In the 1960s, a farmer's son from Fraserburgh took the fashion world by storm. With his work back in the spotlight among curators and designers, why, asks Jackie McGlone, was Bill Gibb's genius largely forgotten until now?
IN HIS East London studio, the British fashion designer Giles Deacon – Designer of the Year in 2007 – is talking fervently about one of his biggest style heroes, a farmer's son from Buchan, whose legacy can still be detected today in the work of the boldest of contemporary designers, such as Deacon himself, Christopher Bailey and the iconoclast John Galliano.
"I love anything with that kind of drama, anything sculptural and structured," says Deacon of the work of the late Bill Gibb, one of British fashion's forgotten geniuses.
"And all his pieces are beautifully done. I love the execution of them; the handpainting, the patchworked fabrics, the tapestry knits, the little quilted butterflies and shells, the embroidered bees, the gold bee buttons."
Galliano admits: "I have been inspired by his collections, his colours, by his journey and his own story, as we both use chiffons, laces, frivolity and the exotic to create beauty and seduction for our generation's butterflies."
So why, despite his continuing influence and visionary aesthetic, has Gibb been largely forgotten, his glorious talent uncelebrated? Gentle, sweet-natured Gibb has never been forgotten by those who wore his clothes: glamorous women such as Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, Marie Helvin and Twiggy, who describes Gibb as "my knight in shining armour" (he rescued her purple Mini car from a snowdrift on a cold day in 1967).
Now, though, Gibb is back in the spotlight, with the publication of a lavishly illustrated book, Bill Gibb Fashion and Fantasy, and the launch of two exhibitions opening to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his tragically early death, at the age of 44, in 1988.
A year-long exhibition, Bill Gibb – a Personal Journey, has just opened at the Museum of Costume in Bath and on 24 October, Billy: Bill Gibb's Moment in Time, opens at London's Fashion and Textile Museum.
Such is long overdue, although Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum was the first to give Gibb his due, with a major retrospective, The Golden Boy of British Fashion, in 2003.
As I gaze at the photographs in Webb's superb book, I'm transported back to the day I first went to Gibb's London showroom. It was in the 1970s and I was lunching with a friend, Northumbrian-born fashion designer John Bates. "Let's skip coffee and I'll take you to meet Billy Gibb," said John. So off we went to see Bill in his den, down the road from Harrods and Harvey Nichols. In his showroom, dominated by mirrors and stunning Vogue photographs of his designs, we drank herbal tea.
Fair-haired and gnomishly bearded, dressed in rainbow-coloured knitwear, with baggy trousers, braces and running shoes (these were pre-trainer days), Gibb had an innocent, gamin quality and seemed the very antithesis of a grand designer.
I've no memory of what I chatted about with the chain-smoking farmer's son, Gibb, and the miner's son, Bates, both darlings of the beautiful people. Music probably, because rock'n'roll was always blasting out and Gibb would suddenly whirl you off your feet in a wild dance.
However, I remember looking at his exquisite clothes and feeling desperately dowdy in my skinny-rib sweater and trouser suit, on to which he pinned one of his enamelled bee brooches, a gift I still treasure.
Several times throughout the 1970s I returned to talk to him. He wasn't the easiest interviewee in the world. He was much too interested in our mutual friends, such as Bates and Jean Muir.
Gibb spoke in his soft, Scottish burr with passion and animation about his designs, explaining how he'd hand-painted miles of "untouched forest" on to silk (always signed, as works of art should be, with his trademark, stylised honey bee), which might be marbled, feathered or beaded, to make dresses of flower-faced femininity.
Neither Gibb's name nor his vibrant talent should be forgotten, believes Christine Rew, manager of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum. An acknowledged expert on Gibb, she curated the 2003 exhibition. The gallery has the world's largest collection of his clothes, as well as archiving more than 2,000 drawings and sketches, charting his meteoric rise and financial falls in the fickle fashion world.
Born in Fraserburgh on 23 January 1943, William Elphinstone Gibb was the eldest of George and Jessie Gibb's seven children, growing up on a dairy farm in New Pitsligo, worlds away from the perfumed excesses of high fashion and London bohemia.
A sweet-natured, dreamy boy, Bill grew up to become an even more dreamy man. His family remembers him drawing all the time, copying historical costumes, as well as sketching his own designs. According to his sisters, Patsy, Marlyn and Janet, he was forever raiding their gran's dressing-up box, adorning them like miniature Rapunzels or wee Ladies of Shallot.
