Biba is frequently mentioned in the same giddy breath as mini-skirts, Mini cars, the Kings Road, the pill and various other London ‘happenings’ which shall forever define the 1960’s as a decade that swung. It was, however, born of humble origins – garments were initially sold cheaply and to many, by mail order in newspapers. But by the early 1970’s, Biba – a labour of love, a label, a lifestyle – had reached hitherto unknown heights of sophistication, innovation and retail experimentation, via its legendary Big Biba emporium on Kensington High Street (once hailed in the Sunday Times as ‘the most beautiful store in the world’). Biba makes for a true rags to riches story.
She was uprooted from her home and moved in with her rich eccentric aunt in London. After leaving Art School she became a very talented in demand Fashion Illustrator, her work was featured in publications like Homes and Gardens, The Times, Daily Express and Vogue, and she got to sketch the frocks at Givenchy and Balenciaga’s couture shows in Paris.
1961, Hulanicki married Fitz-Simon, and several years later he suggested she design a garment to sell by mail order. Biba’s Postal Boutique was duly formed and her long evening skirts with draw-string waists sold “ok” in the Daily Express. Other garments followed, with varying degrees of success, that was until Felicity Green, Fashion Editor of the Daily Mirror, proposed Hulanicki’s design something for a reader’s offer. The resulting pink gingham dress sold through the paper for 25 shillings, and immediately netted £14,000-worth of orders. And so began Biba, despite the business still being run ramshackle-style from the couple’s flat. The fashion-influential likes of Ready Steady Go presenter Cathy McGowan, the ‘Queen of the Mods’, became a huge Biba fan, typifying the sort of young, liberated woman to whom the label appealed. Next came the very first in a series of Biba shops – a near-derelict former chemist on Abingdon Road, Kensington. Here, Hulanicki artfully went against the plastic-fantastic ‘youth’ ethos of the decade – retaining all the dilapidated, faded character of the premises, and kitting out the interior with navy blue paint, old bronze lamps and an antique Dutch wardrobe. (Her instinctive knack for mixing the best of the past with the shock of the new would prevail through Biba’s progression – some three decades before ‘eclectic’ became a tired aesthetic cliché.) For the first year of the shop’s existence, there was not even a sign over the door – word of mouth making ‘hard sell’ irrelevant. In terms of the Biba palette, again, in high fashion terms, convention was flouted: Colours were often funeral-like – blackish browns, dark prunes, plus rust and blueberry hues.
Business boomed. The shop shop eventually became too small for the hordes of customers – who often included celebrities such as fashion editor Molly Parkin, popstrels Sonny and Cher, actress Julie Christie and model Twiggy among their ranks. Hulanicki observed: ‘All classes mingled under the creaking roof [of the shop]. There was no social distinction. Their common denominator was youth and rebellion against the establishment.’ America lapped up this pulpable buzz, and the UK rag trade began to take note, too. In 1965 a new space was found – a former grocery on Kensington High Street. Again, a radical interior was created: Art Nouveau squiggles, painted in gold by fabric designer Tony Little, marked a new Biba store front sign; inside was lined with specially printed deep red wallpaper; the original grocer’s mahogany shelves and counters were retained. Again, the shop was a thundering success – customers would queue and jostle before it had even opened each day, and could expect to see the likes of Yoko Ono, Brigitte Bardot, Mia Farrow or Barbara Streisand trying on togs alongside them.
Restless to expand their business, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon found a much larger vacant building on Kensington High Street in 1969 – formerly a carpet warehouse. Initially, it seemed they had bitten off more than they could chew, (despite at the time making around £10,000 per week) and extra finances were needed urgently. Their bank and Dorothy Perkins provided extra investment, for a large stake in the company, and the project got the go ahead. The building’s non-lovely fixtures were stripped back to the original Egyptian-topped columns and marbled floors; stained glass and wood panelling was appropriated from a nearby school being demolished; clothes were draped over old hatstands, lit by fringed lampshades; a heavily cushioned area below the stairs would play host to stoned hippies and the occasional tramp. Biba was no longer just about glad rags for girly gadabouts, either. In addition to the new cosmetics range (which would in its own right become de rigeur around the world) plus shoes and boots, there were now household products (everything from Biba wallpaper to Biba baked beans and Biba soapflakes), and mens/childrenswear was also on offer. The finished result was more glamorous, more decadent, than any other store in the city. On its opening day in 1969 – as the loudest, latest sounds pumped from the stereo – the Daily Mail counted 30,000 customers scurrying across the threshold. The store grew in popularity, not to mention notoriety: some of the female staff forming trade unions to protest at perceived unfair working conditions, and anarchist group the Angry Brigade blowing up a bomb there – to protest at women being enslaved to fashion.
