Inside ‘Biba:’ The iconic London store where Anna Wintour was a shop girl

Inside ‘Biba:’ The iconic London store where Anna Wintour was a shop girl - World - News

The Extravagant Journey of Big Biba: A Retro Fashion Empire that Defied the British Retail Landscape

Interior designer Steven Thomas lamented the monotonous nature of the British retail landscape in 2024, a sentiment that contrasted starkly with his experience working on the groundbreaking fashion store, Big Biba. With an illustrious background as the creative force behind the iconic 1970s London fashion store, Thomas knew how to generate excitement and allure.

Big Biba was an audacious, sprawling 20,000 square foot enterprise that broke the mold for retail shopping experiences. Conceived and led by fashion illustrator Barbara Hulanicki and her former marketing executive husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, Big Biba was born in September 1973 as the final outpost of the once-iconic brand. The seven-story Art Deco emporium on fashionable Kensington High Street was a testament to intricate detailing, featuring a soup stand inspired by Andy Warhol, a roof garden graced with real flamingos and penguins, and the much-lauded celebrity hotspot, “The Rainbow Room.”

Thomas reminisced about the allure of The Rainbow Room in an interview. Originally designed by architect Marcel Hennequet in 1933 and named for its multi-colored ceiling, the room’s sleek white decor and fake plants provided an irresistible backdrop for London’s glitterati. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, and other luminaries were frequent visitors, captivated by the room’s undeniable charm.

Fitz-Simon recruited an unofficial booker whose friend had a knack for bringing in unique talent. The booker secured the New York Dolls to perform when they visited, drawing crowds and generating buzz around the store. Thomas recalled how the group’s antics included a “vandalizing tour” of the first floor, causing quite a stir among customers and employees alike.

In his gold-fronted monograph, “Welcome to Big Biba,” published to celebrate the brand’s 60th anniversary, Thomas reflects on this extraordinary venture. Hulanicki pens the foreword, expressing her gratitude for the creative freedom that Big Biba embodied and acknowledging that “you can do it all as long as you learn to wear a suit. Of course, your secret will be that the suit is lined in gold lamé.”

The Biba story began humbly in May 1964 when Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon launched “Biba’s Postal Boutique,” a mail-order store specializing in limited stock. Annie Lennox described this venture as the catalyst for change, offering relief to those living in drab provincial areas longing for something new. With styles influenced by decadent eras and vibrant colors like olive, rust, and “bruised purple,” Biba’s offerings resonated with young female shoppers, riding the wave of teenage energy and financial freedom.

Biba democratized fashion, making it accessible to a broad audience through its affordable prices, excellent design, and high-quality materials. Martin Pel, author of “The Biba Years 1963-1975” and curator of the new exhibition at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum, explained that Biba was “the first to make fashion democratic.”

By September 1964, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon had opened their first physical store in a former drugstore, expanding to larger premises throughout the 1960s. Their second shop on Kensington Church Street was described as “the most exotic shop in London” by Vanity Fair magazine, while a boutique opened in New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store in the early 1970s.

Thomas had already designed Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon’s home and the third Biba store in 1968 before being approached to design the iconic seven-level store. He recounted, “Fitz offered me two floors (of Big Biba), but I wanted it all.” Thomas’s audacious decision to take on the entire store was a bold move for two ex-painting students working out of a bedroom, but it marked the beginning of an extraordinary collaboration.

Stocking Big Biba’s seven floors was a daunting yet exhilarating experience for Thomas and his creative partner, Tim Whitmore. The store reflected Hulanicki’s life in its various departments, including a kid’s floor inspired by Disney World, complete with a carousel ride and miniature cottage kids café. Weekly storytime sessions and a crèche allowed parents to explore other floors while their children were entertained.

Modern concepts like maternity sections, spaces for 11-13 year olds, and communal changing rooms were unheard of at the time. Although some clients reportedly changed in the middle of the store itself, these innovations added to the overall allure of Big Biba’s unique shopping experience.

Menswear took over the third floor, featuring a “mistress” section for discreet purchasing of more sensual items. Biba-branded household items were upstairs, and each floor boasted its unique theme while incorporating the store’s distinctive black and gold colorway and decorative elements like mirrored fixtures, ostrich feathers, and leopard print features.

Big Biba’s staff were an integral part of the experience, creating a sense of camaraderie among employees and customers alike. Thomas noted that they “loved working there; it was their club,” fostering a strong sense of community and belonging among those who visited the store.

When Big Biba opened its legendary roof gardens in 1974, they became an instant draw for shoppers from all corners of the country and even internationally. During its two-year run, the store was the second most popular tourist attraction in London after the Tower of London, with Buckingham Palace taking the third spot.

However, Big Biba’s success was short-lived. In 1969, the independent company sold a majority of its shares to Dorothy Perkins, which was then acquired by British Land in August 1973. The high cost of keeping the store open and the economic downturn of the mid-1970s forced the closure of the third and fourth floors in March 1975, followed by the rest of the store that September against the backdrop of a nationwide property slump.

Despite its short tenure on the high street, Biba’s legacy endures through its iconic, low-cost yet well-made clothing. Today, heirloom designs continue to be coveted and fetch high prices, proving that affordable fashion does not have to be disposable.