x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Determining a favourite fashion moment can inform your own unique style

My favourite fashion moment was in 1966, when the iconic clothing label Biba underlined 1970s fashion with its purply, brown maxis and exotic, androgynous vibe.

Everyone is allowed a favourite fashion moment (FFM). Even if they weren't actually there to get the T-shirt, or in my case, floppy, hippie hat.

I can pinpoint my FFM to 1966 - two years before I was born - and two years into the phenomena of Biba, the iconic clothing label founded by Barbara Hulanicki, the fashion illustrator-turned-designer who, in my opinion, pretty much underlined 1970s fashion with its purply, brown maxis and exotic, androgynous vibe.

By the time I had goaded my mother into buying me a pair of Biba bright yellow hot trousers with a bib-front and cherry on the front (one of Biba's many "firsts" is that they did fashionable childrenswear), the dynamic 1980s were fast-approaching and fashion had moved on from lace Victoriana smocks to Lycra all-in-ones.

An original Biba poster framed in shiny chrome gets pride of place in my flat and is the only reminder of my nine-to-five job (as a fashion writer). It's an image taken by the photographer Sarah Moon, showing a strikingly beautiful model with glossy brown lipstick and even darker, glossier eyelids, wearing a cloche hat and velvet choker.

I never tire of finding new things each time I look at it. Sometimes she appears to be a peasant girl. Other times she's a Russian royal, a troubadour, a bride.

The Biba-esque Art Nouveau-style swirling graphics in silvery grey frame her face and in the bottom right hand corner is the famous gold logo.

From a historical view point, Hulanicki not only created the first accessible, affordable fast-fashion label, she also set the mould for the modern fashion brand with an image so powerful it is still being referenced by Pinterest and teenage bloggers 40 years on.

It helped that Hulanicki's empire was captured by the breakout photographers of the time, such as Helmut Newton, and of course Biba-wearing celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Cher and Julie Christie.

Hulanicki and her husband, Stephen FitzSimon, opened their first Biba store in Kensington, following on from a successful mail-order business, in 1964. By 1973, when Biba's three London shops were consolidated into just one, large and legendary department store, the fashion fairy story was nearing its conclusion.

By changing the couture fashion product to include inexpensive, trend-led separates and cheaper accessories sold in one of the first global "destination" shops - which featured potted plants, scatter cushions, leopard-print carpets and mirrored tables for cosmetics - Biba became a victim of its own success. And was copied thereafter.

Unlike many other designers whose legacy has been say, a hemline (like Dior's New Look), or the mini skirt (accredited to Mary Quant), which can be reworked to suit a contemporary trend, the Biba look, often more covered up than revealing, was so of the minute that it has been impossible to replicate without resorting to Mamma Mia-type costumes.

More recently, its relaunch by the department store House of Fraser (aimed at baby boomers who once bought the original thing?) in 2010, has provided a nostalgic but diluted nod to original styles. Besides prints, the gold Biba logo on shoe buckles and bags are the most exciting thing about an otherwise unremarkable collection.

But the good news is, in this spring/summer 2012 season with its mash-up of decades, eras, movements and FFM's, I keep on being reminded of my label love.

Whether it's in the weird self-musings of Venus Palermo, whose YouTube site, VenusAngelic, shows the doll-like teenager dressed in frills, or the romantic hats Anna Sui used on her New York catwalk, it's all very Biba.

Meanwhile, Hulanicki's eclectic way of thinking, her random inspirations included the Edwardian illustrator Heath Robinson, socialite, Nancy Cunard, androgynous traditional men's clothes and military clothing, is very much in keeping with today's young bloggers.

The way Hulanicki looked beyond frocks and accessories to entire interiors, graphics and Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts movement of Paris in the early 1920s, grabbing elements of beaded 1920s frocks found in antique markets and mixing it with Victorian childrenswear, is equally how contemporary designers such as Marc Jacobs work today.

I met the designer several years ago at a lecture. She complimented me on my belt, a very heavily sequinned number from Topshop in the style of, you guessed it, Biba. I wanted to confide this was why I had bought it but alas, the words didn't come out. We small-talked about finding great things at Topshop and went our separate ways. It was only when I got home and looked again at the Biba poster girl that I realised it was its founder.

 

Julia Robson is a London-based fashion journalist, broadcaster and stylist

 

artslife@thenational.ae