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1973: Big Biba opens its doors

Biba has re-opened for business in the seven-floor Derry and Toms building on Kensington High Street, West London.

Designer Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Simon Fitzsimon have spent 1m refurbishing the Art Deco department store - known as Big Biba - to house her idiosyncratic collection of clothes and accessories.

The shop will also stock cosmetics, household goods, children's clothes, sports equipment, furniture, paints and wallpaper, stationery, a food hall and a restaurant.

Biba made the move from a smaller shop further down the High Street but it began life as a mail order company in 1964.

The idea was to sell affordable but distinctive clothes for young women, and later men. Ms Hulanicki, a former art student, designed the fabrics and outfits influenced by Art Nouveau, Art Deco and kitsch.

From boutique to big business

In 1963, the Mirror newspaper featured one of Biba's gingham dresses at just under 3 and orders flooded in.

So Biba opened a boutique in Abingdon Road, Kensington in 1964.

Popular demand meant Biba had to move to Kensington Church Street and then to a much larger store in a former carpet shop in Kensington High Street in 1969.

It was a small department store decorated in a unique blend of Victoriana and Hollywood with dark moody colours, potted palms and with the sound of the wild pop music in the background.

That year Dorothy Perkins bought 75% of Biba taking it from a loss of 40,000 to a profit of 300,000.

Rainbow Room restaurant

Ms Hulanicki says she had long dreamed of owning the Art Deco building along the road and now her dream has come true - and no product goes on the shelves without her approval.

Dorothy Perkins, and its new owner British Land, agreed to pay 3.75m for the leasehold and is charging Biba a preferential rental rate to use it.

Judging by the crowds that came to gawp at the lavish interiors today, it looks set to succeed.

The store, designed by Tim Whitmore and Steven Thomas, reflects the decadence of the 1930s when the building was created and boasts a large restaurant in the fifth-floor Rainbow Room.

By closing time it had served 5,000 meals.

Biba's world famous fashions - a decadent Edwardian look, floppy satins and silks and ostrich feather boas - can be found on the first floor with its trademark hat-stands showing off latest designs and open-plan changing rooms.

"I can just imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing over these marble floors", a student visiting the shop on its first day told The Times newspaper. But she adds: "It's best seen and not bought."

Indeed some business experts are sceptical the ambitious venture can work.

The Financial Times says the store wastes valuable selling space - Biba has moved from a retail space of 9,000 sq ft (2,743sq m) to 80,000 sq ft (24,380 sq m) but uses less than half of the space for selling its wares with the second, third and fourth floors almost empty.

It also questions whether Barbara Hulanicki's "strongly personalised style" can make a smooth transfer to the household goods section. "The joke has been taken too far," says the paper. "One bright pink nylon broom is fun, but a barrowful is a little worrying."

In Context
The move to Derry and Toms in 1973 gave a much needed boost to other more conventional department stores in a lacklustre Kensington High Street suffering from recession.

But Biba was a victim of the same recession and only survived for two years before closing in 1975.

It seemed people were happy to come and see the impressive decor and designer goods but were more reluctant to buy.

Barbara Hulanicki moved to Brazil in 1975.

In 1983, she published a book about the Biba enterprise called From A to Biba in which she blamed British Land for the demise of the store by running it down to save other parts of its empire.


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