There was a time when fashion was fun. Great fun. A time before the conglomerates turned fashion into the enormous global business of now, and before the carousel of pre-collections, cruise collections, ready-to-wear collections, and micro-collections became an exhausting treadmill for designers. And nothing was more fun than Biba.
Named after the Polish designer Barbara Hulanicki’s little sister, Biba was one of the world’s most successful brands in the 60s and 70s. But nobody would ever consider it anything as dreary as a brand. Biba was a happening, a mood, a way of life. Damson lipstick and palm fronds, aubergine tights and leopard-print sofas, lacquered-wood counters and glowing globes of light—Biba was a supernova smashing into the dreary London of the time.
To understand the phenomenon that was Biba you have to picture the fashion world of London before it appeared. At the tag end of the 50s and the early half of the 60s, young women all wanted to look older than their years. “Young fashion” didn’t exist; every girl’s aspiration was to appear grown-up. The template was a tight pencil skirt and tiny twinset or a fitted sheath of a cocktail dress worn over a roll-on girdle and a substantial bra to crunch you into an hourglass figure.
Although World War II had ended many years before, Britain was still affected by postwar austerity, only slowly fumbling its way back from the darkness. The idea that in a few years London would be the glamorous, creative hub of art, theater, film, and fashion that it became in the second half of the 60s seemed utterly unimaginable.
The novelist Angela Carter once wrote an essay for British Vogue that claimed that fashion turns on the hinge of the decade. It was around 1964 when, wham, it all changed. For the first time in 13 years, a Labor government came to power, replacing a Conservative Party torn apart by an injured economy and a succession of scandals. (Sound familiar?) The baby-boomers were starting to wield their influence. And with them came a new hopeful spirit, and the first breath of Biba.
Biba was the result of the partnership between Barbara Hulanicki, a fashion illustrator with a sharp blond bob (and a sharp eye for fashion) and her future husband, a canny advertising executive known as Fitz (Stephen Fitz-Simon). Hulanicki was bored with copying the formal designs from the couture houses of Paris—Dior, Schiaparelli, and Balenciaga—for magazines like Vogue and the daily newspapers. So she started to sketch her own creations. And Fitz had the entrepreneurial and marketing savvy to turn Hulanicki’s imaginings—young women with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, and slim torsos—into an empire.
“We were quite old,” recalls Hulanicki. “We were 24 and everyone else was 15 when Fitz said, ‘You have to do mail order.’” And so it was that Biba’s Postal Boutique, a catalogue business, was born in 1964. A few months later, Felicity Green, the fashion editor of the Daily Mirror, asked them to create a pink gingham dress that would be advertised in the newspaper. It was less expensive than anything they had sold before, but the orders flew in and the fabric ran out. That exercise convinced Fitz that cheap and fast was the way to go, in direct opposition to what the new, expensive boutiques like Mary Quant were doing.
The first Biba shop, which opened in September 1964, took over a tiny old pharmacy in the distinctly unfashionable area of Kensington. “I think there should be a plaque on 87 Abingdon Road,” wrote Twiggy in her memoir, Twiggy in Black and White. “Biba transformed the way the ordinary girl in the street dressed.”
The store’s strikingly different exterior was dominated by dim lighting, dark woodwork, painted screens, Art Nouveau–esque mirrors, and secondhand furniture. “We couldn’t afford anything else,” says Hulanicki. But it all worked, and the boutique became the template for Biba’s expansion. For the next decade, it left its footprint across the neighborhood, each store more magnificent than the last.
In no time at all, the couple had outgrown Abingdon Road and moved to the pricier end of Kensington, onto Kensington Church Street, which led up to Notting Hill. “Fitz was amazing at finding premises,” says Hulanicki. “He found this old shop that was full of food, but Victorian, with incredible woodwork. The owner was a criminologist, and he looked at Fitz’s head and said, ‘Yes, I can see your head is all right, but I have to see your wife’s head.’ This was so stupid, but I trotted up there.”
Hulanicki and Fitz both understood that shopping should, and could, be entertainment. The discs were spun by the house D.J., and its communal changing rooms were a scene, where the newly bra-less girls all egged one another on to buy. One day, that group included Barbra Streisand. “The girls would change behind screens, and put the clothes over the screens, which would topple over,” remembers Hulanicki with a throaty laugh.
Biba was a nonstop ogle-fest, with the all-important sofa as a focal point. Some boys came with their girlfriends, but others came solo, in search of the next one. One member of the Rolling Stones—Hulanicki can’t recall which—even camped out in a prime viewing area to spot shoppers in states of undress.
