Big Biba, The end.

Mick, Chris and I were working at the Whitmore Thomas studios in St Albans Grove Kensington after Big Biba opened in September 1973.  Mick was soon to move on to work in an advertising agency, Steve and Tim were pursuing other projects including graphic design , I was working as an illustrator.  We had all been so fully immersed in the Biba world for the last few years that we did not really know what was going on. We heard about the strikes and bombings and recessions but did not really pay much attention.  The three day week affected everybody, It was instigated from the 1st of January until the 7th of march 1974 to conserve electricity, and I remember how t.v. programming stopped at 10p.m.  so no more late night films after the pubs closed for a while.   Working by candlelight in the freezing cold was not very pleasant either.
I started to get a bit panicky about travelling on the underground about this time. There were always bombings or threats throughout the 70’s and the old dread I had before about being in the underground when a bomb went off came back. I had to take two trains to Kensington with a change at King’s Cross, always a hot spot for threats.  I began to use buses again but they took so long sometimes I did not get to Kensington until near midday.
We were very busy at the studio with lots of  work on the strength of the Biba portfolio and everything was going quite well.  All seemed to be okay at Biba for a while too, I went over at least once a week , it was always packed.  I am not quite sure  when we started hearing  rumours about trouble there but it was most likely through Steve’s girl friend Elly who was the head manageress and had been with Biba since the beginning.  Even then I could not imagine anything being too serious.  Only when I read Barbara’s book ‘From A to Biba’ in the 1980’s did I get a full understanding of what happened.  Simply put, Biba had become a victim of a corporate takeover, Biba’s partener Dorothy Perkins had been bought out by British Land the property firm as early as August 1973  just before the store had opened. Over the next few years chaos reigned as creative control was taken from Barbara . Her book describes the gradual chipping away of the Biba ethic.  It was a relentless campaign, you would almost think it was on purpose.  The stores lighting which had always been subdued was now to be replaced by strip lighting, departments were to be renamed,  i.e  ‘Lolita ‘was to become  ‘Junior Miss,’ ‘ Pregnant Mums’  would be ‘Maternity,’ ‘ Food hall ‘ was to be  ‘Groovy Food Hall ‘. Sweaters were to be encased in plastic bags, and the black crockery in the Rainbow Room was to be replaced by paper cups. Everything that made Biba Biba was being deconstructed.
I was still doing some work for Barbara , there were some little ads here and there that I illustrated. The last time I saw her was a few days before she left the store for good. I took a rough drawing for her to approve ,  [ I cannot for the life of me remember what it was]  and she was alone in her office. She gave it a brief glance,  and said it was o.k. but she did not seem her usual enthusiastic self.  A few days later we were told she was gone and not coming back.  When Barbara left Biba began to fall apart, two whole floors were closed down and the store became shabby.  None of us went to the final sale before Biba closed down in August 1975.  We heard awful things though, people helping themselves to everything including the fixtures and fittings.

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the last Biba sale.

So just like that, it was all gone, we were all in shock .  I had my portfolio of Biba work which I was able to show around , and for a while I got some work on the strength of it. I particularly remember illustrating a series of Pimm’s 1930’s style drink ads for an advertising agency in a Biba style, and of course there was work at Whitmore Thomas.
I was so fed up with all the travelling by this time I decided to work at home again and try to work at changing my illustration style a bit, not an easy task. There were big changes happening —  and you can always tell by the shoes!   Big platforms and chunky heels were disappearing, being replaced by spiky heels and pointy shoes from the 50’s,  a look I have always hated.  I did buy a pair of Marilyn Monroe ankle strap sandals though, they had very high slim heels but no platform. They killed me , but looked great with a flared pleated skirt.  Although there were still a few years of the 70’s left but you could tell it was all over.

Mick and I got married in 1975 and were offered jobs the next year in Montreal. Here I was to renew my interest in retro clothing.   At that time Montreal had the most beautiful retro clothing stores with fabulous clothes from the 30’s and 40’s, no wartime austerity to be seen in North American designs .  I also started to collect Hawaiian 30’s and 40’s shirts just for the fabric designs which were amazing.  When I was faced with my first four feet of snow from a Montreal blizzard I was wearing nearly six inch high heeled boots,  I had a bag full of them I had brought over from England. I threw them all away the next day.

Biba became just a lovely memory which faded more and more as the years passed and I knew I would never get work like that again. I honestly thought it would never be remembered or even seen again and it gives me great joy to see it all revived and appreciated by younger people.

.  This is thanks to the work of Alwyn Turner and his beautiful book ‘The Biba Experience’ and Steve Thomas and Alwyn’s collaboration on their book ‘Welcome to Big Biba’ as well as Barbara’s books of course.  Also the work of the many amazing bloggers out there who love Biba. I want to thank them all for helping and responding to me, I really appreciate how much work goes into a blog.  It is hard work!  I shall keep checking them all out for any news. A special thanks to sweetJanespopboutique. blogspot. an amazing archive.

I want to end with a couple of older things from Biba that I like.

This is my original clipping of an ad for five Biba outfits and I remember them very well, Barbara asked me to give them a look of the Pointer Sisters . I drew them at Whitmore Thomas, Steve designed the ad so It must have been  summer 1974.  I remember having the pile of clothes and I loved the black crepe dress and the black and cream cotton skirt. There were lots of little accessories too, belts, bags and flowers.

