As Barbara Hulanicki announced her return to Biba (November 3), the label she established 50 years ago, Drapers takes a look back at Biba’s spectacular rise(s) and fall(s) over the years.
1963: In London Polish-born Barbara Hulanicki and her late husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, launch Biba’s Postal Boutique, an affordable mail order clothing business directed at teenagers and young adults. The company’s moniker is borrowed from the nickname of Biruta, Hulanicki’s youngest sister.
05.1964: Felicity Green, associate editor at the Daily Mirror, asks Hulanicki to create an item of clothing to feature in the tabloid newspaper as a small mail order offer. Hulanicki designs a pink A-line gingham dress, which Green features prominently in the fashion section of the Daily Mirror, resulting in the mail order company’s big break with 17,000 gingham frocks being sold.
09.1964: The first Biba boutique opens on 87 Abingdon Road in Kensington, London. Teenagers and young women flock to the store to snap up the label’s only available item, a brown striped dress. All stock sells out on Biba’s opening day.
03.1966: Due to popular demand, Biba moves to bigger premises on 19-21 Kensington Church Street, also in Kensington. The store’s décor reflects Hulanicki’s penchant for Art Deco and Art Noveau.
1968: As sales at Biba’s Kensington Church Street shop continue to grow, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon bring Biba’s mail order service back to life with brand catalogue. The label’s development of mail order services leads Hulanicki and her husband to acquire a 5,000 sq ft stockroom in Chiswick, London.
1969: Biba expands further into an old carpet shop on 120 Kensington High Street, nine times larger than its previous Kensington Church Street premises. To fund the expansion, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon sell 75% of Biba shares to clothing manufacturer Dennis Day Ltd and fashion retailer Dorothy Perkins, forming Biba Ltd. Now financially secure as Biba Ltd, the store extends its womenswear range into accessories, cosmetics, menswear, childrenswear and homeware.
1970: Dennis Day Ltd resigns from the partnership, leaving Dorothy Perkins with a 70% stake in Biba Ltd.
08.1973: Property development and investment company British Land acquires Dorothy Perkins, becoming Biba Ltd’s main shareholder.
09.1973: British Land moves the brand into a seven-floor of department store on 99-117 Kensington High Street. The lavishly decorated “Big Biba” store attracted up to 1 million visitors per week.
10.1974: Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon depart from Biba Ltd after frictions with British Land over the direction of the brand.
1975: British Land is forced to close Biba as customers are more interested in visiting the opulent store than buying the product. The baking crisis of 1973-1975 had also taken its toll.
1977: The Biba trademark is sold to a consortium. Over the next 30 years there are several attempts to re-launch the brand, all of which are unsuccessful.
01.2006: Global licensee Michael Pearce acquires the Biba name under licence from brand owner and Liechtenstein-based investment fund, Hachel International Foundation, with the intention of re-launching the iconic high street brand within the luxury sector as Biba International.
05.2006: Under Michael Pearce’s direction, Bella Freud is appointed creative director at Biba.
09.2006: Bella Freud debuts her first spring 2007 ready-to-wear collection for Biba during London Fashion Week. Models, including Behati Prinsloo, Lily Cole and Irina Lazareanu walk the catwalk wearing the label’s signature mini dresses and earthy-coloured creations.
06.2007: Bella Freud departs from Biba, leaving the creative direction of the brand to Michael Pearce and a team of unknown designers.
07.2007: Manny Mashouf, founder and chairman of American fashion retailer Bebe acquires a 60% stake in the Biba brand, leaving 40% to Michael Pearce.
05.2008: Less than two years after launching its collection at London Fashion Week under head of design Bella Freud, iconic Biba is in administration. Several interested parties are thought to have contacted Grant Thornton [Biba’s administrators] about a rescue deal.
11.2009: House of Fraser (HoF) buys Biba and its archives from brand owner Hachel international Foundation. HoF will introduce the brand as its own premium label to 30 department stores and online for autumn 10. It is expected that Biba will occupy 1,000 sq ft of space across all categories, including accessories, jewellery, footwear, homeware and fragrances.
09.2010: Biba debuts its first autumn collection as a HoF-owned label. Key pieces include a leopard-print maxi coat, tunic dresses and limited-edition Biba Boutique maxi dresss, as well as a denim collection. Prices range from £75 for blouses to £390 for coats with British model Daisy Lowe as the face of the brand.
09.2010: House of Fraser’s Biba takes £300,000 in its first week. HoF chief executive John King reports the brand netted £500,000 in the ten days since Biba launched in stores and online at mybiba.com on September 9.
09.2010: Hulanicki blasts House of Fraser’s Biba. The brand founder tells Drapers it is too expensive: “I always find everyone who buys it [the Biba trademark], thinks of it as couture, but I think it is more like Woolworths – which is what it was always meant to be. [The House of Fraser collection] is too expensive. The prices [at Asda] are just amazing. These will really be Biba prices. Fuck you [House of Fraser].”
10.2010: House of Fraser bites back over Biba founder’s claim. HoF reports that the brand is set to reach £1m in sales just three weeks after its official launch.
07.2011: Own-label stimulates growth at House of Fraser with an 8% rise in sales for its second quarter.
09.2011: Biba expands offer with debut lingerie collection. The four lingerie ranges which include Art Nouveau, Modern Romance, Damask and Rose of Persia, feature bohemian shapes and the brand’s signature 1960s -70s aesthetic, with prices ranging from £25-£95.
09.2012: House of Fraser hails success of house brands, including Biba, stating a 1.7% rise in like-for-like sales for the first half of the year.
11.2014: Barbara Hulanicki makes surprise return to Biba, after signing a consultancy deal with brand owner House of Fraser. Under the new arrangement, Hulanicki will work alongside the existing Biba design team on a capsule collection for HoF available for autumn 15.