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Shop Girls - the 'True Story' - 2014

Original Biba Shop

BBC Shopgirls Programme

Of course you cannot have a programme about shopgirls without Biba featuring!

'Oh You Pretty Things' - 2014

Still wowing them in 2014 - new book 'The Biba Years' and BBC showcase series 'Oh You Pretty Things' described as a 'Series exploring the relationship between British rock and pop music and fashion.'

BBC iPlayer Pretty Things page

Episode 1 - Tribes

'Just how did Britain become the place where the best music goes with the most eye-catching styles? Lauren Laverne narrates a series about the love affair between our music and fashion, looking at how musicians and designers came up with the coolest and craziest looks and how we emulated our idols.

British pop and rock is our great gift to the world, at the heart of the irrepressible creative brilliance of Britain. But it has never just been about the music. Across the decades we have unleashed a uniquely British talent for fusing the best sounds with stunning style and fashion to dazzling effect.

The series begins in the golden years of the 1960s. Mod legends the Small Faces became the best-dressed band in England, Cilla Black and fashion label BIBA were a perfect fit, while the Beatles and the Stones embraced the foppish hair and frilly shirts of psychedelia. Through rude boys and rockers, the relationship between music and fashion blossomed, becoming intimately entwined in the sound and vision of Roxy Music.

But this isn't just a story of brilliant musicians and maverick designers, it's a story that touches us all because, at some point in our lives, we've all delved into the great dressing-up box and joined the pageant that is British music and fashion. '

As Cilla makes her striking entrance at the Palladium for her debut Royal Variety Show performance before HM Queen Elizabeth what links this moment?

Cilla studio portrait

Cilla arrives on stage at the Palladium

Cilla in 'Becket' style dressCilla with lap top image of earlier self

Barbara admits to design nervesCillas dress based on Burtons costume

From the top : A portrait of Cilla from that Royal Variety Show performance in 1964 followed by a screen shot (sorry about the quality) of her spectacular arrival on stage in a sports car. Cilla was a new star whose debut performance followed stalwarts Morecambe and Wise and 'our' Gracie, well known to the monarch. Cilla reviews her own performance many years later and pronounces that the girl in the stunning frock was terribly nervous and it could be heard in her voice. Cilla was not the only nervous person that day, Barbara Hulanicki admits her nerves as she also looks on the historical performance. She tells us that the dress was based on a costume worn by Richard Burton in 'Becket' and admits that it doesn't 'look as bad' as she thought it would with the passage of time. Considering the impact Barbara's designs have made and how fondly they are still remembered, she started off with quite humdrum and conventional designs despite trying to break away from the mould!

The Biba Years

Viva Biba: The iconic fashion label's founder Barbara Hulanicki tells her extraordinary story - 2014

00:02, 24 August 2014 |

Fifty years ago, the first Biba shop opened in London and started a fashion revolution. Here Barbara Hulanicki, the woman behind the legend, tells her extraordinary story

Biba 'op art' piece

A Biba 'op art' piece is modelled outside the original Biba store in Abingdon Road, Kensington, 1965 © David Graves / Rex Features

I was born in Warsaw in 1936, but my parents then relocated to Jerusalem where my sisters were born – Beatrice in 1938 and Biruta, nicknamed Biba, in 1942.Barbara Hukanicki

From an early age, clothes were more than a mere necessity for me. I must have been such a pain for my mother because I didn’t want to wear the same clothes as my sisters.

 I hated those great pouffy knickers which felt like a balloon underneath our smock dresses. We all had to wear matching clothes. I rebelled and refused to have the same red shoes my sisters had, so my poor mother had to find me others.

It was tough in Jerusalem because there weren’t many shops. My mother used to make aftershave for my father, her own witch-hazel tonic and face creams because you couldn’t buy anything. You had to make or sew everything and my mother was amazing, forever making clothes and stuff for the home.

My father’s work with the British Mandate for Palestine [the British ruled Palestine from 1917-48] meant that he could travel and shop abroad. He would go to places such as Beirut and my mother would beg him to bring her something – Lebanon had fantastic French clothes because of the French occupation. I remember he once brought her back a two-piece bathing suit which was knitted. We used to rent a house on Lake Tiberias [the Sea of Galilee] and she went swimming there and couldn’t get out because it had stretched when it got wet!

