Indomitable and prolific, Barbara Hulanicki’s iconic ’70s emporium Biba changed the landscape of fashion for good. In a season that pays homage to the era more than ever before, we speak to the doyenne about her epic life so far…
At nearly 80, Barbara Hulanicki is the very definition of cool. Impeccable with her trademark blonde bob, enormous Apfelesque sunnies and power-shouldered Rick Owens leather jacket, she’s edgier and better turned out than most women half her age, with more than double the stories. And what stories! From Anna Wintour being one of her original shop girls to David Bowie playing the Rainbow Room – the restaurant which took up the fifth floor of her London department store, Biba, Hulanicki has led one hell of a life. Full of energy and wit, she recounts tale after tale in the kind of wonderfully plummy British accent that you could listen to all day. Warm, passionate and peppering everything with mischievous laughter, you’re left wanting her to adopt you, or at the very least invite you over for dinner so you can get inside her chronicles, absorb as much of them as possible, and feel like, somehow, you’re a bit closer to the legends because of it.
Still going strong in Miami, but previously in Brazil via Brighton and London, Polish-born, Palestinian-raised Hulanicki’s latest incarnation is as an interior designer – something which came about after The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood asked her to “pop over for six months” and decorate a club he was opening. Twenty years later, she’s still there and is responsible for redesigning almost half the city. “A year in I met Chris Blackwell from Island Records who did Bob Marley and all that,” she tells me. “He had a hotel and asked me to do one corridor – like a test. Then he gave me the whole hotel… then he buys ten hotels,” she giggles. “I was a bit taken aback!” After such an incredible fashion career, to have a second wind on such a grand scale seems almost unfathomable. But then again, she’s no ordinary woman. In fact, her influence was so extraordinary that, without her, today’s fashion industry would be a very different place indeed.
Starting her fashion life in 1950s London as an illustrator for Tatler and Vogue, she graduated to mail order design after her friend Felicity Green, Fashion Editor at The Daily Mirror told her to try and replicate a gingham dress seen on Brigitte Bardot and sell it for 25 shillings. 17,000 sales later, Barbara and her entrepreneur husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, knew they had a serious business on their hands. “People don’t realise how bad it was at the time, but you really couldn’t buy anything. It was so stuffy, the high street didn’t exist, there was no middle market… people were starved of clothes!” she says, explaining that there were only dressmakers or what she calls ‘madam shops’ where they’d ask “can I help you madam?” She tapped into the need for affordable fashion and ran with it – all the way to, eventually a six-storey ‘Big Biba’ on High Street Kensington – nothing short of a phenomenon which defined London in the ’70s.
“We were number two for visitors after The Tower of London,” she recalls with incredulity, a bubble of laughter in her throat. “Number three was Buckingham Palace, but we could never beat The Tower of London!” Reportedly attracting a million customers a week, in 1973 it was the first new department store to open post World War II, and became a true destination shop in a way that had previously never existed. A heady combination of Art Deco and Nouveau interiors, Barbara’s on-the-money, youthful designs and accessible price points meant that it was always full to the brim with excitable, beautiful young things.
“There was such a thing as word of mouth back then,” Barbara tells me. “There was a huge underground buzz which is like what’s happening now on Instagram. On certain Saturdays it was enormous. They used to go up to Portobello Road and walk down Church Street into our area.” Hundreds of wide-eyed, fashion-hungry girls, gravitating to what was known as ‘the sexiest shop in the world’, and Barbara acting as a kind of Pied Piper, doing what they called ‘dressing the dolly’. “They all brought their boyfriends, so I put in sofas,” Barbara says. “I always had things for the lads as I could never get Fitz (Barbara’s husband) to get in a shop and stay in a shop!” The very first man creche.
What made it all the more special was that it was a one-stop shop for literally everything, selling Biba-branded baked beans and nappies (black ones – in line with Barbara’s rebellious streak) alongside the fashion and make-up. “I just did everything I needed myself. When I had a baby, I made baby clothes whether everyone else was having babies or not. But my customers all eventually started owning homes so we did homeware too – things like mats and bedspreads. Things that cost nothing – two or three quid – but went with that vintage look.” And of course, price was paramount. “It was Fitz who worked out how much these girls had to spend,” she says, “Everyone had a job back then and they got about £9 (Dhs51) a week. £3 (Dhs17) for a bedsit, £3 for a Biba dress and £3 to eat – and often they didn’t!” Symptomatic of the ideal body type at the time, these skinny, straight up-and-down girls were made for Barbara’s clothes. Or perhaps it was the other way around. “They were post-war babies,” she explains, illuminating why everything came in one size – rationing had made them all super slim. “They weren’t used to exotic food – all this sugar and hamburgers. It was all boiled cabbage without any salt. I remember the excitement when a burger place opened!”
