English clothing designer, born 1936, in Poland.Born Barbara Hulanicki, her professional name comes from a childhood nickname.
Her first success was with a pink gingham dress that she'd advertised in The Daily Mirror in May of '64: in a surprising foreshadowing of our own open-source projects, her advert included a pattern for the dress itself, along with a note that her designs were available by mail-order only, but the public was free to visit her showroom, if they liked. By September, she sold her clothes from a "Postal Boutique", and for several years, she was considered "Swinging London's best kept secret" and the "most In shop in London".
At that time, women's fashion faced a watershed. Postwar fashion design was based on the notion that there were very few men, and a plethora of women, and therefore, the female form had to be girdled, corseted, made up, and in general made artificially alluring (much like the food and even flowers of the day). Couture was targeted at "women of a certain age", typically 40 to about 70, who were already married and socially prominent, who had a great deal of discretionary income. Mary Quant, along with Helen Gurley Brown, pioneered the notion of the Perky Girl: a thin, coltish nymphet (who was definitely under thirty) quirky, sexually available and childlike, whose flat might not be decorated according to the standards of Levittown, but intriguing as a personal expression, with inflatable furniture, brick-and-board bookcases, and fabulous finds, and who bought the cheapest available clothing.
To counter the childish ways of the Perky Girl with some sophistication, Biba at first offered the tight-fitting "Biba smock" until she found her inspiration in the Art Deco Era (c.1910-1947), centering on the Thirties and Forties, when the Depression and later, wartime rationing, called for ready-to-wear clothing that cut corners, but still managed to look feminine and stylish. Using postwar synthetic fabrics in place of silk and linen, she unveiled a look that not only flattered young faces and figures, but whispered of a hint of Hollywood Babylon as well. (Cocaine, anyone?) Another inspiration was the growing avenue of street fashion: Biba T-shirts upended several genres by featuring smoky, low-saturation colors (like those then sported by older women), while of a generally slim and boyish cut (Unisex! Gasp!), meaning that they could be worn by, well, just about everyone, and the Third World, which at the time was less a workshop for the First World, than a source of underutilized "folkwear". For a time, her retail outlet, known as was a crowded, funky, general store for the young and hip, selling dresses and a line of menswear off Thonet coat racks, Morroccan tea tables, incense and peppermints, where you'd more than likely meet Freddie Mercury, along with various members of The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and/or the nascient Roxy Music shopping for clothing (and perhaps, something else!) Rock music pounded, blacked-out windows nurtured a conspiratorial aura, and any scent less striking than patchouli was drowned in the general miasma of herbs, spices, and rare unguents. Then, in 1972, Derry & Toms, a dowdy department store down the street, known best for its elaborate roof garden, closed its doors, and in 1973, Hulanicki dropped her bombshell.
Big Biba, at the time, was called "The World's Most Beautiful Store", comprising a Food Hall, Childrens' Department, Accessories, Cosmetics and Sundries, a Men's Shop, a souvenir stand, a Housewares Department (that sold everything from paint to furniture to flowers), a rooftop cafe/garden, and of course, an augmented version of the original boutique. Displays tended towards Art Nouveau/Deco posh, self-referential jokes (Heinz baked beans sold from a kiosk in the shape of a five-ton bean can recalling the Who's "Sell Out" album, Campbell's soup sold from another giant can signed by Andy Warhol, dog food sold from a rack in the shape of Othello, Biba's favorite Great Dane), and flights of fantasy (a childrens' shop with a Wild West Saloon (for boys), a French Quarter Lolita Shop (for preteen girls), and a giant dolls' house for babies; contrarywise, the Men's Shop hid a sex-lingerie-and jewelry department for discreet shopping for "Mistress" gifts -- or self!). Each floor was characterized by different hangtags written in their own distinctive typeface, and, as much as possible, only store brands were sold -- you could, if you felt the whim, eat Biba ham and Biba Baked Beans off Biba plates with Biba flatware off a Biba table and a Biba chair in a room with walls decorated by Biba paint, a Biba carpet and Biba fabrics...even baby diapers were purple and featured the magic logo...beyond this, fetuses were dressed in the best of maternity smocks, and the flower shop irreverently billed itself as "Putting the Fun back in Funeral!" Instead of window displays, some of the backing walls of the display space were taken down, and the exposed raised platforms used as a lounging area, and the Rainbow Lounge in the Roof Garden Pavillion, a legacy from the old Derry and Tom's, had an "alternative" vegetarian menu, and was so painstakingly restored that, the joke went, it looked as if nothing had been done. (After hours, it turned into one of the hottest venues in London, featuring the talents of Iggy Pop, The Manhattan Transfer, and The New York Dolls.) It was the first store in Britain to have a computerized cash register system, and the first anywhere to carry cosmetics for Caucasian, African, and Asian skins all in one place at the same counter (and resurrected 1920's green, black and blue nail polish as well). All was sold against a soundtrack of rock, swing and Cole Porter arrangements, with fake fur, peacock and ostrich feathers everywhere, and surprisingly affordable prices.
Unfortunately, in order to finance this junket, Hulanicki sold her name to a holding company, which caused a battle for artistic control. From the start, there was trouble: the window lounges, which were to lure people inside by showing a cross-section of shoppers, went from attracting exquisitely dressed young swells and their ladies to being a showcase for street people and drug addicts, who found it hilarious to be and get high six inches away from the square-shaped people on the other side of the glass, but sight unseen to anyone inside the store. The branded merchandise was a mixed success: as one reporter remarked, it was charming to see one purple perfumed feather duster, but unsettling to see a whole bin of them, on sale. Worse, a world-wide energy crunch that year, coupled with a miners' strike in Britain, left most people with only a fraction of the discretionary income they might have had for frivolous purchases. The sheer size of the building was another concern: since there wasn't enough of her mens' and childrens' wear to fill their respective floors, even with all the inventive store design, large parts of the second and third floors were simply vacant. (A unisex beauty salon ended up on the Childrens' Floor the following year, which featured organic procedures.) In 1975, it was clear that the concern was simply haemoraging money, and the store closed for good in August, ending in an historic auction in September.
In some ways, it was considered the end of an era. Rock Follies, the 'rock soap opera' dedicated one number to "Biba Nova", and the Derry and Tom's site was a centerpiece in the Jerry Cornelius Quartet. In others, it found a strange afterlife. Bergdorf Goodman, who'd invested heavily in a Biba boutique on its ground floor, found it to be selling more after the auction than before. Macy*s featured Biba cosmetics, and Junior clothing inspired by Biba designs, into 1979. Nail polish and eyeshadow in every color, and general vintage wear helped to inspire the Punk and New Wave era after. Now and then, there are rumors, and sporadic offerings of a Biba resurrected...Virgin owns its signature roof garden...but the true renewal is yet to come. Meanwhile, her influence is everywhere...just look at Urban Outfitters....or even Target....