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House of Fraser bites back over Biba founder’s claims

Department store chain defends Biba pricing strategy as George at Asda plans value alternative.

House of Fraser has hit back at claims by Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki that its high-profile Biba range is overpriced - claiming it is the customers’ opinions, not Hulanicki’s, that matter.

Speaking exclusively to Drapers, the department store chain’s executive chairman Don McCarthy said: “The customers don’t find it expensive, and they’re the ones that matter. As far as I am concerned Barbara must do what is right for Barbara and we will do what is right for Biba.”

The 130-piece womenswear range launched on September 9 and has already firmly established itself as House of Fraser’s biggest selling womenswear brand. It was set to top £1m in sales as Drapers went to press.

However, Hulanicki, who lost control of the Biba trademark in the 1970s (see box, below), told Drapers that House of Fraser’s relaunch collection did not reflect the original Biba style, and outlined plans to launch her own low-priced, fast-fashion alternative with George at Asda.

The George collection, the name of which had not been confirmed as Drapers went to press, will launch in November with about 12 designs priced at between £11 and £18 - a long way shy of House of Fraser’s Biba range, where prices range from £75 for blouses to £350 for coats.

Hulanicki said: “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].

“These [the George at Asda prices] are silly billy prices, which is what Biba is supposed to be. You go shopping, you buy your carrots, then you buy a dress.”

Asked whether the department store’s new take on Biba reflected the style of her original collection, she added, laughing: “No. It looks like House of Fraser. No comment.”

However, McCarthy said the price architecture at House of Fraser was in line with what department store shoppers expected and “certainly not expensive”.

“There are pieces that range up to £350 but it was never intended [by HoF] to be a cheap brand. Barbara can have her opinion - there is nothing we can do about that - but we are very, very comfortable with where we have placed the brand,” he added.

McCarthy also disputed Hulanicki’s claim there is little trace of the original Biba style in House of Fraser’s reinterpreted range. “We think there is a little bit of that [Biba] heritage in the brand,” he said.

Biba: a history

Barbara Hulanicki founded Biba in 1964 with a store Abingdon Road in London’s Kensington. It was the original value retailer and became famous for producing low-priced versions of high fashion items such as Mary Quant miniskirts.

It later ran into financial difficulties due to over expansion and in 1969 Dorothy Perkins took a majority stake in the business. Four years later property group British Land bought Dorothy Perkins and became the principal shareholder.

Hulanicki left Biba in 1975 after disagreements over strategy.

Various licensees have sold product under the Biba name since, and in 2006 it was resurrected at London Fashion Week by global licensee Michael Pearce.

Pearce’s company, Biba International, went into administration in 2008 and in November last year, House of Fraser acquired the Biba trademark.

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