Biba was a London fashion store of the 1960s and 1970s. Biba was started and primarily run by the Polish-born Barbara Hulanicki with help of her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon.
Biba's 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 significant success in May 1964 when it offered a pink gingham dress with a hole cut out of the back of the neck with a matching triangular kerchief to readers of the Daily Mirror. The dress had celebrity appeal, as a similar dress had been worn by Brigitte Bardot. By the morning after the dress was advertised in the Daily Mirror, over 4.000 orders had been received. Ultimately, some 17,000 outfits were sold.
Stores and mail order services
Hulanicki worked as a fashion illustrator after studying at Brighton Art College in the late 1950s. She married advertising executive Stephen Fitz-Simon and they soon opened a mail order clothing company that she named Biba's Postal Boutique. Biba was the nickname of her younger sister Biruta.
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.
The brown pinstripe dresses were being stored in the shop because Hulanicki’s apartment was overflowing with boxes of clothes for their mail order service. Fitz-Simon dropped Hulanicki at the shop and went to pick up more dresses, Hulanicki went to the bathroom and when she came back the shop was packed. "The louder the music played the faster the girls moved and more people appeared in the shop. I had sold every dress by 11." After the last dress had been sold, people were still lining up inside waiting for the next delivery.
The shops' main appeal was what was seen on TV on Friday night could now be bought on Saturday and worn that night. As the Biba style (tight cut skinny sleeves, earthy colours) and logo became more and more recognisable, the more and more people wanted to be seen in it.
The second store at 19-21 Kensington Church Street opened in 1965 and a series of mail-order catalogues followed in 1968, which allowed customers to buy Biba style without having to come to London.
The next move, in 1969, was to Kensington High Street, into a store which previously sold carpet. Again, it was unique; a mix of Art Nouveau decor and Rock and Roll decadence. 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. The incident is also referred to in Retro - the culture of revival by Elizabeth E. Guffey (Reaktion Books, 2006).
In 1973 with the backing of Dorothy Perkins and British Land, the store moved to the seven-storey Derry & Toms department store, which 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. Each department had its own logo or sign, which was based on the Biba logo and had a picture describing the department; these were designed by Kasia Charko.
The store had an Art Deco-interior reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood and non-traditional displays, such as a giant Snoopy and his doghouse in the children's department, where merchandise based on the Peanuts comic strip was sold. The Biba Food Hall was also designed ingeniously, each part being aimed at one particular kind of product; a unit made to look like a dog (based on Hulanicki's own dog, a Great Dane named Othello) consisted of dog food; a huge baked beans tin can consisted of only tins of Baked beans; a can of "Warhol's Condensed Soup" etc., all foods having individual innovative units. Also at the new "Big Biba" was "The Rainbow Restaurant", which was located on the fifth floor of the department store and was destined to become a major hang-out for rock stars, but which was not solely the reserve of the elite. With all of these renovations and additions, Biba became known as a "theatre for fashion." Also at the site was the Kensington Roof Gardens, which are still there today.
Look and feel
"The Biba Look" or "Dudu Look" was "fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes." Hulanicki describes 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." These women were mostly teenagers or twenty-year-olds, who wanted to have clothes that looked good on them. All the Biba girls remember how women over thirty years old were considered old in the Biba store, and probably felt isolated as these girls felt in other stores. The employees were from the same demographic; among them at one point was a young Anna Wintour, later editor of Vogue.
The Biba look consisted of what Hulanicki called "Auntie Colours" - blackish mulberries, blueberries, rusts and plums. Hulanicki described them as "look[ing] like a funeral".
Regarding her designs, she stated "I didn't want to make clothes for kept women, I wanted to make clothes for people in the street, and Fitz and I always tried to get prices down, down to the bare minimum."
Biba smocks were uncomfortable and itchy, and stopped women’s arms from bending - something that did not stop customers from buying the clothes. They became the uniform of the era, with the added bonus of that whatever you bought, 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 as miniskirts were in fashion, everything needed to be associated with them. Biba also brought out some of the first maxi coats.
