Interview with Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki
PUBLISHED: 15:38 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:52 20 February 2013
As a major exhibition opens in her home town of Brighton, the queen of retro reveals the inside story of her iconic clothing label and shares her seaside memories. Interview by Angela Wintle
It all started with a pink gingham dress. Back in 1964, the Daily Mirror asked fledgling fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki to design a mail order dress costing just 25 shillings inspired by glamorous images of Brigitte Bardot pictured beside the glittering waters of St Tropez. Barbaras response was a pink, sleeveless dress with a round hole at the back and a matching head scarf all in one tiny size, 000 and it became an overnight sensation.
It marked the dawn of Biba, that iconic fashion label which produced the coolest, grooviest, sexiest clothes the world had ever seen. This was affordable fashion aimed exclusively at the youth market and Britain had never seen anything like it.
At its flagship department store in the old Derry & Toms building overlooking Kensington High Street (a sort of hippy Harrods that sold everything from leopard-print and underpants to dog food), Mick Jagger came to ogle the smoky-eyed girls while Tony Curtis took tea in the famous roof garden, where penguins and flamingos wandered at will with often chaotic consequences.
Biba came to define a generation and it all started in Brighton a fact that will be celebrated at a major exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery this September, showcasing the Biba lifestyle, as well as Barbaras other successful
careers in design, fashion illustration and interiors.
Outwardly, Barbara whose look has long been characterised by a slick, ash-blonde bob and dark glasses looks as steely and poised as her fearsome fashion counterpart Anna Wintour, who, coincidentally, started her career as a Biba Saturday girl. But thats where the similarities end. Barbaras softy spoken voice and dry humour are immediately disarming, though she acknowledges her austere public image can be deceptive.
My hair is fine and wont go any other way, she shrugs, explaining her trademark style. As for the dark glasses, theyre absolutely necessary because Im blind as a bat thats what old age brings! And her memories of Wintour? She was quiet... and a little chubby, she laughs mischievously.
Barbara, 75, is speaking from her London home, though her main base is the sun-drenched coast of Miami, where she runs her own design studio and has carved a niche designing commercial hotels and clubs (Ronnie Wood and Gloria Estefan are clients).
She came to Brighton to Preston Park and then Hove aged 12 when her father, the Polish Consul General in Palestine, was assassinated on the orders of Moscow in 1948. A Polish Catholic, he had helped Polish Jews flee Nazi persecution before the war, but it was his anti-Communist views which were to prove his undoing.
Life in Palestine was sweet, but Barbaras memories of sleepy Fifties Brighton where she, her mother and two sisters sought sanctuary with a stern aunt, are less fond. Barbara and her siblings were made to dress very correctly in twin-sets and pearls, and had to report home by 10pm each evening. Ironically, her aunts elegant haute couture look was to prove one of the biggest influences on Biba design.
Barbara cut her cloth at Brighton Art College where she studied fashion design under the formidable Joanne Brogden. She terrified me. She was very disciplined and never told you when youd done well, though it spurred you on to do better. Fashion design wasnt highly regarded in a school which prided itself on fine art and illustration. We spent many classes drawing saggy nudes usually the homeless women on Brighton beach, she laughs.
She was advised to go into fashion illustration because she was so bad at pattern cutting, and landed a job at the Fashion Illustration Studio in Covent Garden where she worked for such leading titles as Vogue, Queen and the Arts Post. As fashion photography was yet to filter into the mainstream, her job was to encapsulate the key looks of the season with a few deft lines of her pen.
She changed course when she met her future husband and business partner Stephen Fitz-Simon, who advised her to return to her design roots. They set up a mail-order business from her bedroom, with the aim of making beautiful clothes as affordable as possible and it took off with that pink gingham dress.
Before Biba, there were absolutely no clothes for young people in England. In America, there were wonderful things happening, but in the UK we were all desperate, just desperate, for clothes. Her answer was to design affordable mini-skirts, floppy felt hats, feather boas, velvet trouser suits and unisex T-shirts dyed in rich muted colours.
At Biba, we designed for just one type the wonderful English girl with pale white skin and long, long legs. Our look was feminine, with twilight colours which looked great in the English wintery light. We did prunes and purples, dark bluebottle, rough rich colours and a few brights. We didnt care about seasons or any nonsense like that. Our reference points were the stars of films and Fifties musicals Esther Williams, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn.
The first Biba boutique was located in a former chemists shop in Kensington and it quickly became a hangout for youngsters who wanted something a little dark, a little glamorous and a little different from the prevailing mod aesthetic of the time. Its stylishly decadent atmosphere and lavish decor inspired by Art Nouveau and Art Deco attracted artists, film stars and rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Twiggy and Julie Christie. Even Princess Anne dropped in.
It was dark inside and we played loud music. People called it the black hole and made up stories about what happened inside. Nobody over a certain age dared go in. But were our lives decadent? Are you kidding? We were working too hard!
Nevertheless, people bought into the vibe. I thought the way to get the boyfriends to stay was to get them a seat, so we emulated this place in Beverley Hills that had a pool table and sofas by the window where the guys could watch the girls go by. It helped, of course, that all our assistants were extremely beautiful. There werent many clubs in those days and people didnt go out to eat, so the boutique became a big meeting place.
Two more shops followed, but by the time Bibas doors closed in 1976 it had evolved into an elaborate five-storey department store combining Hollywood glamour with Victoriana and Pop Art. Shoppers could dine in the Rainbow Room restaurant and night club, which hosted everyone from the New York Dolls to Liberace, or drink cocktails in the roof garden where equally exotic creatures ruled the roost.
The penguins were horrid... disgusting! exclaims Barbara. They were dangerous, pecked like mad and the leader of the pack got so angry on one occasion that he stormed into the Rainbow Room, closely followed by all the other penguins, which terrified the diners.
In the late Sixties, Brighton briefly had its own Biba store in 21 Queens Road. Stock was disappearing by the armful, and when a very famous ex-boxer came to see the governor in Church Street [Kensington] to demand protection money, we felt we should call it a day.
But even Biba HQ vanished almost as quickly as it emerged. There were many reasons (the struggling British economy, the oil crisis), but the tipping point came when a summer catalogue failed to take off, forcing them to join forces with Dorothy Perkins, which, in turn, was bought out by the investment company British Land. Ultimately, relations turned sour and Barbara lost control of the business.
And yet the Biba name lives on. Last year, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery appealed to people with cherished Biba items to bring them along to their Bring in Your Biba Day. We had an astonishing response from women across the country, but it was particularly strong from Sussex, says Helen Grundy, Keeper of Exhibitions at the Royal Pavilion and Museums. Women from across the county brought in their treasured items and contributed to oral histories about Biba particularly their memories of shopping at Biba in Brighton. A few even lent us garments which will be on display in the exhibition.
Barbara, with typical modesty, thinks the label owes its longevity to the remarkable times which spawned it. The Sixties was a very creative time and we keep coming back to that period. Unlike retailers today, we werent governed by a lot of gentlemen sitting round a large table.
Nevertheless, she refuses to live in the past. She has just completed her 25th capsule collection for George at Asda and continues to design everything from wallpaper to fireplaces. This year her services to fashion were officially recognised when she received an OBE in the Queens New Year Honours List.
I dont stop and Im not going to either, she says, with a hint of defiance. Work to me isnt work. And Im just as hungry.
Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki runs at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery from September 22 until April 14 next year. For further information, visit http://www.brighton-hove-museums.org.uk