BEHIND the scenes at the museum, I am having a Proustian moment. I’m gently unwrapping the chrysalis of gauze surrounding a hand-painted silk evening dress as delicate as a butterfly’s wings. There’s enchantment in every stitch of this exquisite garment that surely still bears the ghostly imprint of the woman who once wore it.
How I longed to own this gown when I was 19. It’s by Bill Gibb, the farm boy from Buchan who grew up to become the darling of the beautiful people in the late 1960s and ’70s, and who is about to have his fashion moment again. It may be 15 years since he died, but Aberdeen Art Gallery is opening a major retrospective celebrating one of the 20th century’s greatest fashion designers.
In the lower depths of the gallery Christine Rew, the keeper of applied art, is giving me a sneak preview. It’s a trip back in time. I remember how smitten I was with the glamour of Bill’s clothes and the magic of his tailoring and how much I wanted to be wealthy enough to dress like a rich hippie in rivulets of silk chiffon encrusted with beads, feathers, sequins and shells.
As I gaze at the lovely, fragile dress that Rew is carefully replacing in its protective shroud, I am whisked back to Bill’s London showroom...
IT was 1972, and I was having lunch in Knightsbridge with a friend, the fashion designer John Bates. The son of a Newcastle miner, Bates had his own label, Jean Varon, and had created the archetypal ’60s pop-art wardrobe for Diana Rigg as she played the part of Emma Peel in The Avengers. At the end of the meal Bates said, "Let’s skip coffee and I’ll take you to meet Billy Gibb."
So off we went to Gibb’s office, just down the road from Harrods and Harvey Nichols. In a showroom dominated by a full-length mirror and vast photos of his clothes from the pages of Vogue, we drank endless cups of herbal tea, while Gibb and Bates smoked a chain of cigarettes.
Softly spoken, fair-haired and bearded, dressed in an eclectic mixture of knitwear, with baggy trousers, braces and running shoes (very unusual in those days), Gibb had an innocent, gamin quality and seemed to me to be the very antithesis of a clothes designer. I have no memory of what the Scottish farmer’s son and the Geordie pit village lad talked about that afternoon - music, probably, because rock was always blasting out and Gibb would suddenly whirl you off your feet in a wild dance.
I do remember looking at some of his absolutely fabulous frocks and feeling desperately dowdy in my skinny-rib sweater and lean trouser suit, onto which he pinned the gift of one of his enamelled bee brooches. I still have it and often think of him when I look at it.
I went back several times throughout the 1970s. Gibb wasn’t the easiest person to interview, more interested in asking me questions than answering any about himself. But when we spoke about his designs - by then owned by the likes of Bianca Jagger, Twiggy, Tessa Dahl, Joan Collins, Eartha Kitt and the Empress of Iran - he spoke animatedly and with passion.
One of his biggest fans was Elizabeth Taylor, who famously wore a Bill Gibb dress back to front on national television in order to show off two of her best features. I asked him what he thought about it. "Oh, I just laughed and laughed and laughed!" he exclaimed.
Twiggy was one of Gibb’s closest friends. She remembers him as "this sweet, sunny farm boy in baggy corduroys whom I absolutely adored", and recalls driving with him to Aberdeen in her Rolls-Royce. During their visit his mother tried to fatten her up on good home cooking.
Twiggy says she felt like a princess when dressed in Gibb’s clothes, while a real princess - Diana - was one of his most stylish clients in the early 1980s. By then Gibb had become "the party-frock man", and everyone who was anyone stepped out in his flamboyant gowns made from extravagantly decorated fabrics. Gibb would hand-paint miles of "untouched forest" on to silk (always signed, as works of art should be, with his trademark, a stylised honey "Bee"), which might then be marbled, feathered or beaded.
Nevertheless, outside the rarefied ateliers of haute couture, few know his name today. But he must not be forgotten, insists gallery keeper Christine Rew, as we examine a painted suede top reminiscent of a medieval tabard, which sits alongside a colourful pleated skirt resembling a stained-glass window. They are some of the 40 pieces on display from Tuesday at the Aberdeen Art Gallery’s exhibition, which also features family photographs, early sketches and paintings from Gibb’s schooldays, and some of his highly detailed drawings. The gallery is also launching a book to mark what would have been Gibb’s 60th birthday.
