Big Biba, as it was fondly called, was a fashion outlet established as a small fashion retailer to cater for ladies’ clothes in West London. Its success in satisfying the generality of the people with its clothes cutting across all classes of buyers made it popular among Londoners and the people from far and near. Biba became a household name and at a time, the best thing to happen to London. In the 1970s, Biba had a monumental success story and occupied a seven-storey building on Kensington High Street, London. This legendary “Big Biba” emporium was once hailed in the Sunday Times of London as “the most beautiful store in the world”. This was not a story with a happy ending though, for in 1976 the founder walked away from the business out of frustration.
Biba was a fashion marketing organisation established by Polish-born Barbara Hulanicki; jointly owned with husband, Stephen Fitz Simon, and it rocked the city of London in the 1960s. Barbara was a fashion freak and she started Biba from a hobby, just like the “House of Matilda” by Matilda Marcos, the former Philippine’s first lady and fashionista. As a student Barbara’s style was heavily influenced by two stars of the 1950s – Grace Patricia Kelly, an American film actress who became the Princess Consort of Monaco after marrying Prince Rainier III in April 1956, and Audrey Hepburn, a British actress and humanitarian who was recognized as a film and fashion icon in the 1960s and who died in Tolochenaz in Switzerland, on January, 20, 1993. Barbara’s hobby, which was turned into a business, flourished in the 1960s.
Barbara Hulanicki was a style icon and developed her interest for fashion marketing from her interest in dressing well and her study of Fine Arts. People around her used to commend her ‘dress-sense’ and her colour combination and she decided to offer her design expertise for her clientele to generate income and to satisfy her hobby. She was a freelance fashion illustrator and columnist for “Women’s Wears Daily”, “Times”, “British Vogues”, “Sunday Times” and “Observer” in the 60s. Biba began life as a mail order catalogue in 1964, and by 1969, the shop was the second most popular tourist spot in the capital – only the Tower of London attracted more visitors. People would travel from all over the country every Saturday, because the fares were inexpensive. The outlet received as much as 5,000 visitors in a day in the mid-1960s!
Biba thus became an anchor store and a brand store. According to A. M. Findlay and L. Sparks in “Retailing: The evolution and development of retailing” published in 2002 in London by Taylor & Francis, “Anchor stores” are sufficiently far apart and pull shoppers past the unit shops. “Brand stores” sell only products of a brand like Adidas, Nike, Harvey Nichols and Marks & Spencer. During its heyday, Biba was to fashion what the Beatles were to pop music. It was also a Mecca for the coolest celebrities of the moment. Biba’s Postal Fashion Boutique was officially set up and its long evening skirts with draw-string waists sold at affordable prices in the Daily Express. There were good markets for other garments too. It was Felicity Green, the Fashion Editor of the Daily Mirror who proposed to Hulanicki to design a dress for a reader’s offer. The product of this design, a pink gingham dress sold through the paper for 25 shillings, and earned £14,000-worth of orders.
The business was run from the flat of Babara Hulanicki until it was moved to a derelict former chemist on Abingdon Road, Kensington. Biba flouted convention in the London fashion world by going for ‘dull colours’ – which are easy to maintain after many uses. Her designs were mainly funeral-like blackish-browns, dark prunes, rust and blue-berry hues. Babara wanted a colour that’s affordable to maintain, and a design not too flashy. This was a period when most Londoners were busy with their work and had no time to waste on washing apparels. Business boomed at a rate unprecedented in fashion merchandising in the whole of England. Abingdon Road shop became relatively smaller for Biba as everybody from all walks of life saw it as their last destination for buying fashion products. It became a place of social interaction.
Biba moved to a bigger site on Kensington High Street, the main shopping street in Kensington, London, in 1965. Hulanicki and her husband felt Biba could be bigger and acquired the 400,000 square foot, Art Deco Derry and Tom’s Department store on Kensington High Street in West London. Due to the huge capital outlay, Hulanicki accepted Fraser Group and Dorothy Perkins as shareholders and joint-owners of the business. The building was secured for £3.9 million. Another £1.0 million was spent to decorate the building. Big Biba became the first new departmental store in London since the Second World War. There was a restaurant, shopping area, eating and drinking area, hanging out area, rooftop garden lounge etc. A whole floor was named the Casbah – filled with Moroccan and Turkish-influenced splendour. The restaurant alone was a success. The Rainbow Room Restaurant and Concert Hall served about 1,500 meals every day.
Fraser Group and Dorothy Perkins transferred their shares to British Land Company in 1974 and that was the beginning of the end of Biba. British Land Company was a property investor and never appreciated the intuitive and lucrative methods employed by the two previous shareholders yet they were major shareholders. They did not give Biba a freehand to run the business. Biba suffered from “Corporate Raiding” as there were disagreements on creative control and Biba experienced catastrophe. Barbara walked away from Biba in 1976 after difficulties with her new business partners. In 1987, she and her late husband wound up in Miami, USA, a city which captured her imagination – thanks, largely, to its once glorious Art Deco architecture, which she has helped to conserve.
Barbara used her design skill and marketing experience to put Biba on the London fashion map. She carefully selected her fabrics and colours. Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK) defined Marketing as the management process which identifies, anticipates and supplies customer requirements efficiently and profitably. Fashion marketing, the science and art of satisfying customers’ fashion needs profitably, has been with us since time immemorial. It is as old as marketing itself and gained prominence in the early sixties when most fashion designer-outfits started to flourish. Fashion marketing is different from fashion merchandising, which is the promotion of clothes’ sales and the process of distribution of clothing.
Women’s wear makes up more than half (53%) of global retail spending or roughly $689 billion. Relatively, spending on men’s clothes and children’s clothes is modest – 31% or $403 billion and 16% or $208 billion, respectively. Fashion also has to do with the third most basic need in the hierarchy of human needs, according to Adam Smith in his “Wealth of Nations” published in 1776. Human beings aspire for food as the first basic need. After satisfying this need, human beings will aspire to get accommodation over his or her head. The third basic need will be clothing to protect him or her from the adverse effects of inclement weather. The fourth is transportation and the fifth is welfare (health, leisure). Fortunately, fashion has to do with all the other basic needs in the modern world. A farmer, who produces food, needs fashion to perform optimally on the farm, in his house, in transport means and in social functions.
To be continued next week
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