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