The resurrection of Biba by House of Fraser is just the start of a new chapter for the iconic womenswear brand, says the retailer’s womenswear and accessories boss.
House of Fraser’s director of womenswear and accessories Stephanie Chen is a model of serenity. Amid the chaos of a Drapers photoshoot which includes five scenarios in three settings, one malfunctioning mannequin and a precarious trip to the wind-blown roof of House of Fraser’s HQ in London’s Baker Street, Chen continues to smile.
A PR pesters Drapers to end the interview, as Chen is late for her next meeting. However, she continues to chat and pose for pictures, giggling when the photographer suggests what prove to be compromising stances with the mannequin.
Relaunching an icon
It is this innate calmness which offsets the scale of what House of Fraser is trying to do with its latest and most high-profile own brand launch to date - Biba.
Superlatives abound when describing the iconic British label which changed the face of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s and shaped the high street as we know it; the label which democratised fashion; the label which, in its heyday at its Church Street store in Kensington, was a more popular tourist destination than Buckingham Palace. And now, it’s also the iconic name which House of Fraser this week relaunched.
Chen, herself bedecked in a Biba leopard-print shift dress from the House of Fraser collection, does not play down Biba’s legendary credentials but nor does she wax lyrical. “We’re very excited about Biba because there is a huge love of [it],” she says. “It seems to inspire a nice, warm cosy feeling. It’s also a new journey for us, because it’s not just womenswear, there is an accessories line and fine jewellery line and it is gorgeous and accessible.”
On paper the task is nonetheless daunting. Various relaunches, myriad ownerships and administration plagued the brand before House of Fraser bought it last November. Biba was of a time and a lot of time has passed since.
Chen is unperturbed. Not one to shirk challenges, she shook up House of Fraser when she was appointed a year ago. Her thoughts on the womenswear offer when she joined are “unprintable” and the restructuring of the buying teams was an absolute necessity: “We didn’t have the right bums on seats.”
Fifteen years in department store retailing saw Chen involved in the launch of Designers At Debenhams, which at the time, in 1993, changed the face of department store retailing and helped to establish the concept of the high street/designer collaboration.
The collection is undeniably Biba. Earthy tones, short shift dresses with bell sleeves in soft metallics, floral and animal prints, long-sleeved soft velvet maxis with scoop backs, art deco-inspired beaded blouses, sequined capes and faux-fur full-length coats all nod to the signature look. The only shame is that the Biba archives were empty.
Chen says: “Sadly it didn’t really have an archive. The boxes arrived from LA and there were some plastic school shoes with the Biba logo on and old newspaper cuttings. It was all from the 1990s from one of the reincarnations and wasn’t very nice.”
She adds that Biba’s creator Barbara Hulanicki did not want to work on the relaunch: “She was friendly and nice and said good luck but she doesn’t want to be about Biba any more.”
Consequently, the prints for the House of Fraser range are designed in-house from scratch. Many are on silk bases and there are fake furs, beads, embellishments and velvets aplenty. Knits are in different wool and cashmere blends and a multitude of yarns. Detail is key with linings a focal point.
Chen says: “All the attention to detail - the logo (more or less unchanged from the original), the buttons - all of that is really important.”
The team spent hours on the fit too, a commercial update on Biba’s young and waif-like 1960s creations. Chen says: “We have a broad customer base and it is important that Biba appeals to everyone.
“We have fabulous jeans in great washes, great cuts, nice jersey tops. We don’t have a cheap T-shirt. It’s all very considered. We did a whole collection of red-carpet dresses which are much more limited edition. Some of them are corseted inside and that’s great for those with different needs. We’ve tried to think of every occasion.”
Jeans retail from £65, shift dresses are £125, blouses about £95 and maxi dresses and full-length coats are up towards the £400 mark. Again, unlike the Biba of yore, this isn’t a range for the masses but for a discerning customer who wants investment pieces.
In it for the long haul
In House of Fraser’s flagship London Oxford Street store, Biba sits alongside licensed label Pied a Terre and concessions Whistles, Day Birger et Mikkelsen and Marc Cain. A standalone website, www.mybiba.com, has gone live.
“Biba is not a made-up brand,” Chen says. “It has a heritage so we wanted to tell the whole story, and whether Barbara wants to be associated or not, what she did then was really great. There will be lots of people who will go onto Mybiba.com, some of whom will have seen the advertising and not been aware that it is exclusive to House of Fraser, and I hope those people will be encouraged to come in and while there see [own brands] Pied a Terre, Linea, Therapy and our denim and think ‘I haven’t shopped in here for ages’, and buy something.”
Chen will also explore overseas opportunities - she has already been approached by unnamed US department stores about wholesale options - but says she won’t explore that before at least three seasons of Biba are under her belt.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Chen says. She continues to smile for the camera. “In those days [Biba] was completely original and led the way for fashion. If we can harness some of that energy, how fantastic would that be?”
2009 Director, womenswear and accessories, House of Fraser
2006-07 Head of non-clothing division, River Island
2004-05 Buying director, womenswear and fashion accessories, Bhs
1995 Various roles at Debenhams, including design director
Department stores… People underestimate how complicated a department store business is. You spin lots of plates and have loads of people coming into the store and you have to service them all, whether it’s the daughter, mum, the granny or the child.
Own brands… We’ve always wanted to maximise our profit Density. Historically, what we’ve not been good at is making every square foot of space give us a great return. So there is an opportunity to create a lot of house brands. You can chunk off 300 sq ft here and there and fit another brand in without losing sales.
Concessions… Our mix of concessions was traditional and classic and over the past few years we’ve tried very hard to increase our mix of contemporary and broad-appeal labels.
So we’ve introduced the likes of Whistles, Day Birger et Mikkelsen and Lauren by Ralph Lauren, which are making it more exclusive and more interesting to shop.