decided to call the postal boutique Biba after Barbara’s youngest sister.
first design was featured in the Daily Express and they followed up with
further offers in the Observer and Evening Standard. The big break came
when Felicity Green, fashion editor of the Daily Mirror, arranged a meeting
and suggested she design a special dress for her readers. It was a sleeveless
dress in pink gingham with a hole in the back and they eventually received
a total of 14,000 orders.
Barbara and Fitz then opened their first shop in Abingdon Road, Kensington and it was an immediate success and the beginning of the Biba legend. Customers included Cathy McGowan, Twiggy, Julie Christie, Cilla Black, Mia Farrow, Barbra Streisand, Brigitte Bardot, Samantha Eggar, Marianne Faithful and hosts of other celebrities.
Biba had an Art Deco style to its shop furnishings, promotional designs
and catalogues and the fashion ranged from mini skirts and dresses (which
led to colourful tights and knickers) to trouser suits, T-shirts, boots
and even a children’s department at the back of the shop. Barbara also
devised new lines in cosmetics which were virtually revolutionary – brown
lipstick, which was soon followed by shades of blue, green, purple and
black with matching eyeshadows and contour powders. There were even coloured
wigs and boots with ridiculously high heels, all creating styles which
were copied throughout the world.
Barbara’s dream was to buy Derry and Tom’s, the giant department store in Kensington High Street and when it came onto the market her backers agreed to purchase it for more than three million pounds. Barbara and Fitz completely redesigned it in the Biba Art Deco style, introduced a 500-seater restaurant, the Rainbow Room (in which new bands such as Cockney Rebel and established artists such as Liberace were to perform) and a splendid roof garden. Unfortunately, ‘Big Biba’ became the scene of boardroom battles. A large property firm had taken over the business of some of the original backers and the new company began to alter the entire ambience of Biba, even suggesting that Barbara and Fitz keep away from the store.
|The couple attempted to save their dream store but failed. They sold their own interest in the business and went to live in Brazil for several years before returning to England in the Eighties. Barbara’s autobiography, ‘From A To Biba,’ is rich in anecdotal stories in vivid word pictures of the girls who wore her fashions. Describing how the girls copied Cathy McGowan’s long hair and eye-covering fringe, she wrote, “Soon their little white faces were growing heavier with stage make-up, lids weighed down with doll-like thick fake lashes. Their matchstick legs were encased in pale tights and low-cut pumps. Miniskirts led to the adoption of tights. They seldom needed to wear roll-ons or bras. Their bosoms and tummies were so tiny there was no need for the heavy upholstery.||
Barbara recalls, “Our greatest thrill was when Brigitte Bardot came, just
after her marriage to Gunter Sachs. They arrived one busy Saturday. The
shop was packed but as the news spread even more people rushed in. Brigitte
wanted to try on some dresses but Mr. Sachs would not let her undress
in the communal dressing room. Fitz and I and a friend were sitting in
our airless office, an old stock room. Suddenly Sarah came in and said
someone wanted to change in the corridor.
She had a big grin on her face and winked as she closed the door, so I had to peep and see who it was…I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Brigitte prancing from mirror to mirror with just her knickers on and Gunter trying to cover her up. I said, ‘Fitz you’ve got to see this!’ Brigitte wanted to go out as she was, undressed, to get more things from the shop, and her husband was frantically trying to stop her.” On another occasion, Barbara noted, “One night as we were closing a tiny blonde girl came in and began taking the clothes off the hatstands. Instead of trying them on behind the dangerously wobbly screen, she stripped off in the shop and proceeded to try on smocks and trouser suits. Fitz was told to stay in the back office, as the tiny uninhibited girl was prancing round dressed only in her knickers. She was magnetic – her skin was like marble and her features larger than life. It was Julie Christie, getting her wardrobe together for the film ‘Darling.’”
were also some decidedly unusual customers, which Barbara referred to
as nutcases. “One day a young girl came in stark naked except for a mini
leather coat, open at the front. She held a basket containing a large
axe. She went up to the hatstands, gathered a few dresses into her arm
and strolled down to the changing rooms, she took a while choosing the
dress she liked, put it on, replaced her leather coat, picked up her basket
and walked out of the shop. No one was brave enough to stop her.”
Unfortunately, Biba as it was in the Sixties is gone forever. For a time it proved to be one of the most quintessential of the innovations which made Swinging London such an attraction.