Bill Gibb, a forgotten fashion hero from the Scottish Highlands, incarnated the romantic essence of British style – according to John Galliano. “British designers are storytellers, dreamers, and I think this was really the essence of Bill Gibb”.
With the encouragement of his grandmother, a landscape painter, Gibb moved from dressing up his sisters with bedcovers and curtains to the Central Saint Martin’s school in London and ultimately to the Royal College of Art. His fellow fashion students were Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes, who shared an unbridled vision of “fabulosity.”
His story could be played in London like a broken record: a designer comes from nowhere (or, in his case, from a farming family in the far north of the British Isles), becomes famous and feted, dresses high society and rockers, loses his backer and goes bust. Fade out of this familiar film without a happy ending…
Born near New Pitsligo, a small village in Aberdeenshire in Scotland Gibb went to school in nearby Fraserburgh. His teachers at Fraserburgh Academy encouraged him to go to art school in London, and so, in 1962, Gibb went to Saint Martin’s School of Art. After graduating top of his class, Gibb was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, but before completing his degree, he left to start up in business.
In 1967 Gibb was one of six young designers invited to present their designs in New York, which led to a three-month research tour of the United States with his then boyfriend, the artist and textile designer Kaffe Fassett, who would remain a very close friend and design collaborator. On his return to London, Gibb and a group of friends had co-founded the Alice Paul boutique, for which Gibb designed typically late 1960s outfits of miniskirts and long coats, whilst his friends handled the marketing and manufacture. Between 1969–1972, as a freelance designer, Gibb designed for the London fashion house Baccarat. In 1972 Gibb launched his own company, Bill Gibb Fashion Group, which ran until 1988, and in 1975 he opened his first shop in London, on Bond Street.
Beatrix Miller of Vogue selected one of Gibb’s designs for Baccarat, a pleated tartan skirt and printed blouse worn with a Kaffe Fassett knitted waistcoat, as the 1970 Dress of the Year. Gibb’s design was described as the epitome of the new emerging trend for romantic eclecticism in British fashion design, as well as demonstrating how traditional handicrafts, such as hand-knits, were becoming acceptable for mainstream fashion. That same year, Harrods opened a dedicated area for Gibb’s designs, calling it the “Bill Gibb Room”, and the model Twiggy approached Gibb to create several historically-inspired dresses for her. She wore a “Renaissance” evening dress featuring printed textiles based on 1520s Hans Holbein drawings to the Daily Mirror’s Fashion Celebrity Dinner in 1970. Another gown made from various patterned textiles that Twiggy wore to the 1971 film première of The Boy Friend drew a great deal of media attention.
Twiggy called Bill Gibb “my knight in shining armor”.
Gibb presented his first collection under his own name in 1972. His fantastical creations were based on nature, with unexpected combinations of fur, feathers, printed leather, and brightly coloured clinging fabrics. His output during those days was of such a consistently high standard, it verged on couture. He was probably best known for his evening gowns, fabulous concoctions in floaty and exotic fabrics embellished with appliqués or heavily embroidered nets and lace, silks, brocades, and chiffon panels. However, his most important work was in knitwear, co-designed with Kaffe Fasset and hand-knitted by Mildred Bolton. Due to massive demand, Gibb found a manufacturer in Leicestershire who was willing to take on the challenge of machine-knitting Fassett’s extraordinarily complicated, multi-coloured woollen designs, although Bolton continued to hand-knit one-off designs. During the 1970s, Gibb did take on other design commissions, including creating a range of shoe designs for the high-end shoe manufacturer Rayne. Later, in the 1980s, Gibb collaborated with another Leicestershire manufacturer, Annette Carol, to produce acrylic knitwear using a jacquard technique.
Bill Gibb & Kaffe Fassett knitwear
Throughout most of the 1970s Gibb ran a small wholesale business, but was forced into liquidation. A brief period of financial support followed, but it is doubtful whether he enjoyed the restrictions and deadlines implicit in such an arrangement. The mid-1980s saw a brief recovery and, with a renewed collaboration with the knitwear designer Kaffe Fassett, Gibb showed a collection at the London Fashion Week in 1985 , called “Bronze Age”, featuring hats by Stephen Jones. His clothing was roundly applauded, with critics dubbing him the “master of the decorative,” praising his “simply cut, richly colored knitted suits and throws,” and what was characterized as his “fairytale exercises in the baroque, the beaded, and the burnished.” Alas it did not attract buyers.
Gibb was described as “one of the most gentle, kindly and considerate human beings I have ever met” and a “man without malice” by the journalist Jack Webster. Twiggy described him as her “knight in shining armour”, and as a “sweet, sunny farm boy in baggy corduroys whom I absolutely adored”.
Gibb will best be remembered for his flights of fancy, and his unique contribution to 20th-century fashion. As Vogue said in 1962, in a feature called “Fresh Air in the Rag Trade,” for “the first time the young people who work in the rag trade are making clothes which are relevant to the way they live…ours is the first generation that can express itself on its own terms.” Bill Gibb was very much a product of his time, a free spirit. He died at the very young age of 44, in January 1988, from bowel cancer.
Bill Gibb, Fashion and Fantasy
Crowned ‘Designer of the Year’ by Vogue in 1970, Bill Gibb (1943-1988), barely out of college two years and yet to launch his eponymous line, was to become a major name in fashion history. Gibb’s career was prolific, and truly visionary at its finest, but sadly short-lived. His legacy, continued relevance and importance as a designer is apparent today in the work of designers from Giles Deacon to John Galliano. Famous for his love of romance, soaring flights of fancy and devil-may-care dynamic, Gibb’s wildly eccentric combinations of checks, tartans, stripes, floral prints and Fair Isle Knits had never been seen before. This stunning book explores Gibb’s background, long-time fascination with historical imagery and the themes that inspired his designs.
Victoria & Albert Museum