Biba's second store in London, the Kensington Church Street boutique, looked like an old apothecary on the outside with the wooden window frames beautifully polished. Inside it was dark with a boudoir type of atmosphere with the clothes hang up on old fashion coat racks. The clothes in the beginning were extremely affordable, a dress selling for just a few English pounds and reflected the sentiments of the fashion conscious teenagers of that era, with soft fabrics that were form fitting, very stylish in that they were not gaudy at all and were also actually extremely comfortable. The '60s teenager was not into wearing uncomfortable clothes. Gone were the days of the corset and quite often the bra. Biba did at that time use bright colours also. Bright blues, gold, silver, flouncy chiffons with whirls of muted psychedelic colours and bright boas. Many different kinds of fabric were used including satin, crepe, chiffon, metallic, a fabric that looked like soft felt (which had not been seen before). Biba also had dresses with sleeves that covered most of the hand with thumb holes, or with flouncy chiffon.
Later in 1969 when Biba moved to its first upscale store on the north side of Kensington High Street, across from where they would later open up their department store, 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 20s. The Kensington High Street store also lost the cozy boudoir look of its predecessor, which had been so appealing to its teenage customers, and took on the more sophisticated look of the upscale Kensington/Knightsbridge designer stores.
The Biba logo played a crucial part in Biba’s success; the logo was gold and black which reflected the growing taste in youth for art deco. The logo was designed by Antony Little. To create a look for Biba in the first store, Little painted the Biba sign above the shop and blacked out all the windows. The blacked out windows didn’t allow the store’s interior to receive any sunlight, which was vital for the Biba’s art nouveau atmosphere.
The Biba logo was customized in various ways to be appropriate for all the different products. Every product had the Biba logo on it. The labels showing size, color and price all resembled a similar style. Biba was the first to set a standard for brand marketing and the first high street store to create a look for itself. The logo was seen on everything: from clothes to food, to wallpaper.
Biba's layout was innovative and was set to enhance the clothes rather than just to hold them. The clothes were also displayed in an unusual manner, from the beginning hanging on coat stands. Since coat stands can not hold a lot of clothes many were needed. Fitz shopped for them all year round, so that he could secure as many as they needed in the store, while ordering hundreds more. Biba was also the first store that let customers try makeup before buying it. This started an unusual routine; women came to Biba before work with no makeup on, put it on in the store and then rushed to work.
Biba never exhibited anything in shop windows, believing instead that people would be intrigued and seduced to enter the shop by their captivating store interior seen from outside. It was not unusual for 30,000 people to pass through the doors on a Saturday. There was a BIBA store in Newcastle upon Tyne between 1973-75.
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 proved too much for the new entrepreneurs; as a result Dorothy Perkins and Dennis Day came to save the day 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 27 November 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 soon after its closure as 1977. Another relaunch took place in the mid-1990s with Monica Zipper as head designer. Barbara Hulanicki has not been involved with any of these relaunches, and due to the use of Biba's logo and similar labels, these garments are easy to pass off as original vintage pieces.
The Biba label was relaunched again in May 2006 under designer Bella Freud. Again, Biba's founder, Barbara Hulanicki, was not contacted for the relaunch and said it was 'very, very painful', believing that the new Biba would 'betray its heritage.' 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, needing 'more polish', as they 'had a Biba flavour but lacked the retro details that the original Biba designs had.' Freud's second attempt, Autumn/Winter 2007 was also panned as 'the kind of thing that's already over-available in fast-fashion chains.' Freud left the company after just 2 seasons in June 2007 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. Hector Castro and a five-strong team were selected to replace Freud with couture hats created by Prudence Millinery. 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. Meanwhile, 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.
- A musical play called "Biba: The Musical" based on the story of Hulanicki and the original company was in the works in 2009.
- "Biba dresses" were listed by Leeds alternative rock band Grammatics Grammatics Inkjet Lakes from their self-titled debut album.
- Biba's closing sale is mentioned in the lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys' track "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" (featured on the album Elysium).
- In the film Made in Dagenham (2010, set in 1968), the main character, Rita O'Grady, borrows a red Biba dress for her first meeting with Barbara Castle, only to find that the minister's outfit comes from C&A.
"The Biba Crowd" by Edward Rogers