Oh Biba, how I loved you

Biba-logo 2

It was late in 1974. My then boyfriend was to attend a course in London and wondered if I’d like to go along for the ride.  Since I had only ever been to London on a school trip I jumped at the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. Quite early in the day I found myself on Kensington High Street and came across the iconic Biba department store. That was it, I got no further. The spectacular blend of modern, Art Nouveau and Art Deco with a nod to Pre-Raphaelite and shades of the Moroccan souk for good measure, drew me in.  The Hollywood-style surroundings, the like of which I had only ever seen in films, were awesome, lavish, unique; I could go on …and on. It was love at first sight and there I stayed for the rest of the day.

Biba B

The brainchild of Polish born fashion designer Barbara Hulaniki, Biba had already been in existence for some years when the old Derry & Toms seven storey  department store on Kensington High Street became available and, in September 1973, Biba moved in.

‘No-one could fail to be stunned by the sheer scope of the enterprise’ reported the Evening Standard at the time. ‘You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped inside a dream machine.’

‘Like stepping in of the cold reality of the street into fairyland’ said The New Yorker.

Biba 3

Reputed to attract hundreds of thousands of customers a week, the newly located store offered a bewildering choice of clothing, shoes, makeup, house ware, toys, and even groceries which were displayed on the likes of massive baked bean and sardine tins (the latter complete with enormous key), much of the food packaging sporting  the store’s logo. Biba was intended as more than a shop – it was sold as a lifestyle. The true Biba devotee even used its branded washing powder. As Alistair Best in Design Magazine said at the time. ‘shopping is almost a fringe activity’.

BIBA C

Everything was larger than life from the over-sized hat stands used to display all manner of fripperies to the magnificently proportioned black and gold mirrored make up counters artfully displaying thousands of tiny pots and palettes. A giant record player, enormous Snoopy doghouse, huge toadstools in the cafe which also boasted a castle and moat, all added to the feeling of being part of a film set. The fantasy was even more evident as I ventured onto the fifth floor and peeped into the Rainbow Room. Reconstructed as a 1930s palm-court style restaurant, resplendent with mirrored walls, it had a lasting impact and remains steadfastly a style of decor for which I have great affection. Having discovered the sixth floor tea rooms and roof gardens  (rather less intimidating for an unaccompanied teenager) I remember sitting for a while with refreshment, but I have no idea what I chose. I think it was here that I discovered the delight of people watching, something I still enjoy greatly.

Back on the ground floor I could hardly wait to spend my hard-earned Saturday shop girl wages on those tiny pots of make up and perfumed oils in their distinctive Deco-style glass bottles. They lived on my dressing table long after the contents had been used.

biba perfume pots

I vowed there and then to return with enough money to buy some of the Biba fashions and, most importantly, a pair of the amazing suede boots. I went home and I began to save. I worked extra hours all through the school holidays and watched  my savings grow. Some time late in 1975 I returned to London, so full of excitement, you cannot imagine.  I was seventeen when I first encountered Biba, impressionable, headstrong and determined to develop a style distinct from that of many of my peers. I wanted that ‘Biba lifestyle’. The disappointment was crushing – Biba had closed.  It’s demise is well documented in the book The Biba Experience but in a nutshell, a combination of financial reasons and board disagreements sounded the death-knell and despite attempts to re-launch, it was over.

Biba, in it’s glorious final form, was so short lived and I feel privileged to have experienced it, to have been there at the right time. The brand name was eventually bought by House of Frazer in 2009 and is still trading though Ms.  Hulaniki criticises it for not reflecting the original style of Biba.

Quotes and background information taken from The Biba Experience Alwyn Turner

 

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “Oh Biba, how I loved you

  1. I had a lovely Biba dress. Black, short with silver collar and cuffs. I bought it one Xmas and wore it to death. Well worth the money cost, which I can”t remember now. But i have never forgotten the dress.

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    1. How lovely. sadly I never got a Biba dress but I think we all had a dress like that, Wendy – one we wore to death and never forgotten. Mine was black crushed velvet, bought when I was about 18 and, because it was a ‘smock’ dress, I even wore it when I was expecting the boys. Happy memories.

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  2. I had a lovely Biba dress. Black, short with silver collar and cuffs. I bought it one Xmas and wore it to death. Well worth the money it cost, which I can”t remember now. But i have never forgotten the dress.

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  3. I never made it to Biba. I was already married by the time of your visit and a trip to London was a step to far, finances all focused on a mortgage and keeping a roof over our heads. By then we had two small children, too.
    But … I have a black carrier bag with the Biba logo. I found it in my late mother’s belongings when she died and can only assume, as she certainly never visited Biba, that someone gave it to her. I hope you eventually bought some lovely boots – my 1973 boots were by Bally and were tomato red suede to the knees and I wrote them with a lovely jersey suit in grey, I thought I was the cat’s pyjamas!
    Margaret P

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    1. Isn’t it interesting how, years later, we all still remember specific items of clothing/footwear that were treasured. red suede boots sound beautiful; I had some red leather ones with a small platform but whether they were in place of the longed-for suede ones, I don’t recall. The carrier bags were fabulous (we really did get excited over such things) and are probably collectors items now. Yes, I can identify with the small children and tight finances situation – I suspect that most of us can; there was little left over for extras. I love the fact that this post has generated such memories.

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  4. We had a Biba make-up counter in Van Allen in Wolverhampton when I was a teenager and my first excited purchase was a pot of lovely metallic teal eyeshadow, it seemed very exotic. Last year I treated myself to a lovely Biba beachtowel for a holiday to Lanzarote! still love the logo, timeless

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    1. A timeless logo indeed, Janey – I still love it too. It did all seem terribly exotic. I’d no idea that the cosmetic line was available in Van Allen, but I do remember that we had a Van Allen in town too. I bought a lovely blue and cream summer dress which had bell shaped sleeves. Happy memories.

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  5. I was already in Australia by that time and we heard all about the rise and fall of Biba. It’s a shame you couldn’t get the boots you had dreamed of – hopefully you haven’t compared any further boots you’ve bought over the years with the ones that ‘weren’t to be’ 😊

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    1. Haha, I loved, and still love boots, but I’ve never had suede ones (apart from some short ones). The ones I so wanted were a pale tan with a platform sole. I’d probably think they looked awful if I saw them now but it’s a nice memory.

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  6. Hello! Your post brought back such happy memories. I was a student in London in 1973 and lucky enough to work in Biba during my Christmas holidays. Our uniform was a black & gold Biba t-shirt with black trousers. It was a wonderful experience, although not quite as glamourous behind the scenes! I don’t like the current Biba brand which, in my opinion, is far removed from the original. In more recent times, I went to an exhibition, in Brighton, dedicated to Barbara Hulaniki. It was wonderful!

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    1. Wow, how wonderful to have actually worked there, and such an interesting experience (though I can understand that behind the scenes was a different story – isn’t it always?). I’m sure the exhibition would have been great . I went to a Manolo Blahnik one some years ago. It was brillaint but I so wanted to try on all the shoes! Many thanks for your fab response.

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  7. Your post bought back some fab memories. I lived in Queensgate Terrace (ten mins walk max from Biba) from December 1974 till 1976 and loved Biba. It was Biba and Laura Ashley for me in those days. I remember some amazing red sandals I purchased – and had virtually no money left for the next 2 weeks as I was paid bi-weekly and bought them on a payday. such an amazing concept….thanks for reminding me!

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    1. How wonderful to be so close to all those fabulous shops! I’d hate to live anywhere so busy now but I’d have thought it was great then. I remember a similar story regarding some beautiful red shoes and I have loved red footwear ever since!

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