Beyond Biba: Primark gaff underlines film’s flaws

The combination earlier this month of the premiere of new documentary Beyond Biba and a Q&A with founder Barbara Hulanicki at the V&A provided an intriguing – though ultimately unsatisfying – evening out.

Louis Price’s film covers all the bases in outlining Hulanicki’s extraordinary rise, succeeding where others have failed by encouraging this charming enigma to open up on film.

Illuminating about the challenging circumstances of Hulanicki’s upbringing in Palestine (her father was assassinated by the Stern Gang in 1948, prompting the family flight to austere Britain), Beyond Biba is underpinned by original footage demonstrating Hulanicki and her late husband Stephen “Fitz” Fitz-Simon’s radical approach to 60s retailing (as detailed in Chapter 14 of THE LOOK).


//Window at Big Biba. Design: Steve Thomas//

However, potentially uncomfortable areas are side-stepped, despite the input of such astute and entertaining commentators as Hulanicki’s friend Molly Parkin.

The environmental legacy of Hulanicki’s lifelong championing of “disposable” clothing (manifested as recently as 1996 in the New York boutique Fitz-Fitz) is not addressed, while Biba’s collectability – where much affection for Hulanicki resides – is brushed aside in the briefest of contributions from a fan. Presumably the subject wasn’t too keen for the film to dwell overlong on the past.


//Twiggy at Big Biba, 1973//

In routine fashion the blame for the brand’s collapse in 1975 is laid entirely at the door of property partners British Land.

There is no doubt that these were unsympathetic, divisive and non-creative backers, but this argument does not allow for the fact that the extravagance of the final phase as “Big Biba” was fatally out of synch with the prevailing mood of the times, and, as such, represented a lack of engagement with the cultural impact of such seismic events as the oil crisis, the three-day week and rampant industrial and social strife.

As Peter York wrote in the aftermath: “The mass market came to Big Biba, but only to look.”


Hereafter, Beyond Biba’s narrative jumps more than a decade to 1987, when Hulanicki and her family started life anew in Miami; no mention is made of the shop in Sao Paolo, the launch of the cosmetics brand nor the several unsuccessful attempts to revive Biba without her involvement.

Despite it’s title, Beyond Biba provides an insight as sketchy as Hulanicki’s fashion drawings into what she has achieved since then, with cursory and confusing coverage of the high-end interior design work for such patrons as Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.

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//Hulanicki-designed hotels in The Birdcage credits//

Blackwell is mentioned, but not one of his dozen or so boutique hotel commissions, nor those for any other client beyond Ronnie Wood (who is grabbed for a 30-second chat on the street outside a London exhibition of Hulanicki drawings) is presented or dissected.

Meanwhile the disconnect between Hulanicki’s avowed interest in “democratic” fashion (IE: well-produced clothing invested with design value and available at low price points) and her work on these outrageously luxurious and exclusive commissions looms large.

The film passes in a succession of perfectly pleasant though hardly gripping interludes involving Hulanicki chatting in her office, walking the Miami streets snapping Polaroids of Deco architecture and preparing for the aforesaid exhibition. Much is made of the attendance at the private view by Wood and his wife Jo, Kate Moss and Twiggy (who declares Hulanicki our greatest living fashion designer).

During the Q&A (conducted by the ever-impressive Hilary Alexander; somebody give her a chat show now) Hulanicki appeared genuinely excited about her Topshop collaboration, yet – and this is possibly due to her shy and retiring nature – delivered a series of faux-pas which left sections of the largely female and middle-aged audience distinctly unimpressed.

Asked by a visibly nervous former customer whether she would consider making clothes for women in their 60s, Hulanicki misinterpreted this as call for designs for the fuller figure and abruptly told her “to stop putting things in your mouth; that’s my doctor’s advice”.

A male fan’s query about Biba’s little documented menswear range was swatted in similarly peremptory style.


//The Angry Brigade announce the Biba bombing, IT, 1971//

Another audience member wanted to know what Hulanicki considered her contribution to have been to women’s liberation in the 60s. She responded by pointing out that The Angry Brigade had bombed her Kensington store in 1971 in a statement against consumerism.

“So that’s where politics got me,” Hulanicki announced.

