Relevant categories: Art Deco,Bronzes
(Above photo - Twiggy sits in the Rainbow Room surrounded by Biba lamps )
Fashions change, time passes, some trends come back, other things go permanently out of fashion to never come back. I love digging into the history of London and unearthing things from the distant - and not so distant - past that have since disappeared as I continue with our 'Lost London' series. One of my favourite more recent discoveries is the story of the influential Biba Store from the 1960s which managed to embody the very essence of London's Swinging Sixties, as well as having an aesthetic that borrowed heavily from the 1920s. Hence it's a convergence of two of my favourie things, as the Roaring Twenties mashes up with the Swinging Sixties.
(Above photo - The Biba logo - classic art deco fonts and design )
Biba was originally a London fashion store in the 1960s and 1970s started by Polish borne fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki with the first outlet being on Abingdon Road in Kensington, London, opening in 1964. Biba was actually the nickname of Hulanicki's younger sister Biruta. Straight away the brand was a success, perhaps aided by the fact that Hulanicki's husband Stephen Fitz-Simon was an advertising executive and hence understood marketing and how to reach the right audience.
(Above photo - Biba - perfectly encapsulates London Swinging Sixties )
After starting out as a mail order business and then moving to Abingdon Road, the next step up was moving into Derry & Toms department store on Kensington High Street in the large art deco building which also houses the Kensington Roof Gardens. It then became known as Big Biba. The same building also housed the Barkers Department store which was opened in 1926.
(Above photo - The roof of the Rainbow Room - now a gym. The New York Dolls played here in the early 70s )
Looking at some of the old photos of the interior of Big Biba you can see the art deco themes in the design reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The shop was reknowned for non-traditional displays such as a giant Snoopy in the children's department, plus there was a large Biba Food hall. To top it all off was the Rainbow Restaurant on the fifth floor of the department store which became a major hangout for rock stars and other 60s players. With all these innovations and designs Biba became known as a 'theatre of fashion'. Again, looking at the photos and getting a feel for the outlet, it looks like an early and very successful attempt at multi-media branding and as such can be considered way ahead of it's time. There was even a special “Logo Shop” where you could buy Biba playing cards, matchboxes and colouring books. Similarly, the brand used the media to further their message and reach via placement of models at their parties as featured in newspapers the next day, a tactic which predicts the prevalence of Instagram influencers so common today.
(Above photo - Stop the press - Biba made the front page! )
Looking at the photos of some of the interiors of the Biba Store one thing I think is 'where did all these fixtures end up? They would be worth a fortune now?' The art deco sofas, wall lights, mirrored side tables, shop fixtures and other architectural delights all look amazing. One photo really jumps out and it shows the model Twiggy - perhaps the defining face of 60s London - sitting on a sofa in the Rainbow Room surrounded by art deco table lamps. Twiggy herself is dressed in classic art deco fashion as she languorously smokes a long cigarette. This is really a big part of where my fascination with this time and place comes from as we regularly stock and sell these Biba lamps and I imagine it is this very photo where they got the name from. The original design of the lamp is by art deco sculpturist Max Leverrier who worked out of Paris in the 1920s and it's this design which seems to offer the perfect aesthetic bridge from the 1920s to the 1960s. Both seem to share a very similar version of the idealised female form - tall, lithe, athletic, typically scantily clad, a cosmopolitan urbanite dashing from party to party, a 1960s version of the flapper. When we first started to find these art deco statues I was told they were 'Biba Lamps' and I was interested in the eytemology of the phrase as I wasn't aware the Biba ideal was around in the 1920s. Seeing that photo with Twiggy I can see how the name came into being. Indeed, there are lots of cross currents between the 1920s and 1960s; rapid societal change, the impacts of new technologies, women's independance, the burgening of youth culture and music and an overall feel good factor with a nod to hedonism. Both seemed like fun times to be around.
(Above photo - Own your very own art deco Biba lamp - also known as Clarte )
The 1960s are seen as a progressive time of large scale change in music, fashion, culture and social mores. The advent of psychedelics changed people's perceptions and introduced a new paradigm, particularly in terms of music - think Sergeant Pepper by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the whole genre of psychedelic rock where - to borrow from Jim Morrison via the poetry of William Blake - the doors of perception were well and truly opened. Similary with the advent of the pill for women, a new era of sexual liberation was heralded. By all accounts, two decades on from the 1940s Britain was finally emerging from the shadows of the Second World War as the economy - and hence young peoples spending powers - improved dramatically allowing for the genesis and subsequent boom of the Teen Market and the emergence of youth culture. We can thank the 60s for hippies, first generation hipsters, The Beats, Rockers, Mods and Teddy Boys to name a few. Youngsters had more disposible income and wanted to spend it on music, fashion and going out. With the benefit of rose tinted glasses it really looked like a great time to be alive. All of this optimism fuelled multiple innovations and the Biba Store appears to be a good manifestation of this.
(Above photo - Biba girls - does this dress fit me? )
In terms of fashion, the Biba designs also managed to encapuslate all that was 'cool and groovy' in the 1960s whilst borrowing heavily from the 1920s. The look of mini skirts, short hair bobs and platform shoes - think Jane Fonda in Barbarella or Sandie Shaw singing 'Puppet On A String' - is the female fahion symbol of the 1960s. Also, if you look at the Biba artwork - food menus, the logo itself etc - all the typography is the classic angular art deco Aviator font. If only I could find a time capsule to go back to the 1960s so I could have a rummage around the Biba store whilst snapping away with my camera, the internet would melt with the content and I'd be a happy man.
(Above photo - Art deco sofa in the Rainbow Room )
(Above photo - Twiggy smokes on the sofa - 1960s flapper )
(Above photo - Biba price tags - and more art deco references )
(Above photo - 1920s meets 1960s. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.. )
(Above photo - Classic Biba dress )
(Above photo - Also the site of Barkers Department store, the height of deco architecture )
(Above photo - The Warhol soup can in the food hall )
(Above photo - London Biba girls )
(Above photo - Classic Biba lamp - also known as art deco Enigme originally by Max Leverrier )
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