Originally published February 2008. Updated with more photos.
Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops, and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life: all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.
Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of what became known as “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just the spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas, and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look. Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.
The shop’s founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine, but it was a great place to take us for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out.
For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl with a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a castle and a dog kennel that were big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our little council flat anyway.
But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, Nova-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, toys, soap powder, and baked beans, so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.
On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. It was the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea, David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings, and Bryan Ferry shot his “Let’s Stick Together” video. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.
Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot at the store too (on the Ground Floor). It shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.
Sadly, Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon.
It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse”, and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart — according to Ziggy Stardust we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.
The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.
Download: Make Up – Lou Reed (mp3)
Download: Something For The Girl With Everything – Sparks (mp3)
Download: Trash – New York Dolls (mp3)
Buy: “Welcome To Big Biba” (book)