Photograph of the model Twiggy sat on a booth in at the front of a row of tables in a large restaurant space with a ceiling covered in multicoloured curving patterns

A new show revisits the glory days of iconic fashion brand Biba

From ‘high-class debs’ to ‘high-street girls’, Biba was adored by many in its heyday. A new exhibition in London examines the lasting influence of the brand and the legacy of its founder

A new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London tracks the meteoric rise and enduring legacy of fashion brand Biba, which operated between 1963 and 1975. Initially founded by Polish designer Barbara Hulanicki as a mail order catalogue, the brand quickly grew to encompass several physical stores, including an iconic seven-storey department store on Kensington High Street.

Hulanicki used every mechanism available to build the Biba world and, years after its eventual demise, the brand continues to influence contemporary fashion and retail practice.

Within the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a replica of the first ever Biba dress – “a simple shift in pink Gingham with a cut out back and matching headscarf” – that would go on to become the brand’s first bestseller. From here, Biba’s rapid growth becomes clear, as visitors learn about the boutiques that Hulanicki opened in some of London’s most fashionable streets, including shops on Abingdon Road, Church Street, and, of course, Kensington High Street.

Photograph of the model Twiggy wearing a gold satin dress and headband sat on a chair in an ornate 70s patterned room
Top; Twiggy in the Rainbow Room; Above: Twiggy in Biba; Both images © Justin De Villeneuve and Iconic Images

It was in the latter location that Hulanicki would eventually open Big Biba, the final incarnation of the brand and the store that would cement its place in the history of fashion. Having already served the likes of Twiggy, Mick Jagger, Pattie Boyd, The Beatles, Cher and Anita Pallenberg, this expansive department store was the crowning achievement for a career already marked by massive success.

By this point, Hulanicki was not just a friend of the industry elite, and the decade’s biggest pop stars, but also of the everyday fashionista, who admired her willingness to bring affordable, on-trend clothing to the masses.

Image showing various Biba product labels with art deco typography and details in the brand's brown and yellow colour scheme
Biba labels; Image: Tessa Hallmann

Welcome to Big Biba, a book which has been reprinted to coincide with the exhibition, notes that prior to the creation of the store “Biba had been in the business of fantasy, transforming every Eliza Doolittle who crossed its threshold into a gorgeous, vampish queen of the night. Now it sought to build a stage that would be worthy of the high street stars it had created.”

In the Big Biba store, “everything was on a scale that had hitherto only existed in imagination”, according to the book. “These seven floors were filled with own-label products, everything designed, commissioned, sourced or approved by Hulanicki herself.”

True to form, Hulanicki, who now lives in Miami, was closely involved in the exhibition too. She worked with curator Martin Pel to create it, loaning materials from her vast archive, and sourcing rare clothing from collectors all around the world to build the full story of her brand. She also recently collaborated with Pel on a forthcoming book titled The Biba Story, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Biba’s opening, and includes written memories by those who were involved with the brand in the early days.

Photograph showing a row of five pink glass fragrance bottles by Biba
Biba fragrance bottles; Image: Tessa Hallmann

Big Biba’s dramatic fall from the top would occur in 1975, only shortly after opening, due to economic recession, the financial strain of running such a big store, and disputes between Hulanicki and shareholders. But its impact on London’s fashion and retail scene cannot be overstated.

The exhibition showcases the full extent of Hulanicki’s worldbuilding, from its sought-after clothes, accessories and home furnishings, to the grand designs of its beloved stores and boutiques, and the beautiful illustrations of its visionary founder.

Photograph showing brown and yellow 70s style packaging for Biba ice cream
Biba ice cream; Image: Tessa Hallmann
Photograph of a Biba brown bag labelled 'food hall'
Biba food hall bag; Image: Tessa Hallmann

The Biba Story, 1964-1975 is at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London until September 8;