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Swinging '60s, anyone?

Bella Freud revives the Biba line at London's Fashion Week, where '80s styles also abound.

September 21, 2006|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

London — FASHION Week started here on Monday with more talk about the models than the clothes they were wearing. Debate is raging over whether reed-thin models should be banned from the runways (as they were in Madrid last week) because they might encourage eating disorders. It's been a hot topic among show-goers and the general public alike, particularly since tabloids reported that British fashion icon Kate Moss would be excluded by the Madrid ban, which targets models with a body mass index -- a ratio of height to weight -- of less than 18.

By Tuesday night the debate quieted, for a few moments at least, for one of the week's most anticipated shows: the runway revival of Biba, the iconic 1960s brand that has been relaunched under the direction of designer Bella Freud, Lucian Freud's daughter and Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter. Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan were in the front row to see Biba, originally founded in 1964 and designed by Barbara Hulanicki, which helped define London as home base for the Swinging '60s.

Back then Biba wasn't just a look but a lifestyle, with a six-story fashion emporium selling clothing, housewares, cosmetics and accessories. The Biba look was one part Art Nouveau with its swirling prints, one part old Hollywood with long-line silhouettes, platform shoes and black nail polish, and one part Marrakech hippie, with color-soaked caftans. The store was a favorite with celebrities Mick Jagger, Julie Christie and Twiggy, and with mere mortals, who could afford to partake in what may have been the first cheap chic brand.

For inspiration, Freud sought collectors with vast archives. "The question for me was really, 'How do you repeat peoples' heart memory?' Because Biba so often represented a young moment and I wanted to reignite that excitement," Freud said Monday night at her design studio in Notting Hill. "It was the moment when people stopped wearing what their parents did."

"I tried everything on and I was really struck by the fit," she said. "Biba had this great length, just above the ankle, with dresses that had a very narrow torso and a high armhole that was kind of Victorian. It was all about this cramped torso with a generous, flouncy skirt."

Freud's collection didn't stray far from the original with ankle-skimming dresses in archival Arabesque prints, some with ruching at the torso, others worn with tiny vests to add shape; and flared trousers paired with bow-front blouses and shrunken jackets. An Edwardian coat came in a black and gold starburst print, and a cotton jersey mini dress with plum-colored Art Nouveau hearts.

There were also a few more modern looking shapes, such as overalls with a gold foil "B" on the front pocket, and T-shirts with Biba emblazoned on the front. Shoes were sky-high metallic platforms or suede pumps with curved, Victorian-looking heels. And there were plenty of headscarves and floppy hats.

Freud's fall collection, which was more of the same, is now arriving in stores such as Ron Herman and Saks Fifth Avenue, with prices from $350 for a skirt to $2,000 for a coat.

It's an entertaining bit of nostalgia, but the truth is, most of Freud's styles look like those already available here at the Top Shop, the 21st century version of Hulanicki's fast fashion idea. Which would be fine except that the new Biba is not being positioned that way. Instead, the clothes are being sold at designer prices, which makes it difficult to view the whole enterprise as anything short of an attempt at a fast buck.

Elsewhere on the runways, the first few days were unremarkable. Designers made a case for tailoring, the 1980s and the age-old play on the masculine-feminine. Paul Smith focused on his trademark suits in Bermuda brights paired with ruffled blouses and color-soaked, frayed satin penny loafers or lace-up shoes. There were lots of shorts and low-slung pants occasionally with borrowed-from-the-boyfriend boxers peeking out, but not much more to get excited about.

Among the newer names, Gareth Pugh has earned a reputation for his over-the-top presentations, inspired in part by his experience in the underground club scene. This season, an electric fan turned the white fabric-covered runway into a billowing ocean, providing a surreal backdrop for Pugh's towering harlequins with Latex masks and protruding headpieces.

Walking checkerboards of black and white, they wore coats and dresses created from vinyl or Mylar, some puffed up like inflatable beach toys. And, as the models walked gingerly in hooker-high stilettos and platforms, their heads and bodies disguised, it was impossible to tell the men from the women, much less the reeds from the waifs.

Jonathan Saunders, who is known for his original op art prints, took a more subtle approach this season, translating his graphic style onto embroideries and trim, such as the braided print insets on a black and white halter dress. Unfortunately, construction played second fiddle to design, and none of it was very attractive.

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