Hulanicki and Fitz both understood that shopping should, and could, be entertainment.
At Biba, the girl-next-door typist could mix with a member of the Stones. Hulanicki remembers Ike and Tina Turner arriving as Mick Jagger hovered behind Fitz, who was counting the cash in the tills. “The girls who worked there became so snobby—they never told you when somebody famous came in,” she says. “I would have to say, ‘Who’s been in? Who’s been in?’ and they would say, ‘Look over there at that awful old man. He’s asking everybody out for dinner.’ It was Marcello Mastroianni.”
To the envy of many of today’s retailers, Biba managed to achieve the holy grail of commercial growth, well-priced clothes, and an unrivaled must-have status. It didn’t matter that we were all wearing the same striped T-shirt, plum-colored suede boots, and floppy hat. That was the point. There could never be too much Biba.
Amazingly, its desirability among sophisticated fashion editors, rock stars, and models wasn’t dented by its ubiquity among teenage schoolgirls like myself. We spent Saturdays painting our nails chocolate in the shop on Kensington High Street, carrying our Biba notebooks with black-and-gold Art Nouveau typography. During one morning assembly at my private school, a policeman was brought onto the hall stage to address the pupils, many of us with Biba’s narrow silk scarves that we couldn’t afford slung around our necks. There had been an epidemic of shoplifting at Biba, he said, and it had been noticed that St. Paul’s girls were frequently responsible. The officer assured us that he and his colleagues would be taking a dim view of any subsequent forays.
By achieving critical mass, Biba brought a democratic appeal to London fashion. The city’s shopping epicenter, the King’s Road in Chelsea, was heavy on aristo-boho shops such as Nigel Waymouth and Granny Takes a Trip, John Pearce’s magnetically cool hangout. (In its stoned heyday, one young writer who tried to strike up a conversation while shopping there was informed, “Conversation’s dead, man.”)
By contrast, Biba had a refreshing accessibility and lively buzz. “The Kings Road scene was more about whether you had the right attitude and, you know, smoked the right dope. It wasn’t a class thing but a creative thing,” says Edina Ronay, the fashion designer and onetime actress. “In Biba you saw all the dolly birds who looked fantastic, but they were just … different.”
Biba was a Pied Piper, and Kensington became the new fashion hub. Boutiques like Bus Stop and Mr. Freedom opened alongside the patchouli-infused Kensington Market, located almost opposite Princess Margaret’s home in Kensington Palace.
By the 70s, Hulanicki had morphed her miniskirted doll into a more sensual vamp. Collections of midi dresses, feathered and veiled hats, and bias-cut satin negligee evening dresses adopted the glamour of Old Hollywood. The muted, dark shades of mulberry, plum, and mustard broke from the Pop-art colors and monochrome look of the 60s.
As that decade arrived, so did a cache of exotic, exclusive, extravagant designers who merged a free-spirited hippie vibe with a lush, expensive allure. Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes, Thea Porter, Bill Gibb—London fashion wasn’t just on the map. It was the only place to be.
In 1973, Hulanicki and Fitz opened Big Biba in the seven-story building on Kensington High Street that was formerly Derry & Toms department store. It had a shimmering Rainbow Room restaurant and concert space, and its shop windows were filled with customers posing on sofas instead of merchandise. Even the Food Hall was stuffed with Biba-branded products, from canned food to washing powder. A vast model of Othello, Barbara’s Great Dane (whose bowl was filled with Biba dog food), presided over the scene.
You could arrive in the morning, paint your face in the makeup hall on the ground floor, and then sprawl out on the vast sofa in the Mistress Room, where the lingerie was sold. The concept store of today, found in every town from Mykonos to Sag Harbor, is a distant cousin of that original Biba. Just by walking through the doors, you became part of the glam-rock aesthetic that spawned The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lou Reed’s Transformer album, every slinky siren on every Roxy Music album cover, and Bowie’s, well, everything. It was a delicious world of sensuality and style, where you could spend all day—and most of the evening too.
And then it ended. Just like that, Shangri-la came crashing down, unable to survive the realities of commercial rental realities and the gloomy recession that gave Britain a three-day workweek and punk. Biba disappeared. But the world Barbara and Fitz created has never been forgotten.
Alexandra Shulman, the longest-serving editor of British Vogue, is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday and the author of the memoir Clothes … and Other Things That Matter