The Whitmore Thomas design team had to move out of the roof Garden a few weeks before the opening day. We moved to the studio in St Albans Grove around the corner, there was still Biba advertising work to be done and Steve and Tim wanted to move on to other projects too. The cafeteria which had been our drawing office and the Roof Gardens were to be completely renovated and prepared for the opening in the spring of 1974. The cafeteria was to become the Roof Garden restaurant furnished with big peacock chairs and wicker furniture, serving lunches, diners , and cream teas.
The morning Biba opened Iwent to the store by myself before going round to the office. It was a normal working day for the guys and I could not persuade them to join the crowd. These are my impressions of that morning from what I can remember. The crush on the tube train to Kensington High Street told me that travelling there would never be the same again. This was the first wave of hard core Biba fans, mostly girls a lot of them in groups, but some boyfriends came along too. I followed them into the store which was packed, I was not there to buy anything , just observe peoples reactions. I immediately noticed that the serious shoppers were not too interested in the decor yet, they seemed to give a cursory look around and assured it was still the Biba they new and loved only bigger and better, made straight for the makeup and clothes, shoes, boots, tights, and handbags which were all on the ground floor.
Other visitors were mainly interested in looking at the decor and were admiring all the units and fixtures, carpets, giant speakers and the many sofas in the windows, this was where the boyfriends usually went. For the first time I began to think about all the mirror cleaning that would have to be done everyday. Some people had just followed the crowd in and there were different reactions here too, a few just looked around squinting in the dark and went straight back out again. Most people were opened mouthed and in awe, lots of gasps and oohs and ahhs and smiles. All in all , typical Biba reactions only more so.
There was serious shopping going on, very soon girls had full bags and were retreating to the sofas to look at their goodies and have a cigarette break. They must have been saving their paycheques all summer for today.
I went to the logo shop, I had not seen it stocked yet. Again I had that surreal feeling seeing my drawings all put together on badges,postcards, diaries etc. I wanted some matches but there was a serious queue there, everyone wanted to go away with at least a little something with a Biba logo on it.
Down in the Food Hall everybody was buying the Biba brand, stuffing brown paper bags with anything with the food hall logo on it especially the soap powder I was to learn later. There were huge queues here too, I was beginning to feel sorry for the shop girls who would get no breaks that day.
I went upstairs and was able to take in the stunning details of the staircase and lifts.
I had always used the side utility stairwells that summer now I could really appreciate how the Biba decor brought out and complimented the Art Deco designs. Here is the model Mouche photographed by John Bishop on the staircase for 19 magazine a few days before the store opened. She is wearing a black jersey jacket with ocelot and leopard trims and bag, part of the winter 1973-74 collection.
I looked in on the first floor which was the fashion floor with all the women’s clothes. Here was the familiar look of the old store but with a huge forest of hatstands displaying the 1973 -74 winter collection. It was bedlam in here so I did not even stay.
Looking in on the kids floor there were already a lot of children making themselves at home, they were having a great time tearing around. It was going to be a constant messy affair keeping that floor clean. The Lolita store was so pretty with sparkly wellies for 85p, and there was the castle which I heard was once used at a SexPistols gig.
There was not much happening on the Men’s floor yet but I am sure that when they heard about The Mistress room they would all turn up.
I did a quick tour of the Household floor , quite a few people here . I did not go to the Rainbow Room, we were going to have a free meal there so I could wait to see that in action another time. The restaurant was the floor beneath us that summer so we were always looking in there. I would have loved to go up to the Roof Garden one more time but I knew that the door was now locked.
It was early afternoon when I left and even more people were streaming in and huge crowds were coming from the tube station. The sales must have been tremendous, I could see it was a huge success. The great thing was you could spend a whole day in the store having the Biba experience. Little did we know that even on that opening day there were plans afoot to dismantle the Biba empire as Barbara talks about in her memoir From A to Biba. Alwyn W. Turner explains it also in his beautiful book ‘The Biba Experience’. All photos I have shown here are from Alwyn’s book ‘The Biba Experience’ and the book ‘Welome to Big Biba’ by Steven Thomas and Alwyn W. Turner. Both books are a must for Biba fans.
I walked round to the office and told the guys about the opening but to be honest I think they were a bit Biba’d out, there was a natural anti climax after all the work had been done, they did go eventually. The Whitmore Thomas office was located at the corner of St Alban’s Grove and Stanford Rd not far behind Kensington Square. It had originally been the dairy that supplied Kensington Palace and it looked like a corner store. There was a handy pub opposite called The Bricklayers Arms and a cafe nearby to get cups of tea and greasy bacon sandwiches. The office was rented from the family who owned the house and lived upstairs and I remember Steve telling me that a Polish prince owned the house. I have always thought he was having me on but I found this article in The Daily Mail online dated 10th January 2012. The headline was ‘ A house thats fit for a prince’, former Kensington dairy bought by Polish royal could be yours for 6 million.’ there was a photograph and it looked so familiar and I realised it was indeed the old Whitmore Thomas studio but when we were there the window was painted out withwhite.
The article said that John Woroneiki inherited the house from his father a Polish Prince and his mother Julia. I remember Julia being the landlady and I suppose John Woroneiki was the kid I remember coming home from school everyday and running up the stairs at the side entrance. He later turned the ground floor into a popular Polish restaurant called Wodka after Whitmore Thomas left in the eighties, and lived upstairs with his wife. There is a diagram accompanying the article showing how the backyard could be ‘re- imagined’ as a beautiful space.
I had the desk at the back of the studio looking out at the courtyard [ left window bottom row ] and it was a very depressing view of a little yard full of trashcans. There was about five of us crammed into the studio, six with visits from the delightful Alan Mowbray the Biba project manager who sadly died last year, [ we also lost Tim Whitmore a few years ago too.] Steve also had a friend named Bill who was a rep. Mick left and went to work at an advertising agency and another Graphic designer, Dave joined us. I have a strong memory of sitting overlooking that courtyard during the winter of 1974 during the three day week times and actually trying to work by candlelight because we could not have the lights on.
But there was fun too. One day we heard a dreadful ruckus from the pub. We went outside and there were two draymen having a tremendous punch up with each other next to their horse drawn beer delivery truck, I believe it was because one of them was throwing barrels of beer down to the other a bit too vigourously. There were a lot of eccentric people around Kensington, if we had the door open [usually to let the smoke out] people would just walk in thinking we were a shop especially if we had music playing. We met some very strange people that way, often Steve would have to gently guide them out. Here is a couple of Chris Angell’s pics, Steve Mick and Dave at St Albans Grove, and Mick at his desk inside.