An introduction to Biba

Starting life as a small mail-order business, Barbara Hulanicki’s ‘Biba’ evolved into a style and retail phenomenon.

The daughter of a Polish diplomat, Barbara Hulanicki moved to London with her family after the Second World War. She began her career in fashion in the early 1960s, working as a freelance illustrator after studying at Brighton College of Art. Her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, was an advertising executive at the time, and could see that illustration was quickly being eclipsed by photography. He encouraged her to pursue her interest in designing, and in 1963 the couple launched Biba’s Postal Boutique (‘Biba’ was the nickname of Hulanicki’s younger sister, Biruta). Run as a mail-order business that produced set runs of stock, Biba offered Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon a low-risk means of testing the popularity of new designs.

Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon, about 1960, photographer unknown. Biba archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

The label scored its first major success in 1964, with a pink-gingham sleeveless shift dress and matching headscarf – a nod to the simple clothes Hulanicki’s mother had made her when she was a girl. The dress was commissioned by Felicity Green, The Daily Mirror‘s influential fashion editor, who featured it in a sponsored promotion used to illustrate an article on women in business. It was anticipated that the dress would sell around 3,000 units, but once the feature was published, Biba received over 17,000 orders. With solid proof of a mass-market appetite for her fresh, youthful styles, Hulanicki had the confidence to open the first Biba boutique, in a former chemist’s shop in London’s Abingdon Road.

Left to right: Mini-dress, Biba, 1969, England. Museum no. T.10-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Skirt suit, Biba, 1968, England. Museum no. T.170, 171-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Women – mostly under the age of 25 – flocked to Biba to buy Hulanicki’s ‘Mod’ clothes in the murky tones she soon became known for. Biba’s aesthetic was inspired by decadent, bygone styles (particularly Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau) in earthy colours like olive, rust and her favourite, ‘bruised purple’. Where female fashions of the previous decades had emphasised the bust and hips, Hulanicki’s short designs focused on the wearer’s legs. Her outfits best accommodated women whose under-fed post-war bodies allowed them to squeeze into unforgiving dresses (stretch fabrics were yet to be invented), many of which featured Hulanicki’s signature ‘long and skinny’ sleeves. By the middle of the decade, Biba had become one of the capital’s ‘must have’ new labels. And word soon travelled: a 1966 edition of American news magazine Time promoted London as ‘The Swinging City’ and named Biba as “the most in shop for gear”.

Interior of the Biba store, Kensington High Street, 1960s. Photograph by Philip Townsend. Museum no. E.3674-2007 © Philip Townsend/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Interior of Biba store, Derry & Toms building, Kensington, London. The store had an Art Deco-interior reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood and non-traditional shop displays, where garments hung on casual coat stands.


The key to Biba’s success lay in its affordability. Fitz-Simon had worked out that if they kept prices well inside the maximum disposable weekly income of the average London secretary, they could accelerate the rate of repeat purchases. So the principle behind the Biba store was ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’, making it very different from other fashionable London boutiques that catered only for those with money. Hulanicki also had an eye for what ordinary girls liked, maintained a fast-changing supply of coordinated separates in a variety of colours. But it wasn’t only students and young working women that appreciated a well-designed bargain – models, singers and TV celebrities (among them Twiggy, Cilla Black and the presenter of hip pop-music TV show Ready Steady Go!, Cathy McGowan) were also loyal Biba customers.

Shoppers also appreciated the unique atmosphere at Biba, which Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon had worked hard to create. Their store was filled with ornate Victorian furniture and antiques, was dimly lit for dramatic effect and – unusually for the time – offered a communal (and flimsy) changing room. They also hired young, approachable staff who looked and acted like the customers, and played loud pop music that leaked out onto the street. The retail experience was transformed. Shopping, very suddenly, became a social event. Many women from outside London made special trips to the capital just to shop at Biba.

Left to right: the model Twiggy at the Rainbow Room, Biba store, Kensington High Street, 1960s, photographer unknown. Museum no. AAD/1996/6 : AAD/2014/1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Various labels and price tags from Biba, early 1970s, England. AAD/1996/6 : AAD/2014/1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

 

In 1966 Biba opened a new store on Kensington Church Street, and later expanded into a former department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in this enormous Art Deco building (Hulanicki was a huge fan of the style), and diversifying into homeware lines, as well as running a restaurant and nightclub, Biba was now London’s most renowned ‘place to be’. Crucially, despite all the glamour of ‘Big Biba’, young people could still afford to go there and push through the crowds to secure the latest must-wear item – such as the knee-high boots, popular at the end of the decade.

Left to right; Zigzag mini-dress, Biba, 1967, England. Museum no. T.12-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Pair of boots, Biba, 1969, England. Museum no. T.67&A-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Hulanicki lost outright control of the business in the mid-1970s when she and Fitz-Simon sold part of Biba to another UK fashion company, Dorothy Perkins. The Biba store closed in 1976. Hulanicki now lives in the US where she works as a retail and design consultant.

In this film, Hulanicki describes her early visits to the V&A as a student in the 1950s, and explains how key objects from our painting and jewellery collections inspired her iconic fashion designs.

In this film, we see inside the Biba Store and behind the scenes with Barbara Hulanicki and husband Fritz 1970

 

In this film you see Fashion and Style from 1969 Biba