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Comment: Retailers can learn much from the Biba story

Visiting the new London exhibition of the former iconic fashion brand Biba – ‘The Biba Story, 1964-1975’ – at the Fashion and Textile Museum it amazed… View Article


Comment: Retailers can learn much from the Biba story

Visiting the new London exhibition of the former iconic fashion brand Biba – ‘The Biba Story, 1964-1975’ – at the Fashion and Textile Museum it amazed me how this small independent brand went from selling dresses by mail order to running a mega-sized department store in less than a decade.

The exhibition charts this incredible rise from founder Barbara Hulanicki operating a catalogue business in 1963 through to a seven-storey store on Kensington High Street in 1973. It moved into the former Derry & Toms department store and was the first large retail opening since the Second World War. Needless to say it was one of the most anticipated retail-related events of the twentieth century.

It was an amazing ascent from selling a pink Gingham dress, which was an instant best-seller and set Biba on the road to becoming something of a phenomenon. Whereas Mary Quant was selling £30 dresses to the denizens of Chelsea, Hulanicki preferred to charge a mere £3 for her dresses in order to appeal to young women desperate for a youthful look of their own.

The business grew rapidly to move beyond the stylish catalogues and into bricks and mortar with three ever-larger premises – as well as an outpost in Brighton – replacing the former units. This ultimately led to the Big Biba store on Kensington High Street, which was an almost unbelievable step-on from the previous venues.

Just consider that the store involved an array of own-label products packaged in the distinctive Biba look – with the art deco-style gold lettering and imagery on a black background – with 15 departments spread across the extensive space. Whole floors were dedicated to home furnishings, make-up and accessories, clothing for women, men and children, as well as a beauty parlour and food hall. If this was not enough then the building also included a flamingo filled roof garden, which was the largest such space in Europe, and alongside this was the 500-seater Rainbow Rooms restaurant that was famed for hosting bands such as the New York Dolls.

Such was the appetite for the Biba cosmetics range that they became available nationwide through Dorothy Perkins’ 300 high street stores and were also exported into 30 other countries. The range continued to be sold into the 1980s.

The chutzpah of Hulanicki is incredible. To go from selling dresses – that she had skilfully designed – to selling baked beans and wallpaper among myriad other products and services is hard to grasp. She had fully embraced the concept of taking Biba and running with it and is credited with having created the world’s first lifestyle label.

Sadly the gargantuan store was a relatively short-lived affair (operating for a mere two years) and after Hulanicki and husband Stephen Fitz-Simon lost creative control of the brand its days were numbered – even though it was attracting over a million visitors each week. Despite this disappointing ending the Biba brand played an incredibly important role in democratising stylish clothing and accessories for a youthful post-war generation desperate for their own distinctive look.

As retailers today grapple with adding theatre into their stores, expanding their ranges, introducing value-added services, and delivering a differentiated vision and brand experience the story of Biba is one that offers plenty of insights as well as inspiration. For people who don’t know the Biba story then make a visit to the exhibition or at the very least look it up on Google. Which makes me wonder what Hulanicki would have done if she’d had access to the internet.

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