Hulanicki felt that Biba could become an even bigger phenomena still. She obsessed over the 400,000 square foot, Art Deco Derry and Tom’s department store on Kensington High Street. It had long since faded from glory, but was still complete with its romantic rooftop garden (today, this is still in existence and utilised for dining, private parties and promotional events, such as album launches). Following many complex financial twists, turns and near misses, and with the involvement of the Fraser group and Dorothy Perkins, they secured the building for £3.9 million. Literally hundreds of
builders duly prepared the space – working to a budget of £1 million – and toiling around the clock for months on end. The former Biba store can, in hindsight, be seen as a dress rehearsal for this ultra-bold venture: Big Biba – the first new department store in the Capital since the second world war. Though it was not so much a mere department store as a kind of spectacular fantasy-land shopping/eating/drinking/hanging out/rooftop garden-perching experience. One entire floor was named the Casbah – filled with Moroccan and Turkish-influenced splendour; there was a Biba food hall; anyone could sit in the windows – traditional displays were banished (which would be deemed commercial suicide in this day and age); penguins and pink flamingos lived on the roof; the Rainbow Room restaurant and concert hall – with its pink marbled floors – served 1,500 meals a day on exquisite black china. Performers whom appeared there ranged from the New York Dolls to The Wombles, from Liberace to The Bay City Rollers, with artist Andrew Logan hosting oppulent fancy dress parties, still talked about to this day.
Alas, the dream could not last. Biba’s business partners sold out their large stakes in the company to the British Land organisation, who totally failed to appreciate the intuitive and lucrative methods employed by the twosome. Gradually they were eased out – ultimately over-ruled and derided by the men in suits. Tacky mannequins, cheap signs and harsh fluorescent lighting replaced the lush, dark 1930’s ambience of the store, and heralded the end of its glory days. It had become scruffy and sad. Their spirit broken, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon quit on 1975, and moved to Brazil. The store closed down shortly afterwards. Following the death of her husband, Hulanicki – now based in the Art Deco heaven of Miami – has since carved out a new career, renovating the prestigious South Beach hotels like The Marlin.
So, as hippy-esque chic once again ventures to fashion’s front-line, and the new London boutiques are springing up – which fuse ‘old-fashioned’ elements (antique fixtures, pieces of vintage clothing), alongside upfront garb from the most influential young designers, it is easy to spot the legacy of Biba living on. But what is it, specifically, about the label that captures people’s hearts? Nostalgia plays a part, obviously. Hulanicki believes: ‘It became a meeting place. Years later I had letters from people who met at Biba, spent their courtship in Biba on Saturdays, married, had babies and wrapped them in Biba purple nappies.’ But for those not old enough to remember the Biba experience first hand, it also holds an enduring fascination for its ambition, its accessibility, the impossible grandeur of the Big Biba store and so on. Berlin-born Pari is a London-based collector, who now owns the largest collection of original Biba clothing and merchandise. She explains: “When I first started collecting Biba, I began to advertise and people would call me up – not just wanting to sell, but just wanting to talk about it, to tell me stories about the store. It was a whole lifestyle to people then. And you have to remember that, price-wise, Biba meant that you could buy a whole outfit and accessories for the same prices as one Mary Quant garment. Before Biba, fashion was all very haute couture – it changed all that.” Pari is determined to sell her entire collection en masse to a museum rather than see it split up, and has recently launched her own website which documents the myriad items she owns, along with an archive of press coverage.