Finally Hulanicki sparked hostility by declaring that her favourite fashion force is Primark “because you can buy a whole bunch of their flip-flops for £2 each and then throw them away when you’re done”.

When she was dressed down for the irresponsibility of such remarks by one audience member, Alexander bravely intervened with some damage limitation about the cheap clothing chain now addressing sustainability and labour issues. The evening was then brought to a close.

There is a great deal of goodwill, particularly among women young and old,  towards this fashion figurehead, one who has not only survived but blossomed in several areas of design against many odds, not least the relatively early death of her husband and partner in 1997.

Yet there were dark mutterings as we filed out; the impression lingers that the film and it’s subject have failed to cater to the intellectual curiosity and increasingly responsible requirements of contemporary fashion consumers of all ages.

Male-Mode said,

July 27, 2009 @ 8:13 am

But when was this Q+A filmed? I know a minority might have been aware of the price that would have to be paid for irresponsible affection for disposable fashion but it wasn’t ’til the last few years that the general public (myself included…perhaps I was terrifically ignorant) has awoken to the consequences of ‘fast fashion’.

Fantastic post, I’m reading “A to Biba” right now…


rockpopfashion said,

July 27, 2009 @ 8:44 am

Thanks for your comment.

The documentary was made in the last couple of years Cillian, and the Q&A took place after it’s first screening less than two weeks ago.

My point is that the film at the very least should have considered the connection between an avowed policy of producing “disposable” clothing over many decades and the current sustainability crisis, particularly since it captures BH just as she heads for the Topshop hook-up.

Rollergirl said,

July 27, 2009 @ 9:28 am

Fascinating… thanks for this.

Madame said,

July 27, 2009 @ 9:51 am

Brilliant post. It’s weird, isn’t it, that certain figures are deemed beyond criticism due to their legacy and cult status? But the very fact that BH is getting involved with Topshop and championing the devil that is Primark is a point that most definitely needs to be made. She is still involved in fashion and is a very influential figure, but it seems she hasn’t even thought about the consequences of the throwaway culture we live in and is happy to add to it. Yes – you’ve certainly made me question my unconditional devotion to the great BH, not sure if I should thank you or not!!!!!!!!!!!!

rockpopfashion said,

July 27, 2009 @ 10:40 am

Well it was a bit of a shame Pippa. As I say, I do think some of this was due to nervousness, but that can’t be applied to the film.

The fact is that everyone in fashion – designers, consumers, retailers, manufacturers and opinionated pundits like me – is having to play catch-up with the rest of the world, act intelligently and take responsibility for what we produce, buy, wear, say and do.

And none of us is blameless. The Topman deal now sticks in my craw: the world doesn’t need more cheap t-shirts for sure and I wish I’d done what I’m doing now – limited edition one-offs with small independents which are made to last and will be worn by those who like ’em in 10 years’ time, juts like I wear my clothes.

I thought I could be 70s punk rock about it and infiltrate the machine blah blah blah but I was wrong; I just fed it.

I guess BH was talking from a 60s perspective; that Primark represents the conclusion of the “democratisation” of fashion (along with the rest of culture) started during that decade.

The problem with 60s thinking (as we have known since the decade ended with the 1973 oil crisis), is that cause and effect was (and is by all accounts) rarely taken into account.

Mrs Gorman said,

July 27, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

The Primark comment was in response to being asked which designer she admired at the moment. Her answer wasn’t one of Britain or America’s up and coming fashion talents, nor a contemporary from the seventies, or a friend, nor one of the craftsmen or architects she works with in her interiors work, but Primark. It just struck me as a terribly ungenerous reply when the film, the V&A, the audience and the guests there were being so generous to Barbara.

The film also fell down when trying to position Hulanicki as the source of Miami’s architectural revival. I think Denise Scott-Brown may have something to say about that…

susie_bubble said,

July 27, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

Fascinating stuff…I have asked the director to interview Hulanicki so I will have to probe him about these issues…

rockpopfashion said,

July 27, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

Yes Susie that would be very interesting – please keep us updated. The film demonstrates great access and a very real effort to mark BH’s achievements. In one way it was unfortunate for him (and her) that her subsequent comments threw the film’s inadequacies into relief.

