In spite of the high-profile spat with founder Barbara Hulanicki, Biba’s arrival in House of Fraser’s Oxford Street store is finding favour with shoppers.
The new Biba range has been alive and kicking at House of Fraser for close to two months now and has therefore had time to settle into its new home and for shoppers to get used to the idea that the iconic 1960s and 1970s label is firmly back on the fashion agenda. For those old enough to remember, Biba was representative of a trashy glamour that can still be seen at close quarters in vintage Top of the Pops footage featuring early Roxy Music.
Stare at the acolytes who worshipped at the shrine of a snake-hipped Bryan Ferry and you will get a sense of what Biba was about. It’s equally possible to imagine the band’s keyboard player, Brian Eno, waltzing around in one of the feather-accessorised dresses that are now on sale on the second floor of the House of Fraser flagship in Oxford Street.
And then there’s the in-store area itself, which has quite deliberately been given an equally 1970s trashy treatment with its use of black and gold throughout - the only thing missing are the sofas with speakers built into them, which were one of the highlights of the original High Street Kensington store.
Rather more to the point is the fact that on a Wednesday afternoon, never the busiest time of week, stock was being tried on, the area was being raked over and purchases were being made… in contrast to much of the rest of the store.
Key looks and merchandise mix
One of the complaints levelled by Hulanicki against what is being sold in House of Fraser is that it is too expensive. Possibly fair criticism if you head for one of the full-print maxi dresses that are on sale at £425. If on the other hand you just want to capture the look and feel, there is a range of tops with ruffles, beads and embroidery that start at £65 and head up to £125. Still pricey, but pretty much within the realms of the high street and certainly not what might be labelled ‘designer.’
There is a small denim range, with prices at £65, but Biba is boho chic, a dressy collection for the contemporary hippy wannabe in which casualwear is a minor element of the range as a whole. That being the case, many of the pieces on offer have been trimmed with ostrich-style feathers - a gilet with the trim around the armholes is a typical example.
There are also retro fabrics, with grey iced velvet being used for a waisted jacket with a shawl collar at £155 and a full-length, leopard-print flared maxi coat with a dramatic red lining at £390. There are even a few accessories, in the shape of bags, paste jewellery and cashmere-silk mix scarves.
Colours are generally dark, with camp accent colours, so black, black and more black is lifted by gold, plum purple and a deep red. This is certainly the more expensive end of the high street, but given that it is on sale in House of Fraser rather than, say, Primark or New Look, then perhaps you approach the range with that expectation. It is certainly different from what is on sale elsewhere.
The whole department - and a department is what this shop-in-shop is - is a bit of an exercise in getting the stock out on the floor without appearing to have overcrowded the space. This is not an easy thing to achieve but there is a lot to choose from and yet no feeling of being hemmed in by merchandise. In part this is achieved by integrating the several mannequins as part of the merchandise displays and in part by injecting curved tables at various points around the area to avoid visual monotony.
You have to admire whoever it was that commissioned the mannequins for this Biba reincarnation, with their hairless androgyny and glitter eyelashes. If you’d wanted to embody what the brand was supposed to be about, you could have done a lot worse than this. It is also impossible to avoid the displays at the top of the escalator for shoppers arriving on the second floor. The most dramatic of these is the figure wearing that leopard-print coat: eye-catching and on-brand.
With a brand that has antecedents as glamorous as Biba, you would expect the assistants to be louche and almost a little laid-back. In fact, the remarkably chirpy staff on the floor turn out to be helpful and smiley without a trace of attitude. They also look good wearing the product. All of them were being kept busy by some pretty demanding customers and yet a sense of humour was ably maintained.
The price tags on the clothes might lead you to expect a ritzy environment - by high street standards at least. And at first glance, that is exactly what this shop-in-shop delivers. The rails are coloured gold, the overhead lights are, like the stock, trimmed with ostrich feathers and around the perimeter mdf boxes of various shapes and sizes used to house folded stock have been sprayed gold. Even the fitting rooms have been given a hippy 1970s touch with an abstract fleur-de-lys pattern.
The only problem is that there is a slight feeling of the fixtures being a mite on the economical side. This would be fine were this a store selling inexpensive clothing, but it is not and there is a sense of faded glamour about the department.
Would I buy?
Biba was originally a brand aimed at modish young things in the age of glam rock. As such it was probably rather more cost-effective than what is on display in House of Fraser today. In its current form, therefore, it has probably morphed into a range that will appeal to the pockets of a slightly more mature crowd - those who can afford to wave goodbye to Primark and say hello to French Connection, Reiss and now, at this price level, Biba.
This qualification being understood, there is much to commend what is on offer here and the chances are good that were I of the appropriate sex and age, then a purchase might well follow.
This is a good attempt at bringing back a brand that appeared to have been assigned to the annals of fashion history. It also does much to lift and enliven the second floor of House of Fraser Oxford Street. Despite the carping, providing the initial impetus can be maintained, this one looks set to be around for some time.
- Biba was originally founded by Barbara Hulanicki in the early 1960s. It opened its first store in 1964
- The brand’s high point came in 1974 when it opened a store on High Street Kensington
- The store closed in 1975
- House of Fraser bought the Biba name in November 2009
- Hulanicki will launch her own range in Asda in mid-November