BIBA Fashion brand of 60s & 70s
Quote: “If you have great legs, wear fabulous tights and fabulous shoes. If you don’t, then wear boots” - Barbara Hulanicki
Biba a London fashion store of the 1960s and 70s, was started and primarily run by Barbara Hulanicki with the help of her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon. The early years were rather humble, with many of the outfits being cheap and available to the public by mail order. Biba’s postal boutique had its first success in May 1964 when it offered a pink gingham dress with a round hole in the back and a matching head scarf to readers of the Daily Mirror. The dress had celebrity appeal, as a similar dress had been worn by Brigitte Bardot. The morning after the dress was advertised it had received over 4,000 orders. Ultimately, some 17,000 outfits were sold.
The shop opened in Abingdon Road in Kensington, in September 1964. Hulanicki’s first encounter with her new customers was at 10 o’clock on the Saturday morning it opened, packed with girls trying on the same brown pinstripe dresses which were being stored in the shop because Hulanicki’s apartment was overflowing with boxes of clothes for their mail order service. Fitz-Simon went to pick up more dresses, Hulanicki went to the bathroom and when she came back the shop was packed, they had sold every dress by 11 o’clock. After the last dress had been sold, people were still lining up inside waiting for the next delivery.
The shops main appeal was if it was seen on the TV on Friday night it could now be bought on Saturday and worn that night. As the Biba styles (tight cut skinny sleeves, earthy colours) became more and more recognisable, more and more people wanted to be seen wearing them. The second store opened at 19-21 Kensington Church Street, in 1965 and a series of a mail-order catalogues followed in 1968, which allowed customers to buy Biba styles without having to come to London.
Later in 1969 when Biba moved to its first upscale store on the north side of Kensington High Street, there was a radical change in that the clothes became more expensive and the Biba styles then appeared to be designed for more sophisticated and richer young women in their '20's. The Kensington High Street store also lost the cosy boudoir look which had been so appealing to its teenage customers, and took on the more sophisticated look of the upscale Kensington/Knightsbridge designer stores.
On May 1, 1971, a bomb was set off inside the store by The Angry Brigade. They claimed responsibility for it in Communique 8, which was published in IT magazine.
In 1974, they moved to the seven-storey Derry & Toms store, and 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 and soft furnishings. Each department had its own logo or sign, which was based on the Biba logo and had a picture describing the department which were designed by Kasia Charko. Also at the new ‘Big Biba’ was ‘The Rainbow Restaurant’, which was located on the fifth floor of the department store which was destined to become a major hang-out for rock stars, but wasn’t solely the reserve of the elite. Also at the site was the Kensington Roof Gardens, which are still there today.
‘The Biba Look’ or 'Dudu Look' was ‘fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes.’ The women were mostly teenagers or twenty year old's, who wanted to have clothes that looked good on them. The employees were from the same demographic, among them at one point was a young Anna Wintour, who later became the editor of Vogue.
The Biba look consisted of what Hulanicki called ‘Auntie Colours’ - blackish mulberries, blueberries, rusts and plums. Biba smocks were uncomfortable and itchy, and stopped women’s arms from bending, but that did not stop customers from buying the clothes and they became the uniform of the era and you could always get accessories to match. Miniskirts were causing a scene of their own, every week they got shorter. Although not the first British designer to show the mini skirt, Biba was responsible for putting it on the high street and they also brought out some of the first maxi-coats.
Biba also used bright colours such as bright blues, gold and silver, flouncy chiffons with whirls of muted psychedelic colours and bright boas. Many different kinds of fabric were used including satin, crepe, chiffon, metallic and fabric that looked like soft felt. They also had dresses with sleeves that covered most of the hand with thumb holes, or with flouncy chiffon.
The Biba logo played a crucial part in Biba’s success; the logo designed by Antony Little, was gold and black which reflected the growing taste in youth for art deco. Biba never exhibited anything in shop windows, believing instead that people would be intrigued and seduced into entering the shop by their captivating store interior seen from outside.
'Big Biba' was a huge responsibility in terms of expense and organization, but Hulanicki and Fitz felt they needed to "keep moving forward." No one was aware of how serious the financial difficulties were going to be - and they proved too much for the new entrepreneurs; as a result Dorothy Perkins and Dennis Day came to the rescue and bought 75% of Biba. This led to the formation of Biba Ltd, which meant that the brand and the store could now be properly financed.
After disagreements with the Board over creative control, Hulanicki left the company and, shortly afterwards in 1975, Biba was closed by the British Land Company. The Dorothy Perkins shareholder decided that the Derry and Toms building that housed Big Biba was worth more than the ailing business itself. It sold the trademark to a consortium with no connection to Barbara Hulanicki, who opened a store in London on November 27th 1978, on two floors in Conduit Street in London's Mayfair. The store was not a success, and closed less than two years later.
There have been several attempts to relaunch Biba, the first occurring as recently after its closure as 1977. Another relaunch took place in the mid-1990s with Monica Zipper as head designer. Barbara Hulanicki was not involved with any of these relaunches. The Biba label was relaunched again in May 2006 under designer Bella Freud. Again, Barbara Hulanicki, was not contacted for the relaunch.
Freud's first collection Spring/Summer 2007 was unveiled at London Fashion Week in September 2006, and was criticised for straying from the original concept of low-priced clothes for teenagers. Freud's second attempt, Autumn/Winter 2007 was also panned and Freud left the company in June 2007 after just 2 seasons to relaunch her own label. The Biba relaunch failed and the company went into administration for a second time in 2008.
House of Fraser bought the company in November 2009 for a second relaunch by an in-house design team, announcing Daisy Lowe as the new face of the label in an attempt to return to its high street roots. This relaunch was highly successful, outselling House of Fraser's other in-house brands in just two weeks of its launch, boosting its year end sales. Hulanicki instead designed capsule collections for rival high-street company Topshop, and once again expressed her unhappiness with the relaunch, attacking the new Biba as ‘too expensive’ and ‘for failing to reflect the original Biba style’. She also signed with Asda to produce three to four collections of clothing retailing between £11 and £18.
In 2014, it was announced that Hulanicki would be a consultant to the Biba brand, after signing an agreement with House of Fraser. Barbara was awarded an OBE for Services to Fashion in the 2012 Queen’s New Year Honors.
Image 1: The former big biba building as it appears today. Image credit: Thomas Blomberg
Image 2: Kesslers' display created for Biba. Image credit: Kesslers Ltd