There was once a golden age when the average working girl shopped every weekend for her groceries and a new dress to wear on Saturday night. For under £5 she kept well in step with fashion, even if the clothes fell apart after two washes.
The sixties saw the burgeoning of many one day wonder boutiques. Few measured up to the appeal of Biba and Bus Stop, which dominated the Kensington High Street/Church Street fashion axis until the overblown Biba closed in 1974.
Bus Stop, opened by Lee Bender and her husband Cecil in 1968, kept a lower profile and has had better staying power. Sad then that after eleven years, and with a cross country chain of eleven branches, they have announced debts of £750,000. Bus Stop is in the hands of the receivers and will soon be sold.
Lee Bender, who is responsible for the bright, glittering Bus Stop ‘look’ and wears it herself with considerable panache, has been living with the news for four weeks. After much heartache and a bad dose of ‘flu, she has decided that the only way to deal with the disaster is to approach it philosophically.
‘My husband rang me while I was in Paris to tell me what had happened. I had no idea things had got so bad; I was knocked for six but now that I’ve had time to think, I’ve decided it’s probably for the best. It seems to me that opening High Street boutiques is no longer the interesting thing to do if you’re in the fashion industry. I am going to have a very long, hard think and come up with something different but I’m not saying what.’
Turning a small, experimental business into a roaring success was easy 10 years ago says Bender. The difficult part was foreseeing problems. That, she says, would have been like peeking at the last page of a novel before reading the second chapter to see if everyone lived happily ever after.
‘I looked at the Biba operation and saw that, instead of specialising in one thing which is what designers had done until then, the thing to do was to concentrate on a total look. My husband and I had a manufacturing business at the time called Lee Cecil, so we relied on that and I designed a small collection on the side. My husband found and rented the old Oakeshotts in Kensington Church Street complete with Victorian fittings and the thing took off like a rocket.
‘The night before we opened I was up till four in the morning painting the shop and when I went in before nine to Hoover the carpets, there were girls queueing up outside. It was quite incredible. I had made about a dozen of everything and we sold out in hours. We were a mad, glorious success.’
What had begun as a sideline mushroomed and took over. Lee Cecil became smaller and smaller and after a year, Cecil Bender began looking for shops throughout the country to convert into Bus Stop boutiques. Lee designed two big collections a year and filled in the gaps with smaller ranges. The clothes sold as soon as they were put on the rails. The latest Bus Stop suit or dress took a weekly slice out of wage packets from Bristol to Newcastle and Southampton to Edinburgh.
They continued to expand until three years ago. ‘When we started we were on our own except for Biba,’ says Bender. ‘Girls were hungry for cheap, pretty, trendy clothes, and it cost the same to make them as it cost to produce cheap, nasty clothes so we couldn’t lose. I design for a particular kind of young girl who earns her living and likes to look good and have a good time. She could afford, in those days, to blow part of her weekly wages on clothes. Now she is the girl who has been hit hardest by inflation.’
With prices rising rapidly over the past three years, nice clothes could no longer be cheap, but the girl she designs for was still walking into Bus Stop expecting to be able to buy nice – and cheap. ‘This girl can now go into one of a dozen shops to buy something she needs or wants. Once upon a time we were very special, we were innovators but all that has gone by the board because there are small, trendy boutiques in every High Street in the country.’
The weather has also contributed to the demise of Bus Stop. A lousy summer and a late winter means low turnover, means disaster. ‘We shifted garments last summer but not enough of them. Other boutiques buy in their stuff. If the weather is preventing people from buying new clothes, the buyers will be told to order smaller quantities and they can ride out those problems. But when you’re designing the entire stock yourself you can’t do that because you have to think ahead and you can’t predict a bad summer or a warm autumn.’
1979 has been a dead year, says Bender, and it’s going to be a difficult winter for everyone. ‘Looking at my situation in retrospect, I suppose what we should have done was buy in a lot of stuff, and I should have turned out very small collections. In that way we could have played it by ear. But it would have been very hard to sacrifice the individuality of the operation. The whole Bus Stop look is my handwriting and I know my girl. I know how to keep one step ahead of her. I think if I’m being really honest, I’m glad we didn’t compromise.’
Bender reckons that young people haven’t changed in the past 11 years. ‘Their desire to spend hasn’t declined; they just can’t afford to buy as much. I think this phase will last for about two years, and then something new and exciting will emerge and I will be part of it, whatever it is.’
This period of ‘leisure,’ constructive though it may be, is driving Mrs Bender to distraction. ‘I love to leave the house every morning and go to work. I never take half days off to go shopping or sit in the hairdresser so I must get back to work soon. I’ve been offered jobs as a consultant, so I’ll do that until I’ve decided on the next campaign.’ Ambition, she says, is the driving force of her life; success is compulsory so whatever she takes on, if you’re her girl, you’ll be hearing about it.