a rare piece of Biba menswear, it’s also the same print as one worn by the divinely dissolute Keith Richards. I’m 99.9% certain that Keef’s is a bit of ladieswear, probably stolen from a girlfriend or even just from the rails of the boutique (as so many people did) but it’s a pretty cool coincidence nonetheless, non?
In other news, I would like to say hello to anyone who has just found me via The Guardian’s ‘Internet Picks of the Week‘ feature. Hello! If you want the promised feature on Scopitones, you can find that here.
Another uncredited image from David Bond’s book. Well, at least it actually states Biba this time (although it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work that one out). This is my dream world. Biba clothes. Dried flowers and feathers. Curls. Sequins. Headscarves…. Suffice it to say, I would like to dive in head first.
Sorry, little Who-related joke for my groupie girls there. There are only so many times you can put ‘new website listings’ in the title without wanting to slit your own throat. And I have TWO new Bibas up for sale. Ooh la la.
There are loads of new listings over at Vintage-a-Peel (both dresses and separates), and even a couple of sneaky new listings over on eBay. Please go take a look, I shall be ‘featuring’ more items individually on the blog over the next few days rather than my usual all-in-one-blog-post style.
New over at Vintage-a-Peel (quite literally hot off the press!) I have just listed a fabulous cheetah print Janice Wainwright maxi dress, the twin of one of my favourite Annacat dresses, a black jersey Jean Varon maxi with a distinct twist in the tail and a superbly archetypal Biba dress. Enjoy!!
Biba were spearheading the Seventies revival of all things antique, including the ‘lounge’ culture. Spectacular gowns and peignoir sets were made ostensibly for the bedroom but far too good to be restricted to it.
This incredible peignoir set of dress and dressing gown is made in a distinctively Victorian / Edwardian style, with voluminous amounts of fabric and lavish ruffled hems, necklines and sleeves. You can do some serious swishing in this set, believe me – the photos don’t even show just how much volume there is!
Once upon a time, I happened across a Radley own-label dress with a print which screamed Celia Birtwell. It was very like her later, crazier prints you see on the later Ossie pieces. I was fascinated, and perplexed because it was definitely a later Radley piece with the ‘girly face’ label. But it was definitely Celia.
I wondered if it was a one-off. But now I’ve found this little beauty, which is exactly the same design of dress, with a totally different print – but also a very distinctly Celia one! I can only surmise that Birtwell remained contracted to Radley after her divorce from Ossie Clark and continued to create at least one collection under their label.
Printed sketchy flowers and squiggles cover the deep plum sheer chiffon of this delicious dress. The gathered waist, the draped faux-wrap bodice and the draped back from the fitted yoke give it a wonderful grecian goddess feel. I love the very subtle effect of the pale topstitching, and the sheerness without lining means you can be as audacious as you like – whether you wear a slip or undies is up to you! And that, is the influence of Ossie! 😉
£38 Starting bid over at eBay
I always get very excited by Biba pieces which were featured in the catalogues of the late Sixties. Perhaps because Biba was often so ephemeral and fast-moving, and not always featured as heavily in magazines of the time as you might think, it’s lovely to see them in situ and be able to date them (and see the original prices!).
This lace blouse was originally part of an ensemble with a skirt (which could be long or short apparently) but clearly is extremely wearable on its own.
In the catalogue’s own description “Spider lace peplum suit. A close fitting waisted jacket with narrow sleeves, buttoning to a high Edwardian neck.” The full suit was £7 7s in 1969.
Starting bid of £45 over at eBay
But that ain’t all…..there’s also a delicious couture label Ossie Clark ensemble, a superb bohemian Janice Wainwright, a super sweet candy pink Jean Varon dress and some other lovely non-designer pieces. Please do go and check it out!