Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Sixties Boutiques #1 - BIBA: From Postal Boutique to Big Biba and Big Business!

(This article was original published on Atom Retro's Mod Clothing Chronicles).

Our new Sixties Boutiques blog series will take a look into the roles of key players within the Sixties fashion industry, celebrating their inspiring stories and innovative ideas. Kicking off with the tale of Barbara Hulanicki's and Stephen Fitz-Simons famous BIBA store.

From Art College to freelance fashion illustrator to mail order innovator to boutique proprietor. A whirlwind exploration of Barbara Hulinicki's BIBA.

There's always been a certain propensity for the avid fashion connoisseur to acquire designs that their beloved icons so gracefully adorn. Biba's Postal Boutique was the first instance of Barbara Hulanicki pursuing avenues that explored the desirability of the 'As worn by' celebrity culture. The ability to affordably design and dress fashion fans in styles akin to icons such as Bardot was to prove a lucrative career choice. BIBA's Postal Boutique unleashed a suitably chic Retro gingham dress to the Sixties scenesters via an advert in the Daily Mail (May 1964). In less than one day the response was emphatic, with four thousand orders taken and the total eventually reaching a staggering seventeen thousand. Fast forward less than 4 months and BIBA's first store was all set to open. A haven for Mod Girls with boundless Retro wares, Mod Clothing and raving sounds!

Biba's original Pink Gingham Dress
Barbara Hulanicki was always keen on developing Mod silhouettes into a more three dimensional style. She pictured her happy clients looking just like the designs she had originally drawn...Extravagant, decadent and the place to be, The first BIBA store opened in Kensington in September, 1964. A walk in cat-walk with Retro, Art Deco influences and lavish scenes, BIBA set out to be style, substance and a hip hangout. A beacon of celebrity couture and Mod chic styles, BIBA's reputation rapidly grew. A rock and roll and celebrity haunt, the BIBA interior was a stage, complete with it's own wardrobe designer, a plethora of willing performers and artistes as well as a confident crowd of affluent, young clientele. Delightful Mod clothing in clever and innovative colour palettes set against a backdrop of Victorian furniture and Retro antiques caused a stir amongst the customer base of mainly women under the age of 25.

Clever marketing campaigns saw clothes draped on hat stands or period furniture and accessories neatly displayed in bowls. The frenzy for the latest BIBA designs was immense and the shop would be over-run by eager customers. BIBA witnessed unequivocal growth from an entirely unwitting viral marketing campaign that saw brand recognition surge through unbridled word of mouth, after all even the staff formed part of BIBA's loyal customer base. A certain air of sophistication and authority could be assumed by working in a place of such social stature. The instant understanding of what customers wanted, their desire to dress like icons and idols of stage, screen and music made BIBA a hot spot for young society girls, but moreover the affordable prices made their dreams come true and thankfully not at the expense of their bank balance.

For just 10% of the average weekly wage, BIBA could kit girls out like the stars. Even the stars themselves got in on the action, gratefully snapping up the latest new and trendy threads from the boutique BIBA. The relatively new concept of fast fashion it could be argued was born in the Sixties. What the Mod Girls, Cathy McGowan et al dressed in on Friday's Ready Steady Go would be on the shelves of BIBA boutique in the form of an affordable replica first thing Monday morning.

Building the BIBA brand:

Photo by David Graves
Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon had enormous demand for their wares, but their market reach had the potential to be far greater. Ideas of a grander shop and the re-introduction of the BIBA mail order service would open the BIBA enterprise up to customers who lived outside of London. The bold Retro designs and vibrant colours combined with the ever recognisable BIBA label began to create such a buzz that every discerning fashion lover wanted to be seen in a BIBA garment, a feeling of owning an exclusive design from an exciting boutique and just how happy it could make one feel.

In 1964, Biba designed and made a womens pinstripe trouser suit (pictured). Barabara Hulanicki told the Daily Mail in 2014, "'This was one of the first designs we worked on. It was deeply personal for me because the last time I saw my father, he was wearing a pinstripe suit. When Cathy McGowan first wore a trouser suit to the Savoy Hotel in 1965 she was thrown out. It was all over the papers. Our trouser suit, which sold for seven guineas, was our first notable success in terms of sales"

From Abingdon to Kensington Church Street and the second BIBA store:

In 1966, BIBA mark II opened on Kensington Church Street and just the same as the first store, but this time on a wider scale the demand for their designs was unrivalled. Barbara Hulanicki herself recounted in her book A to Biba an interesting story regarding the birth of the Mini Skirt. Shortly after the grand opening in Kensington Church Street, some new stock of skirts had arrived. Made out of stretchy jersey fabric the skirts had shrunk significantly since leaving the manufacturers to the eventual arrival at the store.

