alwyn w turner








by Alwyn W Turner

from chapter iv: TUMBLING DOWN

Gee, but it’s hard when one lowers one’s guard to the vultures

In 1971 British Land and Dorothy Perkins had formed a joint company to develop retail sites, and the primary target had been the Derry & Toms building. In the event, that property was bought by British Land alone for £3.9 million, with the agreement that Dorothy Perkins would take up the lease and then sub-let the premises to their subsidiary, Biba Ltd. It was a more complicated arrangement than Biba had previously known, but it was still relatively straightforward. Then, in August 1973, just one month before the store was due to open, British Land bought Dorothy Perkins – with the support of that company’s directors – and became by extension the new owner of Biba.

Fitz was said to have responded to the news with a terse comment: ‘That’s the end of us.’ Barbara later expanded on this, but the position remained much the same: ‘We were just very unlucky to get stuck with awful people who were not our choice, but the result of a takeover from the people we had chosen.’

In fact the position was even more difficult. The Dorothy Perkins management with whom Biba had originally done its deal had been controlled by the Farmer family, Alan and Ian, who were ‘so helpful, they really believed in Biba’. But now there was a Group Managing Director, David Roxburgh, who appeared to have little fondness for the idealism of Barbara and Fitz. By the time Big Biba opened, therefore, it could no longer count on the total support of its immediate management, and was ultimately owned by a company whose concerns were with property not retail, a fact which British Land are happy to acknowledge: ‘We were interested in real estate, not management.’

In the first months, trading was so successful that these structural problems were of little consequence. Even its detractors conceded the store was attracting ‘a million visitors a week’, and Roxburgh was amongst the first to celebrate the first seven days’ takings: ‘This week has been simply tremendous,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘The cash registers didn’t stop ringing.’ Despite the early indicators of success, however, the odds were stacked against the venture. Barbara had once reflected on the beginnings of Biba that ‘We couldn’t have started at a better time – everything was going our way.’ Now the opposite was the case: Big Biba opened at possibly the worst moment in post-War Britain, just as the economy started to slide completely out of control.

photograph by Tim White
(courtesy Steve Thomas/Whitmore-Thomas)

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