Barbara with her beach design 1955Cilla Black and Cathy McGowan

Barbara with her beach design in the Evening Standard, 1955 / Cilla Black and Cathy McGowan help out

Cilla helping Biba to move

Cilla Black and friends

Some unusual help, not quite your every day shopgirl "Cilla Black & Cathy McGowan helping with the move from Biba in Abingdon Road to the new Biba premises in Church Street (1966)"

Our life in Jerusalem came to an abrupt end in February 1948 when my father was taken from the family home. His body was found the following day, his hands tied and a bullet through his temple. He had been murdered with the Polish journalist Stefan Arnold by the paramilitary group Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang, who violently opposed the British presence in Jerusalem and its supporters.

The last days of the British Mandate, which ended on 14 May 1948, saw Palestine, and particularly Jerusalem, fall into a state of lawlessness as conflicting factions sought to take control of the region. It is unlikely that the truth of my father’s death will ever be known. But it now seems that he was a casualty of the Cold War, as militants aligned themselves with the anti-British, Soviet-led Communist Barbara with her father and sisterregime in Poland, for my father’s name was at the top of the list of those to be assassinated by the new Communist Polish government.

My mother was in a terrible state, and terrified about the future there with three young children. Thank God the British government was so kind to her. They looked after her and put us on a plane to England with the troops, and within a fortnight we had relocated to Brighton under the apparent benevolence of my mother’s widowed and childless half-sister, Sophie Gassner.

Aunt Sophie had been left her husband’s fortune, made in the cotton industry, on his death five years earlier. Her halcyon days had been in the 1930s with an endless stream of cocktail parties, couture outfits and planning for the summer season. Couturiers Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou and Coco Chanel created outfits for her, which she complemented with a collection of furs and jewels. It was an era she decided not to leave, dressing daily in her silk crepe and satin gowns.


Barbara with her father Witold and sister Beatrice (left), 1940

Aunt Sophie saved my family from an uncertain future, but the price was subservience: all decisions were made and paid for by her. I lost myself in the films of Hollywood, with stars such as Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, to escape from the loss of my father and my domineering aunt, imagining a more independent life for myself.

In the 1950s, buying affordable and fashionable clothes became a preoccupation. Making up garments from paper patterns was one option, although not always that successful because I got bored. My mother couldn’t stand seeing these half-made things so she would have to finish them off and I remember forever saying, ‘No Mama, make it tighter!’

Biba Pinstripe trouser suit 1964Biba Riding mac 1968

Pinstripe trouser suit, 1964 - 'This was one of the first designs we worked on. It was deeply personal for me because the last time I saw my father, he was wearing a pinstripe suit. When Cathy McGowan [presenter of pop music tv show Ready Steady Go!] first wore a trouser suit to the Savoy Hotel in 1965 she was thrown out. It was all over the papers. Our trouser suit, which sold for seven guineas, was our first notable success in terms of sales' / Riding mac, 1968 - 'This was inspired by Burberry and it kept selling out. We stocked it for nine years, and you'd think that after all that time there'd be no problems, but one delivery arrived with a sticky-out dart at the top of the sleeve - I nearly had heart failure. It didn't look right, but sold all the same. When we took some designs to New York, a large department store liked the mac with the strange darts so much that they bought it! They thought it was classic Biba'

Aunt Sophie wanted me to go to university but I ignored her wishes and went to Brighton College of Art instead. I remember entering a fashion contest run by the Evening Standard with a panel of four judges including Norman Hartnell, couturier to my aunt. She told me to submit a design for a fussy day dress. But I also entered a design for an Italian-style beach outfit in candy-coloured cotton with a white eton collar. I imagined Audrey Hepburn wearing it in Sabrina. My design won the beachwear section of the competition and Aunt Sophie was not pleased. I remember there was this stony silence as she regained her composure.

Norman Hartnell’s couture house made up each of the winning designs and I went with my aunt to his Bruton Street salon in Mayfair to be presented with the outfit. That was my first introduction to the world of couture and it was a great shock: for in the hands of a couturier my soft cotton outfit became a silk taffeta confection more suited to a cocktail party than a beach holiday – but of course they wouldn’t have used cotton, it was much too downmarket. Winning that competition gave me the confidence to leave art college before the course was over and start work as an illustrator in London, and it was there, in the late 1950s, that I met my husband Stephen Fitz-Simon, who was working in advertising.

