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The Fantasy of Biba

Walking down Madison Avenue of New York City, the harrowing sight of empty storefronts takes over. The reality of a diminishing retail market sped up by the pandemic sets in. An all too common sighting across main street America. The anxieties of this paradigm are nothing new. Retail giants across the nation have long sought the key without success. Interior designers and architects alike have been commissioned to craft symphonic brick and mortar jewel boxes.

Complete with entrancing marble finishes, alluring music, and a sultry signature scent, these retail gems dot every major shopping district around the globe. Yet when walking past one of these stores, all too commonly the interior remains empty of shopper or empty of soul. The mystery of 21st-century brick and mortar shopping is left unsolved.

In walk Biba, the maestro of 1960s London high street. Created in 1964 by Barbara Hulanicki, Biba enigmatically defined the swinging 60s feel of London style and the retail experience. The first iteration of Biba existed on Abingdon Road in a former chemist's shop. After test running her designs by mail order catalog, Hulanicki opened her storefront to supply London's youthful mods with chic frocks. With its Art Nouveau interiors, loud pop music, and affordably priced garments hanging on hat racks, Biba quickly became the store to be and be seen. Anna Wintour even spent a brief stint as a salesgirl within the store. Success also came from the television store Ready, Steady, Go. The hostess's outfit seen on Friday night could be purchased in-store the next day.

The triumph of Biba led to the creation of 'Big Biba,' a seven-story department store located in the former building of Derry & Toms on Kensington High Street. The genius of 'Big Biba' lies not only in the products, but the artful design of the store. The store's effervescent interiors became such a spectacle it drew up to one million visitors per week making it one of London's most popular attractions.

Departing from the tradition of department store design, each department presented like a crazed tableau of brilliant interior design. Escapism was key. One could shop for lingerie in a lavish boudoir complete with leopard furnishing, a bed, and an Egyptian-themed changing area.

The food department was like something out of a fairytale. All food items were displayed life-sized displays of a particular product. A large soap bar to display cleaning products, a soup can to display canned soups, and of course, a model of Hulanicki's Great Dane to display dog food.

Most notably, the store had the iconic Rainbow Room Restaurant where one could sit and spot stars like Mick Jagger and Twiggy. David Bowie used the space to record music videos from time to time. It is said that Freddie Mercury even met his then-girlfriend while in the store.

While 'Big Biba' was short-lived as it ultimately met its demise due it internal issues after just two years of successful operation, the story of Biba is one for designers to take note of. Biba went beyond the ever-popular term"experiential design". Biba had an identity greater than the store itself. The high octane experience of the store was not about shopping, rather emerging oneself in culture and the pulse of the moment. It was a place to be seen, hang out, and be a part of life. The mastery of such a feat is unparalleled.

Designers of today can draw from Biba's past to bring modern brick-and-mortar retail into a new existence. Today's retail experience must be one of complete discovery steeped character and distinct identity. No longer is a glitzy shell riddled with photo opportunities enough for creating a memorable shopping experience. While now a relic of a bygone era, the genius, and fantasy that was Biba are one to take note of.

x Natalie

Follow Natalie on Instagram: @natalieealdridge

Images: Getty Images and V&A Museum

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