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.
//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.