"He’s much, much more than a local boy made good," says Rew, although she acknowledges that his Scottish roots are a powerful argument for giving him a second big exhibition in just over a decade (the first was in 1990). "He was such an important figure in fashion that we should go on paying him tribute," she adds, pointing out that the gallery has the largest collection of Bill’s clothes in the world, as well as more than 2,000 of his drawings and sketches, "little works of art in themselves". The archive stretches from his childhood in Scotland to his death in 1988, when he was just 44 years old.
HOW did the son of a farmer from Aberdeenshire become one of the most fted fashion designers in the world? Even in the 1960s, when all the rules were changing, his was an unlikely background for haute couture. Born in Fraserburgh on January 23, 1943, William Elphinstone Gibb was the eldest of George and Jessie Gibb’s seven children. They all grew up on the family’s dairy farm in New Pitsligo, a world away from the perfumed excesses of London bohemia.
At Fraserburgh Academy, the gentle, sweet-natured, dreamy boy filled jotters with costume designs and drawings, some of which are on loan to the exhibition. His family remembers him "drawing all the time", copying historical costumes from books, as well as sketching original designs.
According to his three sisters, Patsy, Marlyn and Janet, he was forever raiding their gran’s dressing-up box. They loved "capering around and having fun", but 12-year-old Billy would say: "Be serious, I’m trying to create something," as he dressed the girls up like miniature Ladies of Shallot.
Gibb claimed that his creativity came from his maternal grandmother. She was a painter, particularly of landscapes, and had turned down the opportunity to go to art school in order to do her duty and work on the family farm. "But, as my grandfather put it, she always ‘dabbled about’ and that was where I first saw an artist at work and knew that that was what I wanted to do," said Gibb.
His art teacher recognised his ability and encouraged him to go to St Martin’s in London. "We knew he would never be happy on the farm," said his mother. But she remembers how, after she and his father, George, settled their son in the big city, Gibb was homesick for a long time.
London was "a great shock", he once told me. But he soon made the fashion world sit up and take notice. The top student in his year, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where the late Ossie Clark, currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was in the year above him. The two became friends.
The RCA’s legendary head of fashion, Professor Janey Ironside, championed the shy Scot and, with her approval, Gibb designed his first collection, launched in partnership with three friends in the trendy Kensington boutique Alice Paul. Success intervened before Gibb could complete his post-graduate course. While still at college, he met the American painter-turned-knitting guru Kaffe Fassett in a King’s Road club. Fassett thought Gibb looked incredible, "with his funny little elfy quality, and his accent just fascinated me. Instantly, bells went off."
The pair eventually shared a flat and started working together, coming up with several designs for the fashion company Baccarat that incorporated Fassett’s revolutionary knitting techniques in vegetable-dyed tartans and chequerboard checks. These designs were greatly influenced by the colours and patterns coming out of America’s West Coast in 1966. Their collection of tartans and jerseys, all hand-knitted and bright with pyrotechnic mixed patterns, burst like fireworks onto a fashion scene dominated by plain fabrics and austere lines.
Vogue devoted an unprecedented six pages to these newcomers, and Ernestine Carter, writing in the Sunday Times, asked: "Who is this Bill Gibb?", before proceeding to tell everyone why his was a name they should know. The designs were entered for the Yardley Awards in 1968, which led to a commission from the posh Manhattan department store Henri Bendel, for an exclusive Bill Gibb range. When he returned to London, he started working as a freelance designer for Baccarat.
Voted Vogue’s designer of the year in 1970, his work was photographed by Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Sarah Moon and Lord Snowdon. Gibb described this period of his life as "chaos". Throughout the decade, though, his working partnership and profound friendship with Fassett provided endless inspiration. In 1971, he met publicist Kate Franklin and they, too, became friends and business partners in Bill Gibb Ltd.
Gibb became, as his obituary in the Guardian put it, "one of the leading lights of the generation of young British designers whose intensely emotional feeling for opulent fabrics, rich textures and rainbow colours dominated the fashion world in the decade after the decline of the mini and the death of ’60s optimism". The inspiration for his clothes was rooted in medievalism, Celtic romance and Renaissance court dress, mated with a theatrical love of layers of contrasting textures and patterns.
Suzy Menkes, the redoubtable fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, says: "It was a look that seemed to have been flung together - which it was, originally. It was things hippies brought back from the Afghan trail and from India when The Beatles went off to see the Maharishi, but Bill somehow managed to synthesise all that into something that was very elegant and real fashion. His clothes cuddled you. He really wasn’t a sexual designer, which was strange for the 1970s when you think of Ossie Clark, say, where everything was sinuous and hugged the body. Bill’s clothes were comfortable but very beautiful."