Excitement seemed to be a defining factor of the Biba era – and the store itself; a pseudo-magical emporium with a different theme in every room. The kids section harboured toadstools and a carousel, the music area contained a giant, fully-functioning record player. The dog food was even displayed in a huge statue of Barbara’s Great Dane, Othello. She had tapped into something which the youth desperately needed, and wrapped it up in a marketeers dream – a Wonkaesque shop floor. It became the epicentre of glamorous London; a hub for teenagers and rock stars alike. Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger, Sonny and Cher (“I had no idea who they were!” she laughs) would all stop by. The Rainbow Room, in all its neon Art Deco glory, was serving 1000 lunches a day and then playing host to The New York Dolls at night. Queen’s Live at The Rainbow ’74 was recorded there. Its roof gardens (still open today) were as famous for their live flamingos and penguins as much as their cocktails and cream teas. And the shop girls, naturally, were all beautiful. “We didn’t pick them like that, they just attracted each other! And of course, they became even more gorgeous in the shop with all the clothes and make-up. I was always in the back and I remember asking them who’d come in that day. It was a pregnant Barbara Streisand, they said, and ‘some really old guy’ who’d come in looking for a date that night. Well who was he, who was he? I’d ask. ‘Oh, just some guy. He was really old!’ It turned out to be Marcello Mastroianni! (of La Dolce Vita fame)” she hoots with laughter recalling the memory. “It was hilarious!”
They launched against all advice. “We ignored everyone,” she says. “The more they’d say, ‘are you crazy?’, the more I’d go at it. We were very switched on to that generation, even though we were ten years older. It was instant clothes that you chucked away, but they had to be at the right price. They were throwaway things that were three quid, but my God, have you seen the prices they go for now?!” she gasps about her now highly-collectible designs. “£1,600 (Dhs9,088) or something! It makes me laugh because people used to complain so much about buttons falling off and problems here and there… but look at them still hanging around!”
Working extremely close to sale meant that the girls could see a dress on TV on a Friday, buy it on a Saturday and wear it that night. And they never made more than 300 of any one piece – a powerful combination of exclusivity and instant gratification that was light years ahead of its time. “Whenever we were really rolling, Fitz would come in and say, ‘Dresses! We’ve got to have more dresses!’ and I’d say, ‘But I don’t like dresses!’ and he’d reply, ‘Well they’re selling!’” More laughter. “Back in those days you didn’t have to redesign your entire collection from scratch every season. If something was selling you’d do two or three like it. Now people can’t keep up – and the shops are suffering, as well as the designers. They’re only selling dribs and drabs. And no one has a specific style anymore – you can’t tell who’s who when you open magazines.”
It leads on to a question about the cyclical nature of fashion – how does she feel that the ’70s are back in such a big way? And should designers be copy-pasting from decades past, or work harder to be more innovative? “When spots and stripes came around again, Fitz used to say, ‘my God, can’t they think of anything else?’. Now it’s leopard print and ’70s – they’ve cloned everything. Mind you, back then we were knocking off the ’40s! But people don’t have anywhere else to go which is why they head back to square one.” There’s no doubting Barbara’s originality and pioneering spirit, but why does she think the decade she helped shape is such a constant source of inspiration? “Because things were wearable! And they were designed by women, for women. The clothes now are bonkers… I mean, they’re great to hang in your wardrobe, but I think you have to be drunk or something to put them together!” she chuckles. “Fashion back then was understandable. It was pretty.”
She has a point. Dark, flared denim, floral prints, floaty chiffon, great tailoring and floppy hats – all components of a fabulous wardrobe that works for real women today as well as it did the first time around. “The glossy magazines ignored us at first,” she says, “it was all very taboo and rebellious… you weren’t supposed to be wearing your skirts that short or your hair that long. I mean, it was only the skirts – everything else was covered! But it was against everything that had come before – all the ladies who lunched!” No wonder it was called ‘Biba Fever’.
Biba closed its doors in 1975, Fitz, Barbara and their son Witold heading to Brazil. Now back illustrating, her scarf and T-shirt line Icon Club is an ode to her first love. Crafted from beautiful silks and using Barbara’s original drawings, the pieces are infused with decades of her passion and multi- faceted skill. “I do love it all, though. Whether it’s drawing or designing or interiors – it depends on the person who’s asking you to do it. If your client is fabulous, you do fabulous work. I do lots of different things because you need to move around and pick up the energy.” We’ve got a feeling they’re picking up the energy from her.