I have often been asked when I’ve written about some of the other famous shops on Kensington High Street (Barker’s, Derry and Toms, Pontings etc) when was I going to do something about Biba, and I’ve had to reply well we don’t really have very much in the way of pictures, apart from images in books and a few newspaper and magazine cuttings. There are plenty of images online too, which don’t need any further dissemination from me. Our photographer took a few pictures of the windows but never went inside.
[The reflections show the pictures were taken of the front and side views of the shop.]
However, I have recently found a few ephemeral items from the final Biba era, when it was in its most ambitious location -the former Derry and Toms department store building – and these offer a hint of what it was like.
The Biba story is largely a Kensington story, from a period when Chelsea was the main fashion centre in London. The first Biba shop was in Abingdon Road, off High Street Kensington. When it grew out of that on they moved to larger premises in Kensington Church Street. (1969)
Finally they took the leap from boutique to department store in 1973. For reasons that were largely beyond the control of the founders (management /ownership issues, the 3-day week, inflation etc) the big shop couldn’t survive, and closed in 1975. The name, the style and the legend lived on though, and remains a potent reminder of that particular period in time just before punk.
I did a piece recently based on some promotional material from Derry and Toms in the 1920s and 30s and at the time I thought how appropriate it was that Biba ended up in the same building. There always was a distinctively vintage feel to Biba fashions and design, filtered through the soft focus extravagance (have I used that phrase before recently?) of the early 70s.
The new shop was far more than a boutique.
In fact it seems to have been a struggle to fill the premises, and some accounts talk about the acres of space inside for shoppers to spread out. (In an article in the Sunday Times magazine of September 1975 Philip Norman says “On the ground floor alone more seats were provided than in the public hall at Euston Station” ) There was a diversification into food and household goods (own branded – they even sold baked beans and washing powder). Speaking of powder:
Many of this week’s images come from a free newspaper style giveaway called Welcome to the new Biba. 300,000 were printed so the pair of copies I came across in a filing cabinet in the archives are “scarce” according to Ebay but not unique. It is an illuminating insight into the Biba style.
The text has something of the counter culture about it. The idea of speaking honestly and playfully about what was on offer. And naive about sexual politics sometimes, as people were in the 70s.
We have to cut them a bit of slack these days. This is the imaginative era of albums by Roxy Music, books by Michael Moorcock and Angela Carter. A little bit of what Sally Bowles in Cabaret calls “divine decadence”. (I’m quoting from my memory of the film. Correct me if I’m wrong)
The neo-20s, art deco-esque style has proved remarkably durable.
Note the lamp.
“The most beautiful shop in the world”, according to the Drapers’ Record
The colours of the 1970s may not have lasted.
Nor some of the whimsical stuff.
[A section from a snakes and ladders style board game called “lifts and staircases”]
But there are some enduring images.
People I’ve spoken to who went there always smile fondly about the place. (And I ask myself why was I not one of them? I was in London at the time.) All good things come to an end of course.
Back at 87 Abingdon Road another small shop was in business.
Passers by might have had no idea of the magnificent dream which started there.
Welcome to the new Biba is reprinted more or less complete (and rather better looking than it does on newsprint) in the excellent book Welcome to Big Biba: inside the most beautiful store in the world(Antique Collectors Club 2006) by Steven Thomas and Alwyn Turner, available in libraries and bookshops.
On another matter, the 8th annual London History Festival continues. Tonight we welcome Dan Snow, author, broadcaster and podcaster. Tickets are still available and all being well, I’ll be at the door tonight. Details here and here.
I often think that I won’t manage to write a new post in time for Thursday if I’m busy or preoccupied with something else but this time it’s genuinely possible that there won’t be a new post next week so don’t panic if this one has to last for a fortnight. Normal service will be resumed very soon. Honest.