Friday, September 21, 2012

Barbara Hulanicki Brighton award: Spilt fizz, Biba shoplifters and a Sun ritual

Barbara Hulanicki
Yesterday, Barbara Hulanicki OBE RDI was bestowed the Honorary Doctor of Arts by the University of Brighton. The heavens signalled their approval when the Biba legend, in Avengers-style black, collided with a waitress serving drinks just before the award: champagne scattered and fizzed in a divine blessing on the carpet of the decadent Royal Pavilion's Red Drawing Room. Nothing like a huge wet stain to remind of mortality. The spill was mopped up as condoling giggles seeped into George IV's perfectly hideous red-dragon wallpaper. An anecdote born. 

Permanent fiancee Molly Parkin (a close friend of Barbara's) and I sat in the front row. Before the early evening award conferment, and reception and tour of the Biba exhibition ('Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki'), Molly and I had planned to meet at Brighton's Grand for a catch-up. Sadly, the cunting Liberal Democrats put paid to that. Ahead of their pointless conference starting this weekend, cops had cordoned off the hotel - policing costs for this event will be a ruinous £2.1m in a time of 'austerity'.

So Moll and I retired to the delightful, faintly louche Metropole. We sat outside and gazed over the traffic towards the gnarled ruins of the West Pier - a monument to civic criminality. At one point Moll, in glittery red turban, stood up, looked up and addressed the cloud-dimmed Sun with arms outstretched, beseeching its help in a certain matter. Normally, she prays to the Moon, most effectively. But the Sun is a good proxy for the granting of wishes.

Brighton honoured Barbara because it was here she studied fashion in the 60s. She may be one of the most influential style icons of our time, yet she spent a lot of her formative years in the town (now a city) watching movies. Fellow Brighton student Moll had no truck with the likes of Barbara in those days - 'We were art students and we didn't talk to fashion students,' she says over four black straws standing in two tall glasses of ginger beer and ginger ale, much ice and lemon. 'They wore beige and were commercial.' 

Nonetheless, events forged a wonderful personal alliance later - and Moll became very much part of the Biba experience, designing, for example, the 'Mollies' - wide-brimmed hats, sold at the old Derry & Toms store in South Ken.

Later, at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery reception, I bumped into a talkative woman called Sue. 'I was a Biba store detective,' she tells me. 'I arrested loads of people every week. The job made me very crafty and observant, and I could blend in with crowds so shoplifters couldn't see me watching them.' The underbelly of Biba! The dark shadow of a store whose Rainbow Restaurant drew the Mick Jaggers and David Bowies! I like Sue, a trained nurse. Without the likes of her, capitalism would soon turn soup kitchen.

We walked upstairs to the Biba exhibition, which starts Sept 22 and runs through to April 14 next year. A bit cramped, but I liked the wall works - period model photos, headphones to listen to video Barbara, images of swirly-curly neo-arty deco things on cups and such-like. Frocks and hats centrally placed; what a palaver. We traipsed worshipfully now we're all atheists. A girl in the 1964 Biba pink gingham dress - a huge hit after the Mirror noticed it - didn't want to mislead the naive: 'The dress is a reproduction,' she smiled threw lovely teeth.

And speaking of the Mirror, who should we bump into but fabled Felicity Green, the sharp-witted octogenarian on a stick who was once that paper's women's editor and became the first female appointment to a newspaper board (and advised the Express, Telegraph and other publications). It was thanks to her that Biba, Quant and others enjoyed wide tabloid coverage and helped restyle the masses. She seemed a bit crabby because she couldn't find the chauffeur. This is not a woman I would cross lightly.

Into the night we strolled. And a group of us bitched about people we'd met.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'threw lovely teeth'