The architectural explosion that was Big Biba
Over ten years Barbara Hulanicki’s fashion brand Biba grew from a mail order catalogue to a seven-floor department store like the world had never seen, with architecture from Disneyland, a giant dog selling tins of food & all the celebrities of swinging seventies London. Then it all suddenly ended. Through an exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum & book from ACC Art Press Will Jennings dives into the extraordinary design world of Big Biba.

For two years there was a department store in West London like no other. It was not just somewhere offering the latest fashion to be seen in, its seven floors of art-deco theme-park-like interior was the place to be seen in. From 1973 until 1975, Big Biba sat on Kensington High Street selling not only clothes, but an eclectic mix from dog food to home furnishings. It even had its own-brand baked beans.

It was the child of Barbara Hulanicki, the designer behind the Biba brand of clothes who with husband Stephen Fitz-Simon had the foresight to develop what began as postal fashion brand into a lifestyle destination that arguable laid the ground for the modern department store experience, playing with queer aesthetic and fashion two decades before brands like Dolce & Gabana, and creating a quick-production fast-fashion model now built into the industry. Now the focus of the first London exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum, Biba is a fascinating story of not just fashion but broader culture and incredible architecture, a brand that only lasted ten years, but did so in style.


Barbara Hulanicki was born in Poland in 1936 and grew up in Palestine until 1947 when, after her father’s murder, her family re-located to Brighton. She studied then worked in fashion, becoming a well-regarded fashion illustrator with work in magazines including Vogue and Tatler, but at a time that Mary Quant and others were revolutionising fashion for a younger, more radical crowd, Hulanicki wanted to move into design.

In 1963 with her husband, Fitz-William, she established Biba’s Postal Boutique, a mail-order fashion brand offering up to the minute design at an affordable price – a pink gingham dress inspired by one Bridgit Bardot wore became a hit, selling 17,000 after a feature in the Daily Mirror. It created the opportunity to open a physical space, a boutique in Kensington that produced short runs for a growing fashionista crowd who fought to get hold of the clothes.

“It was a small chemist shop chemist shop, it had been empty for quite a few years, was sort of downtrodden and all the paint was peeling on the front,” curator Martin Pel says, adding that “Barbara just kept it as it was.” A second boutique opened in Brighton the following year and in 1966 Biba moved to a new London home, a former grocery store on Kensington Church Street where Hulanicki kept the 19th store shelving and storage but instead of fruit and veg displayed fashion and accessories.

As London emerged to become the cultural place to be, Biba’s boutique was one of the places to be seen at, with clientele including Twiggy, Mick Jagger, the Beatles, and Cher. Time magazine featured the store and Helmut Newton photographed Hulanicki’s clothes, and Biba launched its own in-house magazine which pushed new ideas in fashion photography. But all this was just a warmup for the architectural explosion that was Big Biba.


Hulanicki and Fitz-Williams wanted to rapidly expand, but needed external funding. It came from clothing manufacturer Dennis Day Ltd and retailer Dorothy Perkins, who together took 75% of Biba. The new funding allowed the purchase and fitout of a vast department store at 99-119 Kensington High Street, an art deco seven floor block designed by architect Bernard George. It had been empty for a year before Biba picked it up and fitted it out with extravagance, play, and humour for a total of £250,000 interior ans and graphic design by Whitmore-Thomas Design Associates.

Across seven floors, Big Biba offered a fantasy land of fashion and unexpected encounter. On the Ground floor you could find accessories, hats, underwear, cosmetics, books, papers, and music. The first floor was given to women’s fashion, then children and expecting mothers above with men’s designs on the third floor. But there was more, this was a far greater ambition than the three boutiques that went before. This was a place to come and dwell, perhaps spend a whole day and only make one purchase, if at all. “If an one of the shop girls came over and asked to help you, they were sat on the spot,” Pell explains of an atmosphere that was not designed for the hard sell and was quite in contrast to department stores of the time, “they wanted people to come in and just chill.”



Biba sold furniture, china, paint, and wallpaper, all found on the fourth floor, while in the basement was food, drink, and takeaway meals – including Biba’s own-brand products. The fifth floor was party central with the 500-seater Rainbow Restaurant offering drinks, food, and dancing under rainbow deco lights – the menu with an eclectic mix of 70s classics (Ham and Pease Pudding, Spotted Dick) and a variety of worldly foods (Saudekraut (sic) and Kassleribben (sic), Chinese Noodles, and Pouffs Pudding (?)). It was in this room that the New York Dolls, the Ronettes, Bill Haley, and Ian Durey performed, as well as hosting a private party for Liberace.

