alwyn w turner
Born as a small boutique in 1964 just as London started to swing, 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, Biba – now filling all seven storeys of the old Derry & Toms store with own-brand produce – provided the escapism that Britain craved.
Drawing on Art Deco, Nouveau, Victoriana and the golden age of Hollywood, it was more than just fashion: it was a whole world, a lifestyle choice. At the height of the store’s glory, the committed shopper could buy not only a new wardrobe, fully co-ordinated from head to toe, but also a complete range of cosmetics and soft furnishings, together with the washing powder to care for her clothes, and food for both herself and her pets, all presented in the distinctive Biba packaging. Alternatively she could just hang out, either lounging in the shop-windows (Biba didn’t do window-displays), or sipping cocktails upstairs amongst the flamingos that lived in the Roof Garden, or in the Rainbow Room, where on a good night there might be a live performance by the likes of the New York Dolls, Liberace or the Manhattan Transfer.
It was not so much a department store as a theme park devoted to elegantly wasted decadence.
Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch and Princess Anne may have shopped there; Mick and Marianne, Sonny and Cher, David and Angie may have been regular visitors; but the store was never the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous: prices were kept deliberately low, and anyone who could tolerate the disdainful inefficiency of the staff was encouraged to soak up the glamour of an unforgettable shopping experience.
And then it crashed and burned. In 1975 the unacceptable face of capitalism (which was definitely not wearing Biba eye-shadow) turned its gaze on Biba, decided that it preferred the real estate to the fantasy, and closed the shop down. And so the dream ended. Unlike its contemporaries, the likes of Virgin and Habitat, Biba fulfilled the rock & roll promise to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse, and is consequently remembered with a fondness almost unique in the world of retail.
Its influence, however, has survived. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren drew on its inspiration for Sex, the democratisation of fashion that it initiated became commonplace, and – in the new age of insecurity – designers are increasingly turning once again to its retrophiliac sense of style.
September 2004 was the 40th anniversary of the first Biba shop and was marked by The Biba Experience, the first major book on the subject.
A subsequent volume, Welcome to Big Biba, is to be published in August 2006.
by Alwyn W Turner
published by Antique Collectors' Club, 2004
(second edition 2005)
by Steven Thomas & Alwyn W Turner
published by Antique Collectors' Club, 2006