(Biba poster, photo by James Wedge)
No, not clothes, interiors! I have just finished devouring two books on the 60’s/70’s iconic shop Biba. It was a bit before my time, but such was its popularity that somehow I was still aware of it well before I started reading up on it. It is a fascinating story.
In a nutshell, Biba was the clothing boutique started by Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Fitz. Barbara had her finger on exactly what young people wanted at the time (because she felt it really didn't exist), and even better, provided it to them at a price they could afford (and for a spell, by mail order). Someone said to me recently that teens in the 60's quite often had to dress as mini versions of their mothers because that was all there was available, especially if you lived outside of London. This may seem strange now, but to get super cool clothing at the time cost money and was out of reach of your average girl even if you did live in London. Within a short space of time, Biba grew and grew. Such was its popularity that they realised they could sell just about anything with the Biba name and it would fly off the shelf. And so the first lifestyle store was born.
The Biba style: Barbara Hulanicki was a master at reinterpreting the past. Whilst a lot of clothing at the time was pale and pastel, she loved the deep sludgy colours like plum, brown and russet. At first, her fabrics were very reminiscent of the dark Victorian look with an art nouveau twist. Her now famous logo was actually an adapted celtic knot design paired with an art nouveau style font. We do a stencil of the original (DE228 in the Art Nouveau section). Aubrey Beardsley was a huge influence on the dark swirling design of both the printed fabrics and the shop. And the shop….it broke every retail rule in the book and customers loved it. The walls were painted deep colours or covered with dark patterned wallpaper. The fittings were usually old wood Victorian counters and shelves that noone wanted.
(photo Barbara Hulanicki from "The Biba Years: 1963-1974")
Clothes hung from bentwood coat racks that people were chucking out considering them old fashioned. Palms in art nouveau jardinières were in abundance. Lighting was low, keeping the shop deliberately dark. Photos of Barbara’s house at the time showed that the shop was an extension of her home style. It is full of art nouveau and art deco furniture, fabrics and homewares piled up and mixed together in an effortless overblown Victorian/Edwardian style. It looks so unique and personal.
(photo James Mortimer for Vogue magazine)
This was the antithesis of the 60’s light and bright modernism that was favoured by many. She was a maverick (although I am not sure she set out to be – she just knew what she liked and stuck to it). She lived what she sold. The style of the clothing was also a reinterpretation of the past with the 1920s and 1930s being huge influences on the cut and shapes of ranges all throughout Biba’s existence. Eventually Biba was so huge – they would get 100,000 customers a week - they were able to take over the 1930s Art Deco building that was the Derry & Toms department store on Kensington High Street. Big Biba was created.
Over the course of 18 months they designed interiors like no others. By now, art deco had become a strong influence, but still using the dark smoky colours as before.
(from kasiacharko.wordpress.com - Kasia Charko worked on most of the illustrations and graphics for Big Biba and has a fascinating blog about Biba and working for it)
Bespoke shop fittings were made for every department. Masses of mirror were put up everywhere. There were ostrich feathers in abundance.
(photo Tim White)
Bespoke deco style carpets covered the floors. Furniture was made and upholstered totally in keeping with the concept.
Everything was bespoke (all designed by Whitmore-Thomas). This is the tights display unit.
(Photo Tim White)
It was like stepping into a massive boudoir: black and gold with peach mirror, leopard spot and deco fabrics. They restored the Rainbow Room on the top floor which was the venue for lunch, drinks, or just hanging out. It had a stepped ceiling with different coloured recessed lighting in rainbow colours and a pink marble floor.
(Photo from the book "70's Style & Design", photo by Tim Street-Porter)
The building was (and still is) famous for its huge rooftop garden (the largest in Europe until 2012). They revived it and added real flamingos. Of course, they sold the look so you could recreate it at home.
(illustration by Malcolm Bird - advertisement for Biba)
Note the pattern everywhere: Beardsley style swirls, victorian lace, deco zebra and leopard spots. The furniture is mirrored, ostrich feathers and fringed lampshades are in abundance.
They wanted it not just to be a shop but an Experience. It must have been something else and I wish I could have seen it.
Strangely it is only recently that I studied Biba in any great depth. Yet when I look at the interiors of Barbara Hulanicki’s houses and shops, there are very strong similarities to my personal style. In fact, my current bedroom could almost have been decorated using homewares from the Biba store but are in fact mostly original to the 20’s and 30’s. My walls are a deep dark grey – I favour low light for atmosphere. Satin cushions in peach and aqua take over the bed. There are fringed and ruched vintage lampshades. Antique piano shawls are scattered about.
(photo Stephen Egglestone)
The feel is definitely deco-decadence which is a term used to describe Biba.
(photo Gisela Torres for the book Seductive Interiors)
and Pearl Lowe (who has just launched a website selling homewares and fab circus themed clothing for children) are two designers who “get” the look as well. In fact, Pearl has the infamous Biba advertising poster hanging in her living room in this shot.
(photo by Debi Treloar from the book Pearl Lowe's Vintage Craft)
And House of Hackney is the only company today I can think of who are bucking the trend and building a large range of fabrics, wallpapers, furniture, other homewares and clothing with that eclectic antique feel that can be mixed and matched and layered for the total look.
This is on a smaller scale, but touches upon the same "live it, wear it" aesthetic that Biba took to such heady heights. I love this company for their use of colour and pattern.
It can be used in small doses or you could go the whole HOH hog and put the same pattern on your walls, fabrics and furniture.
I covet their fringed lampshades and velvet cushions.
(the last 4 photos from House of Hackney)
I do recommend you read about Biba. I read “Biba: The Biba Experience” and “The Biba Years: 1963-1974”. It was quite extraordinary as a shop that had a huge lasting influence on fashion today. Totally inspiring.
As Biba was such an advocate for pattern, it is only fitting that I finish with a selection of stencils inspired by Biba either to get the look (start with dark coloured walls) or just because they feel so Biba (just click on any of the titles to take you to our website for more information on that stencil:
DE334 Art Deco Alphabet - Big Biba signage
DE333 Art Nouveau Alphabet - Biba signage
DE263 Art Nouveau Peacock Feather Motif - feathers showed up everywhere in the Biba world
DE232 Delicious Art Nouveau All Over Repeat Pattern - a nod to the patterned wallpapers used and sold
DE82 Victorian Floral All Over Repeat Pattern - again, in reference to the dark abundant pattern used on fabrics and paper
DE158 Aubrey Beardsley Peacock Ladies Panel - just amazing
VN165 Palm All Over Palm Repeat Pattern - in reference the the palms that were in every shop
VN214 Fan Dancers (with Ostrich Feather Fans) I like to think that BH would have liked this in the Mistress (lingerie) dept.
349 Leopard Spot Repeat - such a wonderful neutral pattern. It does with everything.
VN146 Flamingoes - because they had flamingoes in the roof garden!
VN139 Feathers All Over Repeat - ostrich feathers everywhere
VN142 Feathers All Over Repeat - a more art nouveau interpretation
VN300 Swallows - BH makes reference to using a swallow pattern on one of the fabrics. It was a favourite and sold incredibly well.
I have tried to credit all photos to the best of my ability. If there are any ommissions or corrections please let us know. Any oversight is unintentional.