Accessible from here was a roof garden decorated with five metres tall horticultural decorations made by artist Andrew Logan, and a changing variety of birds: ducks, doves, flamingos, and (briefly) penguins called it home amongst swinging sixtiers enjoying sandwiches, cakes and Biba-branded wine (75p for half a litre) within a forested garden of escape.


There is an excellent book on the Big Biba architecture and design available from the Fashion & Textile Museum shop. If you’re lucky, it will be sold to you by the cashier who told of her 18th birthday party in the store amongst other personal memories of just being – let alone shopping – in its seven floors of decadence – taking tins of dog food from the stomach of Othello, a giant cartoon Great Dane display cabinet, sitting on the entrance bench watching the crowds and having Mick Jagger sit next to you for a cigarette, and more.

Welcome to Big Biba – by Steven Thomas and Alwyn W Turner, and which has recently been republished by ACC Art Books – captures the incredible interiors and experiences incredibly well with rich archive images, recounted memories, and factual record. In it you can find images of: the kids floor, replete with a moated castle and wild west street formed of buildings from the original 1930s Disneyland, designed by Steven Thomas working with Bernard Spencer, art director at Thames TV; Andy Warhol inspired displays of soup and tinned foods; a deco-detailed bookshop larger than some local libraries are now; the wooden boat which displayed fresh fish, while speakers played sounds of waves, seagulls, and a ship creaking in waves; the faux-stone chateau wine cellar, including cobwebs; the Sarah Bernheidt lingerie department, complete with a leopard-print four-poster bed; Egyptian-themed changing rooms; the area for pregnant women featuring scaled-up furniture from Ken Russell’s film The Boyfriend to help the occupants feel smaller; and whole display rooms presenting arrangements of furniture, furnishings, and kitsch accessories.


The Sunday Times said that “Marlene Dietrich would feel at home,” while Dennis Potter witheringly described it a “tat palace in Kensington High Street which has timed its Thirties décor to such perfection that it only wants a pavement band of the unemployed outside.” This all only makes it more of a shame that within the exhibition this whole richness of the Biba experience is somewhat missing. There is an excellent curation of Hulanicki-designed fashion but the depth of immersion in what was a brand and project far, far beyond just clothing is a bit lacking – a Spotify playlist of 60s/70s songs (seemingly not including those artists mentioned above) playing throughout seems a gesture at best.

An opening wall text outlining key developments in the Biba story intermingled with political and social happenings followed by a corridor of deco wall lights referencing those at Big Biba help set the scene, and the vitrines of fashion are punctuated by large prints of images. But, in the main, the wider architecture and sense of magnificence that Big Biba was is background and almost accidental in a focus on fashion. Yes, this is a museum dedicated to fashion, but arguably fashion more than any other art is nothing without the context within which it is made and presented.

The exhibition is worth seeing, and as a small organisation the Fashion & Textile Museum is worth supporting, but the concentrated focus on fashion will limit the potential audience for what was gesamtkunstwerk which documented the cross-cultural 1960s and 70s like nothing else – architecture, design, fashion, music, politics, and swag.


It was an explosion, and it didn’t last long. Big Biba was only in existence for two years and the entire Biba project was only a decade old before it folded. In 1973, one month before the store opened, Dorothy Perkins and the 75% of shares not owned by Hulanicki and Fitz-Williams were taken under the control of British Land. Big Biba was an explosion of joy and excess, but it was set against the early-seventies oil crisis, miners’ strike, and three-day week. Within the associated property slump the small profit the store made in its first year was not enough for the under-pressure majority owners, who gradually took over management and one by one shut down Big Biba’s floors.

In September 1975 it closed, and the building is now Japan House, H&M, and Marks & Spencer. Hulanicki moved to Brazil with her family, starting a new design project, and then moved on to Miami – where she still resides – to begin a career as a celebrated interior designer. “It's amazing,” Pel explains, “all the social history and how it led a really short life, but it was massively colourful and then it just finished, it didn't limp on and become a Laura Ashley.”

Big Biba was a just moment, but quite a moment, and one which might be looked back on as a starting point for much of modern-day consumerism and shopping experience – if only shops of today had a bit of the excess and play of Biba rather than a condensed and commodified extraction.