Mark taylor said,

July 27, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

The film was very good. But what really excited me was how it sensitively took a very intimate look at Barbara herself. i enjoyed brief talk/question time after the film and seemed to be a very down to earth highly personable and modest person.

Robinson said,

July 27, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

I was at the V&A screening and Q&A, and I really can’t fathom the response of this website to the film and to Barbara. maybe I was at a different event, but the vibe was great, and i didn’t hear any ‘Dark Mutterings’ afterwards. I found the film to be a great, intimate insight into Barbara herself rather than a cold list of facts and remonstrations that this website was hoping it would be. It seems, having read the book ‘The Look’, that the author has a slight grudge against Biba, calling it overrated, and this has spread into this review. I for one would be bored if the film ground to a halt every five minutes to make a point about the amoral practices of Topshop and Primark (Immediately dating it), and go into minute detail about the different incarnations of Biba through the ages (something I’m sure she has no interest in whatsoever), what we had was a rare insight into Hulanicki herself, and how she views her work, be it Biba or her interior designs. I also found Hulanicki in the Q&A to be very funny, a natural comedian, a breath of fresh air when compared to these stuffy fashion anoraks (!)

rockpopfashion said,

July 27, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

Thanks for your comments.

You obviously weren’t sitting where we were; the knock-back to the lovely woman in her 60s and the Primark big-up went down like a lead balloon with quite a few people.

As for sustainability becoming a dated issue…

Also, where in The Look is there a manifestation of any grudge against Biba? I actually visited the store at the time and still have one or two pieces 35 years later I am such a fan.

You are mixing up my authorial voice with the opinion of Tommy Roberts who is quoted as saying that Biba wasn’t intrinsically about excellence in fashion design; that was the preserve of the likes of Ossie Clark at that time. Biba was far more about retailing, lifestyle, environment…

His words, not mine.

I also dedicated an entire chapter to the history of Biba and have repeatedly written here about the store and BH’s significance, and in this piece even talk about what a charming and talented person she is.

We’re going to have to agree to disagree about insights into the interior design – some brief and repeated shots of shuffled photographs don’t count as them in my book. I was hoping for interviews with her clients and visits to the sites (of which there were none).

Anonymous said,

July 29, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

another review!

rockpopfashion said,

July 29, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

Thanks. Yes I saw that – it’s great she mentions the three generations of Biba buyers there (with the daughter named after the shop). Was a touching moment.

michael gillette said,

August 3, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

possibly on the disposable fashion front, those black glasses she always wears might just be a pair of blinkers.

Anonymous said,

August 3, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

Biba the Musical was featured in “The Look” and here some time ago.Maybe there is a part of the legacy which has been missed by the documentary,which seems a little sycophantic and without independent comment. There is without doubt something remaining about the original BIBA mindset/atmosphere/concept which has never been explored further….maybe BIBA the Musical can do this

Shirl said,

August 21, 2009 @ 10:24 am

BH is a fashion icon –
full stop

BIBA was the first of it’s kind and an inspiration

Barbara Hulanicki’s comment about PRIMARK is correct
(she knows what she is talking about!)

I was delighted to read that she has mentioned them in this way!

Primark IS the best shop on the high street for design and price.

I am so tired of the ethical question connected to PRIMARK

(every single high street chain and designer label supports the ‘merry go round’ that is third world labour – they are ALL playing the same game!)

The problem lies with the companies involved – NOT the consumer!!!

Shirl said,

August 21, 2009 @ 10:28 am

However, I do not think that the bigger picture has been recorded on BIBA

Beyond Biba is a documentary that just touched on topics skipping from one to another

A full length feature would be interesting to say the least!

A-Z of BIBA is a film script waiting to happen!

roy said,

September 21, 2010 @ 10:59 am

i agree with the last comment evrey high street shop in the uk uses third world labour i should know as i am a designer in high street fashion so yes topshop h and m and all the rest use these factories,
its companies and suppliers to the high street that are resposible,
not the consumer,hulaniki was a style legend of the time she at the time used production in the u.k it is mentioned in a to biba,
i think she comes across as natural she might of been nervous at that
interveiw, as i think she is a pretty private person,she is a true inspiration today and always will be.

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