Sunday, August 5, 2018
The Biba Years: 1963-1975 Hardcover – September 23, 2014 by Barbara Hulanicki and, Martin Pel (Victoria and Albert Museum)
As expected, this is the most complete Biba compilation to date. "The Biba Years" meticulously traces Barbara's history. She was born in Poland in l936. The family, fleeing the Nazis, emigrated to Palestine in 1938. We learn the circumstances that brought her widowed mother and three daughters to Brighton to live with a half sister. Biba was not Barbara's nickname. That belonged to the youngest girl, named Biruta. Art school in Brighton, a move to London, a career as a fashion illustrator, a meeting with her future husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, the advent of a small mail-order business ("Biba's Postal Boutique"), a store, another store, a bigger store yet, international success, a gigantic store, an implosion, picking up the pieces. As in most real life, you can't make these things up. Even if Biba had never touched many of us, it would still make a compelling story.
Why the enduring fascination with Biba?
Biba as a "thing" was the sum of many parts:
* Timing (the emergence of youth culture in the '60s)
* Inspiration from the past (the first time the thirties and forties were mined for their appeal)
* Head to toe vision (by one designer)
* Limited availability (not many stores, few mail-order offerings)
* Affordability (without any loss of cache)
You couldn't just add a piece of Biba to your outfit, it required a commitment. When you wore Biba you had to attempt the total look. The colorways were unique, as were the fits. She uses the term "matchy-matchy" unapologetically. In these days of mix-and-match being modern, it surprised me to learn that Barbara believed in matching everything-- hats, bags, shoes, the whole shebang.
Does Biba still resonate? When you look at pictures of the clothes photographed on standard mannequins and precisely lit, it may be hard to see what the fuss was about. There are some pieces I would indeed die for today, but others are simplistic and seem familiar. Familiar perhaps because we've seen those silhouettes over and over since the '60s. Revolutionary then = old-hat now?
It was a grand idea that failed. What went wrong? Are there lessons to be learned? Don't get too big? Don't sell out to corporate interests? Never give up? Barbara has had an amazing life since, full of successful projects that have taken her talents to new directions. Not in this book, but she is quoted as saying, "Now whenever I finish something I take some photographs and say 'goodbye'. When you lose everything, you realize that the only thing you have is what's in your head."
For anyone who lived it, wishes they had, is a lover of the marketplace, a business major, fledging designer, fashionista or student of human nature-- "The Biba Years" is a fascinating read.