When Barbara Hulanicki came to speak at the Ognisko last Monday on a whistlestop tour from Miami – where she lives and runs a design business – she was dressed, as always, in her trademark head to toe black (a colour of which she claims there are at least 30 different shades). With her black sunglasses, tanned skin and blond hair, you would know she was famous just by looking at her, all of which makes her modesty and rather deferential manner slightly disarming.
It’s not often you get to meet a living icon, which is what fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki OBE indisputably is. Her fashion brand Biba, which began in the early 1960s as a mail-order business selling her designs, grew into a lifestyle which came to epitomise the swinging sixties. From baby doll make-up and red-soled high heels to black and purple nappies, Biba was at the centre of the newly emerging youth culture of the 1960s; and behind the furore was a beautiful young Polish girl with a fresh and exciting vision.
Born in Warsaw in 1936, Barbara Hulanicki said her childhood was so happy it was “almost boring”, until tragedy struck. The daughter of a Polish diplomat, she moved to Palestine aged four, when her father was posted there as Polish consul. She describes holidays swimming in the dead sea, travelling Lebanon, Jordan and Syria with her parents and her two sisters. But then in 1948, three years after the end of World War Two, her father was assassinated by Zionist extremists and the idyll fell apart. She fled to Brighton with her mother and sisters where they were helped by a wealthy and opinionated aunt. Hulanicki recalls her sustained rebellion against her aunt: “I was always wrong. My feet were too big, my hair was wrong, I would never get married.” Even when the Biba phenomenon was at the height of its success, Hulanicki’s aunt still referred to it as “Barbara’s junk shop”.
Against her aunt’s wishes – she didn’t want her niece associating with arty types “with dirty fingernails” – Hulanicki went to art school in Brighton in 1954. She then worked as a freelance illustrator for a number of magazines including Vogue and Tatler, taking her to the Paris fashion shows which bored her. “I had an awful introduction to fashion,” she said. “I hated Dior, I hated Balenciaga. It was all fashion for ladies who lunched.” For Hulanicki, fashion was more fun and more rebellious than that: growing up, all she wanted was “a dirndl skirt with felt poodles stuck on it”, she says, laughing. And she would have it as soon as she was free of her aunt’s controlling clutches.
Hulanicki held fast to her vision – inspired by Audrey Hepburn, by the films of Garbo and Dietrich, and by costumes worn in Hollywood musicals of the time; and she explains that her penchant for black stems from a childhood where women simply didn’t wear it. “Black is the ultimate rebellion,” she says, although her signature retro oranges and leopard print patterns are still exceptions to the rule.
Biba began as a mail-order business, which Hulanicki and her husband advertising executive Stephen Fitz-Simon ran from home. Business was slow initially and they were about to give up, when Felicity Green from the Daily Mirror requested one of their pink gingham dresses. Suddenly half of London wanted the same dress and they ended up selling 17,000 copies of it. “It was hell,” says Hulanicki, who didn’t even like the dress. “Production is a nightmare. Don’t ever do it.” But Biba had exploded, creating a fashion revolution, making clothes affordable for the very first time.
In 1964, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon opened the first Biba shop on Kensington Church street. And the shops, the largest of which was seven stories high, were revolutionary in themselves. Designed to look and feel like someone’s living room, the shops were dimly lit and filled with music and art deco furniture, which gave them a lavish and decadent feel. The first thing Hulanicki did was put sofas outside the changing rooms so that boyfriends had somewhere to sit. She also introduced the first communal changing room, where celebrities like Julie Christie and Barbara Streisand could be seen trying on clothes. “The girls who worked in the shop were very blase, but I loved the celebrities. I would come to the shop just to see who was in!” Hulanicki recalls. A young Anna Wintour, now Editor of American Vogue, was one of Biba’s first shop girls.
Hulanicki sums up how much the Biba revolution meant to young people at the time: “Young women who earned £9 a week would spend £3 on food, £3 pounds on a bedsit and £3 on Biba.” Among them was a pre-fameTwiggy, who came to the shop every Saturday to spend her pocket money. “She just used to stand there trying clothes on and I would think: “Who is this amazing person?” Biba fast became more than a shop: it became a way of life, a celebrity hang-out, counting The Beatles and The Rolling Stones among its regulars.
Sadly Biba closed down in 1975 due to financial difficulties, but the brand, the phenomenon which Hulanicki created, endures. Today, Biba clothes are like gold dust; and if you aren’t lucky enough to have a Biba piece yourself, you can see them on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. And Hulanicki, who is a fabulous as she always was, is still designing, making clothes and interiors, and partnering with brands from Fiorucci and Cacharel to Topshop and House of Fraser. All the while this designer, who received an OBE in 2012, remains serene and grateful – an unassuming icon.
A Talk by Barbara Hulanicki OBE was part of the ongoing programme of cultural events at Ognisko Polskie, South Kensington, London.