"I nearly had a heart attack. The skirts were only 10 inches long. "God," I thought, "we'll go bust - we'll never be able to sell them." I couldn't sleep, but that little fluted skirt walked out on customers as fast as we could get it onto the hatstands."
- Barbara Hulanicki

The enthralling sound of the latest music echoed through the BIBA stores, the faster the song, the seemingly faster the interaction between customers, clothing on the shelves and one another would be. A team of dedicated Mod Biba girls would gladly assist and serve the merry band of Mod customers the latest fashion trends. Retro decor enhanced by elaborate clothing designs in all styles, shapes and sizes. A loving sentiment to all things BIBA, the acknowledgement of grand style at great prices and the anticipation of next weeks fashions, today would continue to be the cornerstone of the BIBA ethos and attitude. These little Retro look boutiques were in tune with the beat of swinging London, their finger on the pulse of fashion.... and from the smallest nucleus, it's humble beginnings, BIBA was about to undertake it's most ambitious venture yet....

Biba fans Cilla Black and Cathy McGowan help with the move
Big ideas and Big BIBA!

Roof gardens, resident flamingo's, Andy Warhol's condensed soup shelving... an Art Deco interior enhanced by elaborate designs.
This is not a snap shot of the intricate workings of Salvador Dhali's mind, but an actual representation of features within the Big BIBA Emporiums interior. From it's Art Deco fascia, the former Derry and Toms seven storey department store on Kensington High Street was an instant draw for BIBA founders, Hulinacki and Fitz-Simon. Well placed with plenty of foot fall, coupled with the desirable location within London's busy Kensington district meant that BIBA could open it's doors to it's growing numbers of clientele and in theory cater for them all. Fashion, food, homeware and entertainment all under one roof and in BIBA's own imitable style... The Big BIBA Emporium was born!

A massive renovation that cost in excess of £1,000,000 saw the department store transformed to conform to BIBA's idiosyncratic design and compliment the hand picked, versatile product range. The first floor attempted to smooth the gap between the move from small boutique to big store layout with a familiar Edwardian vibe, polished furniture and Victorian hat stands, gracefully adorned with attire and accessories.

The makeup counter at Big Biba
Other floors had their own themes and personal signs imitating the classic BIBA motif and elegantly describing the goods therin. There was a Childrens floor, a Menswear floor, food hall, homewares and a book store. The decadent Thrirties Art Deco theme attempted to re-create the original facade and interior of the fine period building.

The Fifth floor Rainbow Room restaurant ushered in a new era in BIBA entertainment, the concept of a whole, fulfilling lifestyle available under one roof. BIBA's intriguing idea of not showcasing it's products within it's window displays was a further artistic attempt to lure and captivate customers into the fairytale world of BIBA.

The decline and demise of the Big BIBA Empire:

The move from 9,000 square foot premise to a whopping 80,000 square foot Retro inspired emporium was not without it's problems. Since it's opening in 1973 Big BIBA was under pressure.

Opening it's doors in the midst of a recession, giving a temporary boost to the local area, Big BIBA would would eventually succumb to the difficult economic circumstances itself. British Land's* brush with the property crash proving the final straw. It's worth noting that Hulanicki had already distanced herself from the demise of the brand and left citing creative difficulties some time earlier. Big BIBA closed it's doors for good in 1975. Hulanicki's amazing BIBA story eventually ended with the sale of the brand to a company with which she had no connections in 1977. The scrutinising press, the flamboyant excesses of each grandiose floor space and the stocking of a mammoth department store had posed obvious financial risks and a huge burden on the creative minds of Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon.

Whilst initially the reaction of the public was in the main positive, the Big BIBA Emporium had become something of a museum featuring unusual objet d'art. Crowds would flock to view, but not necessarily purchase the latest BIBA designs and offerings. Under increasing pressure from backers, Hulinecki began to tire of the beaurocracy involved within the increasingly complicated group structure*.

"Every time I went into the shop, I was afraid it would be for the last time."
- Barbara Hulanicki

The BIBA cosmetics range remains big business to this day, the iconic Mod clothing brand lives long in the memory. An icon of Sixties Mod culture and a beacon of pure Retro and Vintage style.

*In 1969 chain store Dorothy Perkins had bought a 75% stake in BIBA, offering finacial backing and freedom of creative control to Hulinecki. Thus Biba Ltd was formed. In 1973 Dorothy Perkins was bought out by British Land, just prior to the opening of Big BIBA. Hulinecki would later accuse British Land of running the BIBA arm of it's business down to protect other parts of its business empire.