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Biba – An Unforgettable 70’s Dream

October 24, 2011

After returning from a few months in Europe with my then boyfriend I answered an advertisement in London in 1973 re a job working for the iconic fashion shop Biba. I loved Biba clothes and previously had often visited the shop in High Street Kensington.
This job was to be with the Big Grand Biba across the road from the old store that I had read so much about.

Surprisingly I landed a Public Relations job in the glamorous Rainbow Room with 11 other young women, we were ambassadors for the restaurant and store – despite the fact I did not drink alcohol. This coterie of beautiful young women played host to Biba’s many customers, journalists and celebrities.

Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Fitz were the brains behind Biba. Barbara was a former art student the daughter of a Polish diplomat who designed the fabrics and clothes influenced by art noveau, art deco and kitsch. Fitz was from the advertising world and a marvelous marketing man – they both knew how to sell a dream.

Biba opened at the beautiful old Art Deco Derry and Toms building in High Street Kensington in September 1973. My parents saw the opening and me on the BBC TV news footage. Big Biba became known as“the most beautiful shop in the world” – a 400 squared, dimly lit, glamorous, fantasy world that had 1 million visitors a week. It had the worst reputation for service in the world – this vast army of shop girls with their specially designed 30’s clothes, raccoon eyes, black lipstick and matching nail polish became femme fatale vamps that luxuriated in their reputation for poor service – a tourist attraction in themselves.

The clothes were incredibly romantic, sensual made in marvelous colours, like aubergine, prune, sage, sepia, chocolate brown, plums, rusts, soft pinks that looked superb in the gray London light and were amazingly reasonably priced. That’s when I really fell in love with hats – fabulous 20s and 30s inspired art noveau floppy felt hats that looked like something Lauren Bacall would have worn in Key Largo.

Biba was a vast seven storied emporium that sold not only accessible fashion for women and men but furniture, cosmetics, it had a fabulous food hall that sold pet food and baked beans in glamorous black tins with the distinctive gold and black Biba logo – it even had a mistress room to feed men’s flights of fancy and divine children’s clothing with nannies that read books to the children while their parents shopped. You could buy bright purple and lavender nappies. The gracious roof top garden had real peacocks and flamingos. Biba sold a lifestyle before anyone knew what that meant.

The soundtrack for Big Biba was a mixture of Swing, Cole Porter and Roxy music. The store was styled like a grand Hollywood musical from the 30s or 40s. A great escape for many Londoners from the power cuts and the repressive three day working week of the early seventies.

The Rainbow Room, 1930s styled restaurant and cocktail bar on the fifth floor with its pink marbled floors, black lacquered furniture and the distinctive black and gold crockery was the heart of Biba. The restaurant was like a giant glamorous ocean liner dining room and at night was a leading night club where you could sip cocktails while listening to the Manhatten Transfer or The New York Dolls. It even had a vegetarian menu – unheard of at the time.

We were all dressed very glamorously in Biba clothes. We morphed into screen goddesses from the 30s and 40s wearing peach satin suits a la Marlene Dietrich to simple bias cut evening gowns similar to Tamara de Lempicka paintings. We had our hair done by the best hairdresser in London and regular manicures and pedicures.

I was the shortest at 5ft 4 so I wore 5 inch Biba platform shoes that didn’t show under the glamorous evening clothes. I seem to remember that we had three different new outfits a week. Amongst the glitteratti was the singer Donovan who thought the stage in he Rainbow Room was “too pink” for his performance. Even Bill Haley played there.

Biba was a Mecca for the beautiful people in London .London was then the centre of the world in the early 70s, visited by the current pop aristocracy, film stars, actors and actresses from all over the world. I remember the very beautiful Julie Christie, Susan Hampshire and the outrageous theatre critic – Kenneth Tynan.

But the dream was not too last. The store tragically died in 1975 – the 1970s recession coupled with idealistic business practices , subsidized clothing for staff, subsidized staff restaurant – we would eat the same food as the glamorous Rainbow Room restaurant. But what put the final nail in the coffin of Biba was British Land purchasing the store with no concept of what Barbara and Fitz dreams were all about – that really killed Biba.

I still have some of the Biba clothes from 1973. A fake ocelot 40s inspired jacket that I wear often in winter, a size 7 denim and fake fur jacket – the very faded Biba flared jeans that went with the jacket. I have somehow lost the denim and fake fur hat that went with the whole outfit (I felt like a Russian princess when I wore this). I still have one evening dress and some wonderful tan and brown platform shoes. Mostly Biba fashion was made for the young, slim, coltish women like Jean Shrimpton – women with tiny shoulders and slender, slender legs – its amazing that I can still get into it. What I remember most is the energy, humour , wit, beauty and elegance of Biba.

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