alwyn w turner








by Alwyn W Turner

from chapter i: THE IN CROWD

Dressing fine, making time, we breeze up and down the street

It was like a jumble sale in the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan. The announcement in August 1975 that Biba, once described in the Sunday Times as the most beautiful store in the world, was to shut up shop in little more than a month triggered a stock-clearance that was as spectacular, as public and as chaotic as anything in the company’s eleven-year history. The remnants of the clothes that had defined an era were piled in richly colour-coordinated heaps of finery, assailed on all sides by bargain-hunters, style tourists and the morbidly curious, whilst memories and merchandise were strewn across the marble floors to be trodden underfoot.

It was billed as a closing-down sale but the emphasis was more on closing than sales, and many who were there in the weeks leading up to that final Friday simply bypassed the tills, walking out with armfuls of designer clothes, bags of make-up, even furniture from the celebrated Rainbow Room. Shoplifting had always been part of the Biba experience, but now it was virtually sanctioned; many of the most loyal staff had already taken their leave, and there were few remaining who cared enough to challenge the hungry hordes of free traders. And when the famous black-and-gold Biba carrier bags were found wanting, a supply of bin-liners was discovered to enable the goods to be shipped out more efficiently if not more profitably.

As the sounds of the Manhattan Transfer crooning ‘I don’t know why I love you but I do’ drifted from the art deco speakers, the true devotees of Biba were left shell-shocked by the devastation. ‘In the armchair booths where you sit and listen to records,’ it was reported, ‘young men and women sat, oblivious of the chaos around them, in a sort of suspended animation.’ Most committed Bibaphiles, however, those who had immersed themselves in the fabulous fantasy world that the store had offered, took one look at what they considered to be little more than grave-robbery and turned sadly away, determined not to pick at the bones of an old friend. Images of bereavement abounded as the committed sought to find words to express their sorrow: ‘It’s like someone dying,’ commented one, ‘and their clothes being auctioned off afterwards.’

The chief absentee amongst the revellers at the funeral feast was the founder and guiding spirit of Biba, Barbara Hulanicki, who had found herself forcibly divorced from her own creation months earlier by her board of directors and who could now only look helplessly on. ‘Watching everything go was heartbreaking,’ she said. For the faithful, it was her departure that had ensured the demise of the enterprise: if Biba had been a party – and it surely had been – she was its life and soul, and without her it stood no chance of survival.

She had opened the first Biba boutique in an obscure part of unfashionable Kensington just as London really started swinging in 1964. Three moves and nine years later, it had taken possession of all seven floors of the magnificent Derry & Toms building in Kensington High Street, enabling the company to celebrate its tenth birthday as the Superstore Boutique, the very epitome of style-conscious idealism and of that most Sixties of oxymorons: non-conformist fashion. The seemingly irresistible rise of Hulanicki’s retrophilia appeared to be a vindication of the classless aspirations of its time. In a world where actors, photographers and pop stars were the new aristocracy, Biba was their fashion store of choice, operating by quasi-royal appointment to Mick & Marianne, David & Angie, Terry & Julie.

That final incarnation, the two-year occupancy of Derry & Toms, when it became the first department store to open in London since the Second World War, is largely what has kept the Biba story alive. The Sunday Times said at the time that the only points of comparison were Harrods and Macy’s, but even in that illustrious company, it stood out, an extraordinary creation dominated by the personality of just one woman. So pervasive an influence was Barbara Hulanicki that even now those who shopped in her store still talk of her on first-name terms; it was, after all, Barbara who stamped her image and her approval on every piece of merchandise. Walking into Biba has been compared to walking into a friend’s bedroom, with their taste, their passions, their obsessions writ large for you to share: far beyond the limited range of dresses originally offered, you were now invited to participate in a style that embraced not merely clothes, but make-up, décor, furniture, food, pet-food, soap powder and more. It was, at its peak, a theme park devoted to elegantly wasted decadence and, if you shared Barbara’s love of art nouveau, art deco, Victoriana and Hollywood glamour, this was your spiritual home and evermore would be so.

For uniquely amongst its brand name generation, Biba has retained its purity and its mythic appeal. Unlike its contemporaries, the likes of Virgin and Habitat, it fulfilled the rock & roll promise to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Born in Swinging London, its upward mobility followed a path diametrically opposed to that of the society around it. As the amphetamine rush of optimism wore off, and the country found itself heading inexorably towards the come-down of the three-day week, the need for a retreat into the past had become ever stronger. And then it crashed and burned.

‘It really is the end of a dream,’ noted Tony Benn in his diary in 1975, before glorying in ‘the final fling for the excrescences of Sixties’ fashion’. Others took less pleasure in the death of Biba, many now seeing it as the end of their own adolescence: ‘It was such a huge part of us growing up,’ mourns one enthusiast, ‘and it had been taken away from us.’ Another describes it as ‘the end of an era on a scale with the day after the election in May 1979.’

It was the retail Altamont, the moment when it became clear that the hopes of the Sixties were incapable of surviving in a corporate world of oil crises and faceless chain-stores. The Biba tribe, the beautiful people who had led the unexpected style revolution of the preceding decade, found their dream sold out by the stone-clad forces of big business. In the new age of insecurity, one thing was certain: the unacceptable face of capitalism wasn’t wearing Biba eye-shadow...

photograph by Sian Irvine

excerpted from The Biba Experience by Alwyn W Turner
published by Antique Collectors' Club
© 2004