Sunday, 23 September 2012

Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki

When I received the invitation to the preview of the ‘Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki’ exhibition, I was excited to go, but unsure how much I would enjoy it given my distaste for all things ‘70s.  However, I was pleasantly surprised as it was a very well designed show and the range of items displayed goes far beyond what I was expecting.

Barbara Hulanicki’s career was kick-started at the age of 18 (in 1955) when her design for a striped beach-suit was selected by the Evening Standard to be made by Norman Hartnell (most famous for being the Queen’s dressmaker).  After some years as a fashion illustrator, Biba’s Postal Boutique was launched in 1963 with a simple evening skirt.  However, the outfit that really cemented Biba’s reputation at the forefront of style was a matching pink gingham dress and headscarf, designed to accompany an article on the most important women in fashion at the time. 
Biba eventually sold 17,000 of dresses in this style
The first shop, (in Kensington, London) followed in 1964 and another in Brighton a year later.  After up-sizing their London shop, relaunching their mail order division (including a catalogue with photographs by Helmut Newton) and producing a hugely popular make up range, Big Biba was opened in 1973.  Big Biba was a department store spread over seven storeys where you could buy the entire lifestyle, from the clothes and makeup to stationary and even lentils!  Barbara left Biba in 1974 over creative differences with the controlling stakeholders, with the company closing  the following year.

With its obvious styling influences of Art Nouveau and 1930s Deco, the Biba brand has always been very romantic.  Biba’s main goal was to provide fashionable but affordable clothes so that the girl on the street could buy herself something new every week, and get a complete outfit in next to no time.

The perfect Biba 'dolly' was very slim, had big doe
eyes, long slender limbs and was annoyingly young
The exhibition certainly goes beyond Biba and is an exploration of all of the different aspects of Barbara Hulanicki’s career.  Examples of her fashion illustrations, interior design and development of Miami Beach (in particular the Marlin Hotel) all intermingle with the dresses she is most famous for.

Twiggy in fake fur coat and hat (c.1973).
Biba never used real fur in any of their collections
Although I’ve never been a great fan of ‘60s and ‘70s fashion, I really enjoyed the exhibition.  It showed the breadth of work Hulanicki has produced, and the relevance she still holds in the world of fashion, as examples of her collections from 2009 and 2012 (for Topshop and George at Asda, respectively) show.
From Barbara Hulanicki's capsule collection for Topshop, 2009
I would definitely reccomend the exhibition to any one interested in fashion, as it not only shows dozens of examples from the archives of an iconic brand of the '60s and '70s, but also the development of a label and one individual's design career.  I met Barbara afterwards and she was lovely, asking whether I’d enjoyed the exhibition and whether I was ‘in fashion’.

Check out the Schiaparelli 'inspired' top

The exhibition is open now and runs until April 14th 2013.  Admission £6 for adults.

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