It was a delight to spend last evening In Conversation with legendary Biba creator Barbara Hulanicki beneath the suitable sparkling chandeliers of The Tearoom at the home of the Fashion Museum in Bath. Hulanicki has been a longtime style heroine of mine as you can see from the letter below, which I showed the designer at the start of our talk. I enjoyed hearing her stories of building the Biba brand, although it seems that the fortunes of Hulanicki and husband Stephen Fitz-Simon relied more on hard work and happenstance compared to the calculated business plans of today’s sartorial entrepreneurs, especially how the leopard print designs that became such a Biba classic were the result of a mistake over-ordering fabric. “So we just decided to make up jackets in leopard, coats in leopard, cushions in leopard, everything in leopard,” explained Hulanicki. A glimpse of Biba leopard can be seen on the jacket worn by Arthur Kane, bass guitarist with the New York Dolls, during their infamous 1973 ‘mock rock’ performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Dolls were the debut act at Biba’s glittering Rainbow Room, the 500-seater restaurant and music venue that topped the seven-storey Biba department store in Kensington High Street. As Barbara tells it they replaced Marlene Dietrich on the bill because the demands of the movie star grew longer and longer and more outrageous as her appearance loomed. Apparently pre-show Kane and the rest of the Dolls ran amok through the womenswear department nicking things that took their fancy as they went (hence the fake fur trimmed jacket on TOGWT). On stage at the Rainbow Room they swanned around outrageously in long pink feather boas (also from the shop floor). “But they were so cute and so exquisitely dressed,” remembered Barbara. “And they had the most divine shoes!” Divinely decadent. Totally Biba.
The Biba Years 1963-75, Barbara Hulanicki and Martin Pel, V&A Publications.