Barbara Hulancki & Stephen Fitz-Simon
BIBA International Ltd
Biba was an iconic and popular London fashion store of the 1960s and 1970s. It 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 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, it had received over 4,000 orders. Ultimately, some 17,000 outfits were sold.
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.’
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 that an average girl in London could, for less than 10% of her weekly earnings, share the look of popular icons of the time such as Cathy McGowan, the 'Queen of The Mods'and presenter of Ready, Steady Go in the 60's. What was seen on TV on Friday night could now be bought on Saturday and worn that night. It made you feel special. 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 in Kensington Church Street opened in 1965 and series of a 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 heavenly mix of Art Nouveau decor and Rock and Roll decadence. It was not unusual to rub shoulders with rock stars (such a Mick and Marianne) while in the middle of a crazy mob clammering for a pair of bilberry, dusty pink, plum or damson coloured suede over the knee boots.
In 1974, 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 the city of London. There were different departments on 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. One of the most pouplar departments was a "Logo Shop" featuring merchindise adorned with the Biba logos and pin-up art, such as playing cards, match books, and coloring books. 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 situated 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 is 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 that ‘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; as a result Dorothy Perkins and Dennis Day came to save the day and bought 75% of Biba. This led to the important 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.
The Biba label had its most recent relaunch in May 2006 under designer Bella Freud. The new collection was unveilled at London Fashion Week in September 2006. A new Biba boutique is scheduled to open in London in 2008. Spring summer 08 saw a new design team for Biba and a new creative team with Hector Castro as Artistic director.
The couture hats are created by Prudence Millinery.
‘The Biba Look’ or 'Dudu Look' was ‘fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes.’ Barbara 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" - Hulanicki described them as ‘look[ing] like a funeral.’ These colours were blackish mulberries, blueberries, rusts and plums.
Biba smocks were uncomfortable and ‘itched’ and stopped women’s arms from bending - something that did not stop customers from buying the clothes, which had become 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 ‘I thought surely we couldn’t shorten them any more, but magically there were a few old inches to go’ . Although Mary Quant was 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.
Brigitte Bardot, Bianca Jagger, Raquel Welch, Twiggy, Yoko Ono, Anita Pallenberg