Biba does dinner

Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki is credited with inventing the mini skirt and popularising the waif look. I wasn’t expecting, therefore, to find many morsels for my food blog at Biba & Beyond, her retrospective at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery that runs until 14th April. I was wrong of course. At the show I learnt that Hulanicki is also the designer of some of the most outlandish kitchens and dining spaces I have seen, and she once had her own line of baked beans.

It’s hard not to warm to Hulanicki, who at 76 looks a lot like an ink illustration. I dig her the moment I hear her explain in the exhibition’s introductory video that she sold black nappies in Biba, because it was ‘the most rebellious thing you could do with babies.’

Hulanicki’s creativity was fuelled by an unconventional young life. Born in Warsaw, she spent much of her childhood in Palestine until her father Witold, a diplomat, was assassinated by paramilitaries when she was twelve. ‘My father was killed in a brown pinstriped suit,’ she says plainly on the show video. Not much more than a decade later, Hulanicki would create a bestselling garment out of the tailoring fabric she associated with personal tragedy.

The family moved to England after Witold’s death. Teenage Barbara went to boarding school in Worthing, then Brighton Art School to study fashion. In her early twenties, Hulanicki launched Biba as a small mail order business. The concept was all about bringing affordable trend-led youth style to the high street, because, she says, ‘guiltless fashion was so important to me’. The business grew rapidly thanks to Hulanicki’s vision and her business-savvy husband and business partner Stephen ‘Fitz’ Fitz-Simon, who worked in advertising.

The first Biba shop opened in Kensington in 1964, and became a magnet for young fashion-conscious women. It was brimming with flamboyant gold-labelled goods, beautiful ‘Biba doll’ sales assistants and booming with loud music. The second shop was a short-lived affair on Queens Road, Brighton that opened in 1966 with a light fingered gangster’s moll employed on the staff.

Biba’s focus on low cost youth-orientated design changed the face of fashion retail forever, but I doubt it was often guilt free. In an interview, Hulanicki says, ‘My husband worked out that, in those days, a girl earnt £9 a week. So £3 for her bedsit, £3 for her food and £3 for her Biba dress. Or in many cases the girl would go without her food for one week and come back with two Biba dresses.’ The Biba ‘shoplifter’s corner’ however, filled with items that weren’t selling well and in a convenient location for people to steal from, will have gone a little way towards correcting the bank balance.

The ‘Big Biba’ boutique opened in 1973: a seven-storey London department store complete with a Biba food hall featuring Warhol-inspired grocery shelves and displays of pet food in the shape of dogs. They even ran a line of 350 own-brand groceries including Biba baked beans, washing powder and Camembert cheese. All were packaged in signature black and gold with art nouveau inspired illustration and lettering: the weirdest, least appetising way to present food that I can imagine.

Big Biba also had its own celebrity hangout, the 1930s-styled Rainbow Room cocktail bar and restaurant with pink marbled floors, black lacquered furniture and black and gold crockery. Former Rainbow Room PR Alison Waters remembers Big Biba fondly. She says:

The restaurant was like a giant glamorous ocean liner dining room and at night was a leading night club where you could sip cocktails while listening to the Manhatten Transfer or The New York Dolls.

The menu had a vegetarian option, ‘unheard of at the time’, and featured dishes like sweet and sour spare ribs for 80p, trout with scampi and bacon on a skewer for £1.85 and bottles of Bollinger for £7.50. The restaurant was crowned with a roof garden shared with exotic birds, that is still open today. Hulanicki recalls the ‘disgusting’ penguins that lived on the roof in a recent interview:

They were dangerous, pecked like mad and the leader of the pack got so angry on one occasion that he stormed into the Rainbow Room, closely followed by all the other penguins, which terrified the diners.

The Biba dining experience must have been nuts.

It wasn’t just the birds that put Hulanicki off their flagship creation. To fund the expansion Hulanicki and Fitz had sold 75% of the business, a move that led to the Biba founders selling their remaining shares in October 1974. Deciding that its premises were of more value than the company, the main shareholders British Land dissolved Biba the following year and sold its trademark to a consortium.

Hulanicki continued working in the UK fashion industry until she and her husband Fitz moved to Miami, USA, where she turned her attention to interior design. Her first commercial interior, outside of the Biba stores, was that of Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s club Woody’s on the Beach, in 1987. She has since created numerous bright and bonkers spaces in the Miami art deco quarter and Bahamas. It was not a great leap, she says, because ‘Biba was all about interiors’. Indeed, my favourite discoveries at Biba & Beyond are the eye-popping kitchens and social spaces in Hulanicki’s interiors portfolio. They don’t let the food do the talking, but who needs food when you have fashion?

Biba & Beyond is open at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Pavilion Gardens, until 14 April 2013. For more info visit the Brighton Museums website. Image courtesy: Barbara Hulanicki

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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