Obituary: Stephen Fitz-Simon

Liz Smith
Monday 20 January 1997 00:02

Flashback in time to the Swinging Sixties. The place is London. Among the usual colourful cast of pop stars, artist, actors and fashion photographers at the decade-long party, you would almost certainly notice a kohl-eyed vamp, her feather boa fluttering around a slinky low-cut sequinned jacket. That is the Biba girl, embodiment of the innocent decadence of her time, brilliant brainchild of the designer Barbara Hulanicki and brought to life as the retailing phenomenon of the Sixties and Seventies by Barbara's husband, Fitz.

Just as Barbara swept great gusts of glamour into life, it was Stephen Fitz-Simon (known by all as Fitz) who turned the dusty business of fashion retailing on its head with his enormous sense of fun and constant air of amused cynicism. They made a glamorous couple and appeared so closely bonded it is impossible to talk about one without the other. Although it is her name that became the fashion legend, Barbara and Fitz created Biba together. It was Fitz who turned Barbara's remarkable style into solid retailing strategy. Yet he was an improbable candidate for a career in the fashion business.

The Fitz-Simons were a Norman-Irish family who had moved to England in 1909. Fitz, the son of a motor engineer, was born in 1937 and educated at Beaumont College, the Jesuit public school in Surrey (now closed). He claimed that after National Service he earned a living throwing darts in London pubs. In fact he went into advertising and had become an account executive at LPE (London Press Exchange) when his raffish good looks caught Barbara's attention across a crowded room at a party. Barbara says she decided then that he was the man for her.

The daughter of a Polish diplomat who was assassinated in Palestine in 1948, Barbara had left Brighton art school by then and was a successful fashion illustrator. Fitz's handsome features were recognisable in many Hulanicki fashion sketches from 1959 on. They did not meet again for two years, by which time he was engaged to someone else. Fitz broke off his engagement and married Barbara in November 1961.

It was Fitz who first encouraged Barbara to design clothes and market them by mail order. In 1963 Biba's Postal Boutique - the name Biba was borrowed from one of Barbara's sisters - was tentatively launched. Their first major success came a year later - a pink and white gingham frock with Bardot-style headscarf to match. A record 17,000 gingham dresses sold, at 25 shillings (pounds 1.25) each, after it was featured in the Daily Mirror in May 1964, with the Fitz-Simons' profit five bob a dress.

It was, however, Fitz's warm-up for the rag trade. By the time they opened the first Biba shop later that year, in a former chemist's in a Kensington side street, Fitz had given up his advertising job and had become a budding retail tycoon innovating such revolutionary ideas as late-night shopping, low-priced disposable glamour, haughty shop assistants and communal changing rooms. He also learnt fast how to estimate production costs to the nearest penny.

Much of his business was conducted in the local pub, where he took refuge when his tiny office behind the shop was commandeered as a changing room, or when a supplier like Molly Parkin, who was making hats for the shop and became a firm friend, pursued him for payment. If stock sold out before fresh supplies were delivered, the shop just closed a bit early that day. A successful day's takings were celebrated with champagne or Fitz and Barbara might take the sales staff out for dinner. I know - I was one of them.

By mid-1965 Biba moved to a larger shop on Kensington Church Street. In 1968, with sales in the Church Street shop booming, Fitz and Barbara launched the Biba mail-order catalogue. While it was initially a success, the expansion and investment involved with a 5,000 square feet warehouse in Chiswick, teams of quality controllers, packers and managers, meant for the first time that Biba was no longer a tightly controlled family business. The mail-order market, fickle at the best of times, was phased out after five seasons. In 1969, to finance Biba's move to their first large shop in Kensington High Street, the Fitz-Simons sold 75 per cent of the business to Dorothy Perkins.

Fitz relished the cut and thrust of running his retail empire. The day- to-day disasters that dog any venture were treated as a potential source of good-natured amusement. A warm, friendly man - and generous to a fault - he could be prickly and sharp in business deals, able to slug out any deal to his own satisfaction. He appreciated toughness in others too. When Barbara complained about a particularly overbearing employee Fitz had employed, he said, "I know he's a right bastard, but that's what we need."

In 1972, even before Barbara and Fitz made their final move into Big Biba in the Derry & Toms building in Kensington High Street, they realised control of their empire was slipping from their hands. British Land had taken over Dorothy Perkins, Biba's major shareholders. Barbara got her vast five-storey Art Deco emporium and transformed it into a legendary temple to everything hip. "Fitz always made my fantasies come true," Barbara said. "We had many wild dreams. Our problem was they always came true." In 1975, although Biba's end-of-year figures showed a profit - vindication that Fitz's instincts were right - the store closed. The Biba label was sold and today belongs to the Hong Kong entrepreneur Ellen Shek.

The Fitz-Simons moved to Brazil with their son, Witold, then eight, and two Great Dane dogs and started all over again with a new shop in Sao Paulo. This time it was called Barbara Hulanicki and was an instant success. In 1980 they decided to move back to London, to give their son a British education. They stayed just five years, established a cosmetics business, launched a children's clothes line in Japan and even opened another small shop.

When their son left school to go to college in New York to study film, they sold the cosmetics business and moved to Miami, where Barbara had been commissioned by Ronnie Wood to design his South Beach club, Woody's, and where she has buiilt up a new career as an interior decorator. Fitz too was working, on a novel.

In April 1996 Fitz and Barbara were back in the fashion business, briefly. The success of Fitz-Fitz, their new shop in downtown New York, was short- lived. When Fitz became ill in October they closed it. A screenplay written with his son Witold, and completed shortly before Fitz died, will go into production later this year.

Stephen Charles Fitz-Simon, fashion retailer: born Surbiton 5 March 1937; married 1961 Barbara Hulanicki (one son); died Miami 16 January 1997.

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