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Biba & Beyond – new Brighton exhibition

15 May 2012 No Comment

A major exhibition opening in September at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery celebrates the career of Biba-founder Barbara Hulanicki.

Detail, Biba mail order catalogue, 1968-9, copyright Barbara Hulanicki Biba mail order catalogue, 1968-9, copyright Barbara Hulanicki

With its cutting edge yet affordable fashion, which combined elements of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Victoriana and Hollywood glamour, Barbara Hulanicki’s iconic Biba label transformed the high street shopping experience in the 1960s and 70s. Young working women shopped alongside models and celebrities, including Sonny and Cher, Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Princess Anne, Mia Farrow, Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot.

Vintage Biba image Biba models photographed by Brian Duffy, 1973

From Biba’s Postal Boutique and shops in London’s trendiest neighbourhoods to the six-storey ‘Big Biba’ department store, the brand’s success changed the face of UK fashion with in-store experiences designed to match the excitement created by the clothes – think loud music, stylish staff, dimly lit period interiors and bustling changing rooms.

Big Biba sold everything from fashion, soft furnishings and satin sheets, to household products, specially packaged baked beans and babies’ nappies, and shoppers could enjoy cocktails on the Roof Garden or in the Rainbow Room restaurant, where The New York Dolls, Cockney Rebel, Liberace and The Bay City Rollers were among the bands to play live.

Vintage Biba dresses - photograph Tessa Hallmann © Royal Pavilion & Museums
Dresses from 1967 and 1970. Photograph copyright Tessa Hallmann, Royal Pavilion & Museums

During 1966, Barbara returned to Brighton, where she had started her fashion illustration career at Brighton Art College, to establish a Biba store on 21 Queen’s Road – now Fair ethical fashion boutique. Barbara remembers: “We employed a manageress who lived above the shop, but we hadn’t realised that she was a mobsters’ moll who entertained half the Brighton underworld! Stock was disappearing by the armful, and when a very famous ex-boxer came to see the ‘governor’ in Church Street, Kensington, to demand protection money, we felt we should call it a day.”

Beyond Biba

Vintage Biba trouser suits - Photograph Tessa Hallmann © Royal Pavilion & Museums,
 Trouser suits 1985 and 1971. Photograph copyright Tessa Hallmann, Royal Pavilion & Museums

Until 1969, Barbara’s husband Stephen Fitz-Simon had been head of the company, but with a move to 120 Kensington High Street, Biba Ltd was formed in partnership with garment manufacturer Dennis Day Ltd and retailer Dorothy Perkins, who jointly owned 75%, Barbara and Fitz holding the remaining 25%. During 1973-4 the working relationship between British Land and Barbara and Fitz deteriorated badly and in October 1974 Barbara and Fitz walked away from Biba.

In 1980, Barbara opened a series of clothing boutiques and launched a make-up line under her own name. She also revived her illustration and photography career, producing fashion shots for the London Evening Standard and drawing Sarah Ferguson’s wedding dress for London newspapers.

Barbara Hulanicki makeup - photograph Tessa Hallmann © Royal Pavilion & Museums Make-up, 1985. Photograph copyright Tessa Hallmann, Royal Pavilion & Museums

Arriving in Miami Beach in 1987, the entrepreneur reinvented herself as an interior designer, re-conceiving Miami Beach’s then re-emerging Art Deco District. From 1992 to 1997 she worked for Gloria and Emilio Estefan designing the interiors for their personal recording studios, the Cardozo Hotel on Ocean Drive and their private home on Star Island.

In the Noughties, Barbara returned to consumer fashion design, creating a collection of handbags for Italian luxury goods brand Coccinelle in 2003, a line for Topshop in 2009 and most recently ranges for George @ Asda. She was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Fashion at 2011’s Global Fashion Awards in New York and an OBE in the New Year’s Honours’ list 2012 for her contribution to British fashion.

Barbara Hulanicki Photograph by Dania Graibe
Barbara Hulanicki today. Photograph by Dania Graibe

Among the 200 items on display at the exhibition is an illustration of Audrey Hepburn, sketched by Barbara at Brighton Art College during the 1950s, a photograph of a pink gingham dress, bought by 17,000 people through the Biba Postal Boutique, a jumpsuit worn by Jill Richter to her wedding, which made the front cover of the London Evening Standard, and make-up from the 1960s.

Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki runs from 22 September 2012 – 14 April 2013 at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

For more archive images, see our Biba & Beyond Facebook album

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