Gibb’s revolutionary influence is still with us. If you have sparkling sequin embroidery on your Top Shop denim skirt or beads scattered on your Dorothy Perkins T-shirt, it was Gibb who first thought of adding such ornate details to everyday wear. If you sport retro ’70s layers of contrasting textures and patterns, Gibb invented that look, as well. According to Vogue’s Twentieth-Century Fashion, he was "the creator of some of the century’s most mind-blowing dresses… [His] Celtic sensibility, love of craftsmanship and extraordinary colour sense made him a star in the truest sense of the word".
You’ll see this in the design that forms the centrepiece of the Aberdeen exhibition, a ribbon-trimmed cream wool dress with a peacock-blue velvet cape lined in silk on which flights of pink birds have been painted by hand. Bill made this glorious dress for Twiggy to wear to the 1971 premire of Ken Russell’s film The Boyfriend. In it, she said, she felt as if she had "stepped out of a fairytale".
Unfortunately, the fairytale was about to take a dark and unhappy twist for Gibb. In 1977, he staged a huge retrospective fashion show in the Royal Albert Hall. It was an event unprecedented in the history of fashion and he came to see it as an act of hubris, punished the following year by financial collapse (although, realistically, the accelerating recession probably had more to do with the company’s failure than any outraged god’s revenge).
The show was stunning. The Royal Marine band played, Wayne Sleep danced and the top models and actresses of the day - including Marie Helvin and Twiggy - paraded Bill’s rich gypsy dresses, silver-painted and beaded leathers, Peruvian knits in heathery tones and brilliantly draped and beaded white jerseys, borrowed back from their owners for the night. It was an amazing spectacle, witnessed by 7,000 people.
Sadly, neither Gibb nor Kate Franklin had a head for figures. At the end of the decade, the business crashed with debts of 100,000. It was rescued, but collapsed again in 1980, with debts now totalling 400,000. Gibb was reduced to selling his designs through special offers in magazines. But he hadn’t squandered his cash. His life centred on work and friends. He had no interest in accumulating possessions; he never owned a house or a car and had to be bullied into buying a suit. "Everywhere I move I take only four things with me," he said, "two chemist’s chests, a 1930s porcelain head and my collection of bees."
Sadly, Gibb was out of sync with the macho, greedy ’80s - and he was ill. He died on January 3, 1988, three weeks before his 45th birthday. An intensely private man, he was never "out" in the public sense, living instead for his work. On Gibb’s death, his grieving family was caused immense distress by stories in some Scottish papers that alleged he had been suffering from Aids. The truth is that he died of colon cancer after a long illness. It was, however, a death foretold.
"He never ever wanted to do anything that was in the future," says Franklin. "I think he knew he had only a finite time. He said to me right at the beginning that he wasn’t going to live beyond the age of 44. He was a very, very special person. I’ll never be able to replace him. When he died, I died."
Several years ago, his family took part in a programme about Gibb for the BBC’s Ex-S documentary, The Sun King of Style, in which George said that he often wondered if his son would still be alive if he’d stayed on the farm and "that job hadn’t gone and burnt him out", to which his wife perceptively replied: "Aye, but he wouldn’t have been happy."
Another friend, the former Lady Isabella Stanhope, was 17 when she talked her way into working for Gibb in the mid-1980s. "I begged him on bended knee to give me a job, although he kept saying he couldn’t afford to employ anyone," she recalls. Now Lady Cawdor, the wife of the seventh Earl and 25th Thane of Cawdor, Colin Robert Vaughan Campbell, she eventually became a fashion stylist and design consultant.
"It makes me want to cry just thinking of Billy. He was such a lovely man, the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. He taught me so much, not just how to cut a pattern, but about life." Gibb also told Isabella that whatever she ended up doing, she would be successful. He was right. Today she runs a country retreat for upmarket holidaymakers on the Cawdor estate and has a location and production company that’s lured every celebrity photographer from Annie Leibowitz (famously, with Posh and Becks for Vanity Fair) to Mario Testino to the Highlands.
"But I don’t think I would be doing any of this if Billy hadn’t had such faith in me," she admits. "His death was so cruel. He was still a young man, with a life-enhancing talent. I’m grateful to have known him."
Bill Gibb: The Golden Boy of British Fashion, Aberdeen Art Gallery, opens on Tuesday and runs until November 15. An accompanying book, by Christine Rew, is 15. The exhibition is sponsored by Total E&P UK