Barbara Hulanicki, Queen of Fast Fashion
The Biba look was the quintessential fashion look of the ’60s, and its owner a style trailblazer who created the first modern, mass-market fashion brand.
Picture a tall, leggy woman strutting the streets of London in a silk catsuit and ostrich feather boa, her kohl-rimmed eyes peeking out beneath an enormous floppy hat.
This is the Biba girl, the brainchild of legendary designer Barbara Hulanicki, whose affordable and edgy fashion brand embodied the Swinging Sixties. And her enormously popular Kensington shop, now largely forgotten outside the fashion world, set the stage for today’s boutique shopping experience.
There has been something of a Biba renaissance in recent years. Hulanicki was the subject of a 2009 documentary, Beyond Biba, based on her 2007 autobiography From A to Biba. And now, for the 50th anniversary of the infamous ‘60s label, comes The Biba Years: 1963 – 1975, a new coffee table book celebrating the designer’s transformative brand on its 50th anniversary.
The Polish-born Hulanicki spent much of her childhood in Jerusalem, coming to Britain after her father Witold Hulanicki, the Polish Consul General in Palestine, was assassinated in 1948 just months before the formation of the Israeli state. The family moved to London to live with her mother’s very wealthy, very stylish half-sister, Sophie Gassner, who looked after 12-year-old Hulanicki and her two sisters.
“She introduced me to a new lifestyle which was very Victorian and very stuffy,” the 77-year-old Hulanicki says of her status-obsessed aunt, gasping theatrically. “Oh my goodness me, was she stylish.” Speaking by phone from her home in Miami, Hulanicki has a warm, warbling voice—part Greta Garbo, part Julia Child—and a baritone laugh.
“It was heavy fashion, all about diamonds and pearls and beautiful clothes—all very serious,” she recalls, giggling at the word “serious.” Years later, Hulanicki would recreate the boas, silks, and sequined skull caps, all inspired by Aunt Sophie’s au courant 1930s aesthetic. “It was everything that I hated at the time! But then of course it seeped through my pores years later, and I made fake versions of everything she wore for Biba.”
In her early 20s, Hulanicki found work as a fashion illustrator for The London Times, working her way up from “making tea to going to all of the shows in Paris and then doing newspaper editorials.” The shows were much less glamorous back then, she says, describing them as “dressmakers’ shows for older women” when compared to today’s runway scene which is “more like showbiz.”
In 1961, Hulanicki married Stephen “Fitz” Fitz-Simon, a young British businessman whom she met at a party in London. “The minute we met we just got on like a house on fire,” she says. “We were both kind of rebels, I suppose.” Two years after marrying, Hulanicki and Fitz set up Biba’s Postal Boutique, a mail order label for young women desperate to liven up their drab, post-war closets. But it was Fitz’s background in advertising that transformed Biba from a mail-order success into a retailing phenomenon.
The Biba brand exploded in 1964 with the phenomenal success of a pink and white gingham frock called “the Barbara.” After it was featured in The Daily Mirror, Biba moved 17,000 of them at 25 shillings each (about $36 today). “That gave us a huge entree into manufacturing in London,” says Hulanicki. “All of the Greeks wanted to know about us.”
Hulanicki and Fitz used the money to open a boutique in an abandoned chemist’s shop on Abingdon Road in Kensington. “I was really into lovely old premises that hadn’t been tampered with. And this one was absolutely beautiful with all of these arch windows and original peeling paint outside.”
After the drabness of the 1950s, her clothes were chic and slightly transgressive, but not haute couture. “They were for the girl in the street,” says Hulanicki. “They earned 9 pounds a week and would spend 3 pounds on a bedsitter [apartment], 3 pounds on food, and 3 pounds in Biba.”
Hulanicki says the decorative arts strongly influenced her designs—“all of those pre-Raphaelite paintings”—and even the black and gold chemist bottles from the Abingdon store, which became the official colors of Biba.