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Biba newspaper ad.

Here are two black and white drawings, one for Biba sun  and the other for Biba travel.

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Biba sun was the logo to be used  on bottles of oils and lotions for the holiday skin-care range. I do not know whether it was used but it would have looked beautiful in gold on brown or black. I loved that combination , it looked so rich and classy.  Here are some of the other health care ranges including one for men.

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Men’s health care range.

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Women’s health care range.

Nowadays sun products look like they come out of a sterile clinic with insipid colours, usually orange and white . I went back to good old olive oil,  with a beautiful label of course.
The Biba travel is a total mystery to me, I vaguely remember doing the illustrations but I have no idea what it was for. The gift vouchers I had great fun with, Steve designed them and I filled them with Biba ladies lounging amongst the finery.

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Biba kid’s gift voucher.

gift_cert_01 blog 10 They look as if they were probably for sale on the men’s floor.
Here are some of the labels, the pregnant mums is a big pregnant  ‘p’, and the Biba babies an ice cream cone. Finally , one of my favourite pinup from the men’s colouring book, a slightly dissipated Biba lady ‘Lucious’ but still looking elegant.

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Biba labels Kid’s floor, Pregnant mums, Biba babies.

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10 comments

  1. That photo of the pile of clothes still brings a massive lump to my throat. Those last few months of Biba were truly dreadful. The men in suits drafted in to take over the running of the store were not at all nice and what happened at board level was vicious beyond belief. The full story of what actually happened has never been told…..yet.
    Draper’s Record reported the closure with the headline;
    “They’ve ruined the most beautiful shop in the world”
    They were right.

  2. But apart from that, thank you for posting more of your beautiful designs… (the cocktail bar lady always makes me think of Joyce O’Toole.) I’ve loved reading your memories of those incredible days

  3. I cannot imagine what it must have been like Rubyfoot, we very sheltered from seeing all that, I was very young and naive I did not know what was going on. That lady does look like Joyce o’Toole, I should have drawn the little dogs winding around her feet. Thankyou very much for all your nice comments.

    1. Gill Causer · · Reply

      Thank you very much for your posts I have just found them and will read them all over again!! Biba was part of my life from the Abingdon Road Shop to Big Biba. I loved every minute of the 70’s it was a Renaissance – a time I will not see in my lifetime again. I must be roughly the same age as you studied Dress Design at Harrow School of Art but never stayed on dropping out just to earn money to spend on clothes in Biba! I could cry seeing what these clothes fetch on Ebay now!

      1. Hi Gill, you are so right about the 70’s being a Renaissance and we will not see one again soon. I think it will happen though, the great thing is young people can educate themselves about Art and Fashion on the internet. There are so many wonderful blogs around about the 60’s and 70’s fashion and music and a lot of young people are so into them, they have a huge following. I saw the Biba colouring book sold on e-bay last week for 50 pounds, also a lady who has a copy got in contact with me and very kindly offered to scan the pics for me. I got to see a few pinups I have not seen since the 80’s. I will be putting them up in a blog soon.

  4. Hi Kasia,
    Thanks so much for sharing all of these amazing stories,rare photographs and of course your wonderful Biba illustrations with us over the past year, I have always looked forward to each new post, it has been a fascinating behind the scenes read, would love to see it published in book form at some stage because I think your story is definitely something that other admirers of Biba who may not have found your blog yet would love too! I’m going to miss the regular updates now that we’ve come to the end… so I think I’ll have to go right back to the beginning and read it all over again x

  5. There was a lot of fun to be had at the expense of the men in suits. For instance, they would put trestle tables in the windows and order them to be piled high with merchandise. As soon as they’d gone back to their offices satisfied with a ‘job well done’ we just put everything back to how it was…the Biba way, the PROPER way. There was also a strong ‘underground’ movement of subversion that devised all sorts of plots to make life difficult for the suits. The pig’s head incident was a classic. One of the men in charge would get so apoplectic we thought his head would explode but we’d just play up the empty headed dolly bird image that they had of us and skip off, fluttering our (false) eyelashes

  6. Fascinating story of the world’s most beautiful shop…. thanks..

  7. Thank you serendippity do.

  8. Mike Phelan · · Reply

    I used to work in the St. Albans Grove office at the weekends. I’m at the age of allowed nostalgia and was having a trip around Kensington on ‘street view’ to see what the area looks like now. A link sent me to Indigo Violet and a comment from you sent me to Big Biba, The End. I really enjoyed your article, took me right back; wanted to jump on my old Triumph and head down there again but it doesn’t do time travel.

    Scrolling down the page to remind me of your wonderful graphics I stopped to look at the sad picture of a young woman rummaging I’m pretty sure that a just in focus Brian Bousfield is striding through the background. He was a very good friend and introduced me to Steve and Tim who gave me a job doing technical drawings of some of the supports for the amazing scenery of Big Biba. I still have one or two photos taken in the office of you, Brian, Tim, Steve and, I think, Chris Angell.

    I remember well the removal of the ground floor window benches where the elderly ladies used to sit with little dogs waiting for the roof garden tea room to open. Damn British Land.

    I’ve just bought Welcome to Big Biba for one of our daughters; she hasn’t got it yet, Dot and I are still browsing!

    Thank you for more memories.

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