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Biba at ShopCurious: Celebrating a Vintage Fashion Revolution

We’re so excited to be introducing the first of two vintage Biba collections at ShopCurious. Most of the items in our initial curation belonged to a single collector – an avid fan of Biba, who purchased and wore many of the items during the late 1960s. Our pieces come from the wardrobe of someone, who, like most of Biba’s customers, was just a young girl with a love of fashion and design. Yes, there were famous clients, like Twiggy, Brigitte Bardot, Barbara Streisand, Cilla Black and Cathy McGowan, but Biba was probably the first brand to offer a designer lifestyle at an affordable price.

Barbara Hulanicki’s incredible early life story is entertainingly documented in her autobiography, From A to Biba. She worked as a fashion illustrator for glossy magazines including Vogue during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Writing in the brochure from a 1993 exhibition at Newcastle’s Tyne and Wear Museum, Caroline Imlah says, “She entered the world of design as a novice, but one with a natural instinct for shape and style.” Hulanicki designed her clothes to create the long, skinny silhouette she craved, with flesh-pinching sleeves and bias-cut, flowing lines. Imlah credits her with the creation of ‘street style’. Her pieces were eclectic and experimental; young people adored the ‘granny prints’ and ‘auntie colours’ - with more than a hint of the 1890s about them. She is also credited with creating the first fashion t-shirt, which looked “like granny’s old vest.” Her inspiration came mainly from the 1920s and ‘30s, and she used old-fashioned materials like satin and crêpe.

Biba started out in 1964, selling through newspapers, and trading as The Biba Postal Boutique. For the first time ever, young women in the provinces could afford to buy London fashions. The profits from this enterprise enabled Hulanicki to open a shop in Abingdon Road, later moving to Kensington Church Street, followed by Kensington High Street. She captured the Art Nouveau revival, and interest in works of Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley. Her branding also had a Celtic feel (like 1890s Liberty).

The publication of the first catalogue in 1968 coincided with the emergence of hippy ‘counter culture’. It was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King and students on the Barricades in Paris. The anti-establishment attitude was reflected in the mail order catalogues with their bold, dramatic, and slightly subversive images of women as defiant victims.

Elizabeth Wilson describes the style as a, “more decadent type of femininity to the fresh innocence of the early and mid-1960s.” In contrast to the ‘milkmaid fashions of Laura Ashley, young girls were having fun dressing up as adults. “Typical of the period were long ‘rabbit’s ear’ collars, the tight sleeves bursting out into fullness at the wrist, the flares, narrow jackets and long narrow scarves,” along with the feather boas and wide-brimmed hats for which the label is best known.

The Biba graphics were designed by John McConnell from 1965-72 – and gold logos became icons of the swinging sixties. The font initially used was Arnold Bocklin, but a complete Biba alphabet was later created for the brand. The first to use the distinctive black and gold scheme was the range of cologne bottles. Four years later, the logo became more 1930s Hollywood/Art Deco.

The Biba catalogue was created to be the antithesis of existing catalogues offering hundreds of cheap items. They were to resemble Honey magazine, the Sunday Times Colour Supplement and Nova. The long slim shape was designed to fit in the average English letterbox of approximately 7 inches. It was printed in dual tone because full colour was too expensive. Biba’s clothes were also delivered in specially designed boxes, very unlike the brown paper packaging used by mainstream mail-order catalogues.

Prior to Biba, Chelsea Girl for fashion, and Habitat for household goods, had a strong graphic identity, but Biba took this a step further. The styling was applied to everything from makeup and lingerie to baked beans and pickled onions. This was the first time anyone had tried to sell a total lifestyle. The ultimate expression of this came in the form of the Big Biba store in the former Derry & Toms building - a veritable Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Since its untimely demise in 1975, no one has been able to recreate the essence of the brand in the same way. As Hulanicki explains in her book, “the name in itself means nothing… No amount of promotion or commercialisation can replace the genuine article.”

Our Biba Vintage collection includes over fifty items, including knitwear, accessories such as scarves, shoes and jewellery, homeware, cosmetics and ephemera. The provenance suggests these mainly date from the late 1960s, or possibly in a few cases from the early ‘70s. I have attempted to verify this by speaking to sources previously employed at Biba stores and/or currently working with Barbara Hulanicki, but if you are able to add any insight or stories relating to the pieces, please email me at susan@shopcurious.com, or drop me a DM @shopcurious.   

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