Hulanicki hired shopgirls who embodied the Biba brand: modish, thin, and flat-chested, with large, doll-like eyes and an air of insouciance. “I looked for brains and beauty and spunk,” she says. (Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, once worked there.) And the girls attracted as many visitors to the store as the clothes.
“The rock stars would all come in to see them,” says Hulanicki. Members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks frequently dropped in. “The girls were so blasé about the men who came in to flirt with them—I mean genuinely blasé.”
She remembers one employee blithely describing some “old man” who was stalking the store one day: the swarthy Italian actor and “La Dolce Vita” star Marcello Mastrianni. “Barbra Streisand was pregnant when she came in and went into the communal changing room, though we offered her something private. It was very democratic.”
But Hulanicki, who pioneered boutique culture (her son and dog, a Great Dane, were also regular fixtures in the stores), catered as much to men as women. “I had a husband who didn’t like to shop, so I put sofas everywhere so that the lads had somewhere to sit.”
As her clothes became ubiquitous, Hulanicki saw a demand to develop Biba into a lifestyle brand. “At the time there was nothing in England for the home except for what you found in junk shops. And there was no make-up. Food was dreadful. Children’s stuff was really horrible—very old-fashioned and not much to choose from.”
So in 1974, Hulanicki and Fitz moved the shop into a rundown, Art Deco department store in High Street Kensington, opening a five-story fashion emporium, Big Biba, selling everything from furniture to baked beans and dog food. Its first floor was pure Biba: a lavish, Edwardian bazaar with silks, fake furs, and feather boas draped on hatstands and plush sofas at the center of public changing rooms. David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, and Marianne Faithfull were regulars at the Rainbow Room, a restaurant on the fifth floor.
But Hulanicki never thought of Biba as a “brand” in the modern sense. “Everything happened organically, and it was very fast fashion, very immediate. We didn’t have committees planning what we were going to design for the next season.” Despite drawing thousands of customers every week, Big Biba ran into financial trouble in 1975, forcing Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon to sell out to Dorothy Perkins, who closed it down soon after. (Hulanicki no longer owns the Biba name.)
After leaving Biba in 1976, she became a well-known interior and exterior designer in the revival of the Miami Art Deco District. “I just sort of fell into it,” she says of arriving in Miami 20 years ago to work on Ronnie Wood’s club in South Beach, Woody’s. “Six months turned into two years, then three, and we never left! It was really incredible what was happening here. It was such a lovely, shabby, many deco building town and completely unexploited. And then all of these people came and started investing in it. I just happened to be here!”
“It was awfully like the fashion world. Today it’s very corporate with all the new hotels. But in those days there were very creative people like Chris Blackwell who really did the first boutique hotel. My brief from him was, ‘I want Jamaica in South Beach.’ And he got Jamaica!”
Hulanicki has kept up with fashion design, collaborating with big brands like Topshop and designing for the supermarket label, George at Asda. She enjoyed working with Topshop because they “worked exactly the way we used to. They had a patent cutting in house doing the samples and you could check the samples--whereas the big manufacturers send stuff to China and what comes back is just a bunch of measurements that don’t relate to the garment.”
Topshop is in many ways today’s answer to Biba, except “a bit too generic,” says Hulanicki. There’s no clear equivalent to Biba’s blend of luxury aesthetic, affordable price points, and boutique shopping experience. Hulanicki says we need a middle ground between high-end boutiques and for-the-people stores like H&M. “The big designers will put a wonderful Zaha Hadid sofa in the middle of their shops, but you can’t tell if you’re supposed to sit down,” she says. “And these places are really for rich people. Full stop.”
When I ask about the defining moments of her career, Hulanicki says she hopes they’re yet to come. “I don’t like the past so much, which is one of the reasons why I love living in America. England is very retrospective and there’s comfort in that, but I like the ‘Forget yesterday, it’s tomorrow that counts’ mentality here.”
And she has ambitious plans for the future.
“I want to do film, to start from the bottom and work my way up into production and visuals and sets and clothes—the whole bloody lot. It will take another lifetime! But I don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon.”