Friday, December 10, 2010

Biba Savoir Faire on the High Street!

If you were a young hip and with it young girl in swinging London in the late 1960’s and 70’s there was only one place to shop and that was Biba. Biba was iconic to the London scene during this era. Towards the end Biba epitomised the glam art deco style that was fast becoming popular and in more ways than one helped popularise it with young hip crowd that patronised the boutique and subsequent department store. I remember my elder sister having this wonderful evening dress of emerald green jersey which came from Biba.

The brainchild of Barbara Hulanicki and husband Stephen Fitz-Simon the philosophy was simple. Provide the average girl in London with a means for where they could, for less than 10% of her weekly earnings, share the look of popular icons of the time.

‘The Biba Look’ or 'Dudu Look' was ‘fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes.’ Barbara Hulanicki described her customers as ‘postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people: a designer's dream. It didn’t take much for them to look outstanding.’

Biba's early years were rather humble, with many of the outfits being cheap and available to the public by mail order. The first store, in Abingdon Road in Kensington, was opened in September 1964.

Hulanicki’s first encounter with her new customers was at 10 o’clock on the Saturday morning it opened. "...the curtains were drawn across the window… the shop was packed with girls trying on the same brown pinstripe dress in concentrated silence. Not one asked if there were any other styles or sizes," Hulanicki remarked.

After several other stores opened in the more hip and fashionable areas of London, the final move was in 1974 to the former Derry & Toms department store on the Kensington High Street. This became affectionately known as ‘Big Biba”. The store immediately attracted up to a million customers weekly, making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. There were different departments, and each floor had its own theme, such as a children's floor, a floor for men, a book store, a food market, and a "home" floor which sold items such as wallpaper, paint, cutlery, soft furnishings and even statues.

The store had an Art Deco-interior reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood with its crowning glory being "The Rainbow Restaurant", which was located on the fifth floor of the department store and which was destined to become a major hang-out for rock stars, but which wasn’t solely the reserve of the elite. Also at the site was the Kensington Roof Gardens, which are still there today.

Big Biba was a huge responsibility in terms of expense and organization, but Hulanicki and Fitz felt they needed to "keep moving forward." Because of this massive undertaking, Hulanicki said, "Every time I went into the shop, I was afraid it would be for the last time." No one was aware of how serious the financial difficulties were going to be - and they indeed proved too much for the new entrepreneurs. After disagreements with the Board over creative control, Hulanicki left the company and, shortly afterwards in 1975, Biba was closed.

There have been several relaunches over the years including one in 2006 under designer Bella Freud which have not been a success. The latest in 2009 by the British Chain House of Fraser has been highly successful so who knows what the future may hold for this icon, that was on the lips of every young fashionista in the 60’s and 70’s?

Blog Widget by LinkWithin