Barbara Hulanicki was born in Poland in 1936. The family moved to Palestine for her father's work where they lived until her father was murdered, alongside a Polish journalist, in 1947. The family re-located to England, settling in Hove. Barbara attended Brighton Art College (now University of Brighton) where she studied fashion and art, becoming a pre-eminent fashion illustrator in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
She established Biba in 1963 and on its closure in 1975 she, with her husband and son, moved to Brazil where she established the Barbara Hulanicki label. The family moved to American in the mid-eighties settling in Miami, where Barbara began her career as an interior designer, working on hotels owned by record boss Chris Blackwell. She continues to live and work in Miami today. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, most recently being given the keys to Miami city for her contribution to the renewal of Miami through her interior design work.
Barbara Hulanicki lost the Biba name in 1975. It has been re-launched numerous times since then, most notably as a stand-alone shop on London's Conduit Street in the late 1970s, as a high end ready-to-wear label with the designer Bella Freud in 2006, and currently as a department within House of Fraser, all without Barbara Hulanicki's involvement.

Martin Pel is curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton. He has curated numerous exhibitions including Lee Miller: Dressed (2023), Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion (2019), and Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki (2012). He has authored, co-authored and edited four books including The Biba Years 1963 – 1974, which was co-authored with Barbara Hulanicki (V&A Publishing, 2014).

ACC Art Books is one of the world’s leading publishers and distributors of books on the arts and visual culture. They sell and market beautiful books to retailers and wholesalers worldwide, making sure that they are available to the widest possible audiences.
Their own publications represent more than 50 years of innovation, including collaborations with some of the world’s foremost artists, fashion designers, architects and photographers. ACC Art Books began in 1966 by developing essential reference works on the decorative arts, many of which remain in print as the standard texts in their field. That included the first price guides to antique silver and furniture, along with definitive volumes on jewellery, British art and British architecture. Today they continue those traditions by working with many leaders in the fields of culture and bespoke luxury.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha Studios.

vist & buy

The Biba Story, 1964-1975, curated by Martin Pel, is on at the Fashion & Textile Museum, London, until 08 September. Details available at:

Welcome to Big Biba by Steven Thomas and Alwyn W Turner is published by ACC Art Books. It is available from the Fashion & Textile Museum shop and online here:


fig.i Floral print shift dress and matching tote bag and hat by Biba,
1966 (b/w photo), Peter Atherton, © Fashion Museum Bath / Bridgeman Images
fig.ii English model Twiggy sits alone in the Rainbow Room of Biba’s
Kensington store, 1973. ©Justin de Villeneuve / Iconic Images
fig.iii Big Biba promotional newspaper, designed by Kasia Charko
figs.iv,xiv,xvi The Big Biba store, photographed by Tim White
figs.v,xi-xiii Cover and spreads from Welcome to Big Biba by Steven Thomas and Alwyn W Turner, published by ACC Art Books. Biba promotional image. ©Justin de Villeneuve / Iconic ImagesSed
fig.vii Big Biba food hall back. Image courtesy of the Fashion & Textile Museum.
fig.viii English model Twiggy models a leopardskin robe against an ancient Egyptian-style backdrop at Biba’s Kensington store, 1973.
©Justin de Villeneuve / Iconic Images
fig.ix Exhibition Big Biba Display © Fashion and Textile Museum
fig.x Big Biba swing tickets. Image courtesy of the Fashion & Textile Museum.
fig.xv,xxi The Big Biba store, photographed by Tim Street-Porter
fig.xvii Twiggy reclines on a faux leopard skin bed wearing Biba in the
Biba fashion store for an article about the designer Barbara Hulanicki,
December 1973 ©Justin de Villeneuve / Iconic Images
fig.xviii Big Biba tinned food, Image courtesy of the Fashion & Textile Museum.
fig.xix Big Biba waters. Image courtesy of the Fashion & Textile Museum.
fig.xx Portrait of Barbara Hulanicki in the Exhibition © Fashion and Textile Museum

publication date
02 April 2024

1960s, 1970s, ACC Art Books, Art deco, Biba, Big Biba, Bridgit Bardot, Brighton, British Land, Boutique, Clothes, Consumerism, Department store, Disney, Dorothy Perkins, Fashion, Fashion & Textile Museum, Bernard George, Barbara Hulanicki, Interior design, Will Jennings, Andrew Logan, Stephen Fitz-Simon, Kensington, London, Martin Pell, Dennis Potter, Restaurant, Roof terrace, Ken Russell, Steven Thomas, Alwyn W Turner, TwiggyAndy Warhol