He was the person who really encouraged me to start designing. He could see that photography was coming in and about to take over from illustration, which would put me out of a job, so in 1963 we launched a fashion mail-order company together. Mail order grew at an unprecedented rate during the 1960s, outstripping all other forms of retailing, and for a small company like ours it was the most economical way to operate.

I didn’t want my own name associated with it. I wanted people to focus on the concept of our company – inexpensive fashion for everyone – rather than a personality. We decided on Biba, my little sister’s nickname. It was feminine and unusual, a name people could bring their own ideas to.

By the spring of 1964 we were struggling to fulfil the huge number of orders we were receiving for our first big hit – a pink gingham dress [see page 65]. So on 5 September 1964, we opened the doors to our first shop at 87 Abingdon Road in Kensington, and without advertising or even a sign on the door, we sold out the stock on the first day.

This is an edited extract from The Biba Years 1963-1975 by Barbara Hulanicki and Martin Pel, to be published by V&A Publications on 5 September, Biba’s 50th anniversary.

Cilla was the 5th BeatleFrom A to Biba

The last word went to Twiggy :

Twiggy in a leopard-print coat, 1973

Twiggy in a leopard-print coat, 1973 - 'I love this photo because so few were taken in the Big Biba shop. We made this coat for Twiggy. She was very special to us, and it was never work with her, just fun. We did a three-quarter-length version without a hood, which was a huge seller, too. I think I've still got one in London. It's too hot to wear in Miami, where I live now' - © Getty Images

'I think there should be a plaque on 87 Abingdon Road. Biba transformed the way the ordinary girl in the street dressed. It was a tiny corner shop, an old chemist in a quiet residential street. But before long, Biba was mecca to everyone from shop girls to debs. Not only did the clothes look amazing, you could afford to buy something every week.' - Twiggy, from Twiggy in Black and White, 1997 '

Original Iconography

Twiggy as Egypt

Twiggy models a Biba faux fur Leopard Jacket at Big Biba. Photo by Justin De Villeneuve.

Fashion archive: The seven storeys of Biba

11 September 1973: Fashion store Biba reopens for business in the seven-floor Derry and Toms building on Kensington High Street, London

Barbara in 70s

Barbara at the height of her designing powers - sketch pads for the designs, telephones for the sales!

Jenny Cartwright, a shop assistant at Biba

Jenny Cartwright, a shop assistant at the Biba boutique in Kensington, poses in the shop's household department, 10 September 1973. Photograph © : Graham Wood/Getty Images

The big new Biba opened yesterday in the old Derry and Toms building, Kensington High Street. Barbara Hulanicki, alias Biba, opened her first boutique in an old apothecary shop in Abingdon Road, Kensington. Three moves later Biba now occupies a huge seven floor store, a far cry from the cheap but original dolly bird fashion concept which Barbara Hulanicki's boutique once was. The new store is designed by Steve Thomas and Tim Whitmore, and supervised by Miss Hulanicki herself.

Here is a store with a design-for-living concept throughout. Biba has grown in stature to provide a way of life. The basement has a food hall, including take-away eats. The ground floor has accessories, cosmetics, 24 shades of tights, posters, playing cards, balloons, books and stationery. The first floor is fashion - an extension of what Biba always was, only more so, with familiar hat stands dotted with new designs, and open plan changing rooms. Further up is rose coloured art deco glass, satin fringed lampshades, rooms set in Biba style (one aptly called the The Bad Taste Room), a lot of kitsch china and glass, plaster ducks, bentwood rockers, and basket wear.

The vast Rainbow Room occupies the entire fifth floor, retaining its original ceiling and crockery and the room logo of a dancing couple. It is open 9.30 to 2.30 Monday to Saturday, 10 to midnight on Sundays, self-service or waitress service.

The picture (below) shows Martine Chevant wearing black/silver pailletted evening top, sizes S, M, L, £11.90 with long grey crepe skirts £12.25. Red sequinned pillbox £4.40; silver/black choker £23.50, diamante earrings £2.40; clear Perspex/gilt bangles £1.90; sequinned clutch bag, £7.95; silver/black T strap shoes also in gold/black £8.95, all from Biba, Kensington High Street, London W8.

Martine Chevant wearing black/silver pailletted evening top

No wonder Barbara chose fashion & Illustration

Derry and Tom 1920

I think I would have chosen fashion as well!

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Page updated : 24th March 2017