His creativity came from his maternal grandmother, he insisted. She was a gifted painter who turned down the opportunity to go to art school in order to work the family farm. Gibb's art teacher at Fraserburgh Academy recognised his rare talent and encouraged him to apply to St Martin's College of Art.
Although he desperately wanted to be a designer, London was a great shock to Gibb. He was a shock to London, too. The top student in his year, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (RCA), where the late designer Ossie Clark was a year above him.
The shy Scot never completed his post-graduate course, though. Success beckoned, and he'd met the American painter-turned-knitting guru Kaffe Fassett in a King's Road club. Fassett was struck by Gibb's "funny little elfy quality". The two ended up sharing a flat and a profound friendship. They also teamed up professionally, creating designs that incorporated Fassett's revolutionary knitting techniques in vegetable-dyed tartans and chequerboard checks – decades before Vivienne Westwood deconstructed the kilt – for mass-market fashion label Baccarat.
Voted Vogue's designer of the year in 1970, Gibb and his designs were photographed by Cecil Beaton, David Bailey and Sarah Moon. In 1971, he met publicist Kate Franklin and they became friends and business partners. His clothes, their imagery rooted in medieval Celtic romance, Pre-Raphaelite painting and the grandeur of court dress, mated his love of layered contrasting textures and patterns with the exoticism of the gilded hippies of the 70s. He was the original fashion fantasist.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the ivory wool tabard, with a full circular skirt decorated with appliqu, hand-printed swallows, covered by a peacock-blue velvet cape, that Gibb designed for Twiggy's appearance at the 1971 New York premiere of Ken Russell's film The Boyfriend, in which she starred. Unfortunately, the fairytale was about to take an unhappy twist. Sadly, neither Gibb nor Franklin had a head for figures. At the end of the 1970s, the business crashed with debts of 100,000. Rescued once, it collapsed again in 1980. Plagued by financial crises, Gibb's life still centred on work and friends. He had no interest in possessions, often sleeping on friends' sofas; he never owned a house or a car and had to be bullied into buying a suit. Everywhere, he took only four things with him: "Two chemist chests, a 1930s porcelain head and my collection of bees."
"He never wanted to do anything that was in the future," Franklin says. "I think he knew he had only a finite time. He said to me at the beginning that he wasn't going to live beyond 44 years. He was a very, very special person. When he died, I died."
• Bill Gibb: Fashion and Fantasy, by Iain R Webb (V&A, 24.99); Bill Gibb: A Personal Journey, Fashion Museum, Bath, until 4 October 2009; Billy – Bill Gibb's Moment in Time, Fashion & Textile Museum, London, 24 Oct-18 Jan
BILL GIBB'S BRITISH FASHION CONTEMPORARIES
• OSSIE CLARK
Born a year before Gibb in Lancashire, Clark was a prodigiously talented child who made clothes for dolls, friends and family alike. At the Royal College of Art, his 1965 degree show put him on the pages of almost every national newspaper, thanks to a dress decorated with flashing electric lightbulbs. Clark's major influence was 1960s Pop Art, though in the early 1970s his signature look was bohemian, diaphanous dresses in muted colours. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were among his clientele.
• JEAN MUIR
Half-Scottish is how the enigmatic Muir described herself. Although she emerged in the mid-1960s when experimental fashion was at its height, Muir set herself apart by creating clothes that were truly timeless. Renowned for her love of simple navy blue, matt black and jersey fabric, she applied an astonishing cutting skill that resulted in minimalist, almost architectural garments. Celebrity fans include Dame Diana Rigg (whose sexy Avengers catsuit Muir designed) and Joanna Lumley (who was Muir's house model in the late 1960s).
• ZANDRA RHODES
The 'Princess of Punk' put fuchsia pink on the map in the 1970s, when she was in her mid-thirties. As colourful as a cockatiel, she applied her love of theatricality to her designs, with flowing layers of brightly patterned silk and chiffon, appliqud tears, jewelled trimmings and safety pins, all in a very upmarket way – her most famous client was Princess Diana.
• BRUCE OLDFIELD
The Yorkshire-born Barnardo's boy became a star almost as soon as he graduated from St Martins College of Art, in 1973. He launched his own ready-to-wear label two years later when he was just 25, and in 1978 also became a couturier, creating flamboyant evening gowns for the most glamorous women of his era, including Jerry Hall, Diana Ross and Joan Collins.