Biba and Beyond – Glass interviews Barbara Hulanicki


FASHIONABLE is a word that the design industry has fallen out of love with somewhat. Apart from some of its more juvenile connotations, it’s simply too hard to define what really marks the ability to do fashion. If there has ever been a single individual who has successfully elevated the term, and indeed the concept of fashion-ability beyond personal style, it would have to be Barbara Hulanicki OBE.

From her early days illustrating for magazines such as Vogue and Tatler to selling her first designs through a small mail-order business that was featured in the fashion columns of various newspapers, Hulanicki was destined to launch herself into designing and realising her ideal world: Biba. Intriguing, inspiring and inviting the rest of the world in, the opening of her store in 1964 in London’s hip Kensington would, along with a few other choice events, start the sixties swinging and cement London’s place in fashion history for ever.

A department store where one could rub shoulders with rock stars, decadently designed and sumptuously set out with a lavish art-deco-meets-pop-art décor which she herself described to us as being ‘a bit bonkers’; this was Barbara’s temple of creative freedom.

Today it’s clear that the freedom to create what she desires is, more than anything else, intrinsic to her design and tantamount to her unique and resolute approach to the way it should be executed. Glass speaks to Barbara about her deep connection with fashion and how this has, in recent years, been seamlessly linked with her interior design business.

Biba_4Barbara Hulanicki

You were born in Warsaw, Poland just before the tragic outbreak of World War II following an unprovoked attack in your native country. What is your earliest memory?
Oh gosh, that’s a difficult one. Oh dear … I’ll have to think about that. It wasn’t in the cradle, I can assure you, and one kind of makes memories up from seeing photographs and I don’t think I’d have much luck there.

Can you recall your earliest memory of art, fashion or simply design itself?
That is easier, because we were living in Palestine at the time and there were no toys, so one was always drawing. My mother was very keen for us to be drawing. We were forever drawing and making dresses for dolls too – oh no, wait, there were no dolls, those came later.

Biba_1Biba Cosmetics Campaign, 1968, Picture by Dania Graibe

So you really had to use your imagination from early on. When did you first start to see design differently?
It started early, very early. My mother was always bringing in her dressmaker, again in Palestine – and because I have two sisters, we were, of course, put into all this “matchy-matchy” clothing, all two or three of us at times. I definitely rebelled against that. It really made me mad. I made her go shopping for my shoes because I simply did not want the same shoes as my sister; I distinctly remember the colour red was all wrong for me.

You later found yourself living and studying in Brighton when your family relocated to one of Britain’s South Coast gems. What did you gain from your time there?
Brighton is such a fabulous place now but it was all very different when we were living there. It was a bit like Miami Beach, funnily enough, because of the multitude of old people. The rest were always moaning because they hadn’t had a good summer, so the shops were full of left-over sweets. I spent most of my time in the cinema, however.

Biba_2British model Twiggy in a Biba ensemble at the Big Biba shop, 1972

Fast forward to the new millennium – how would you, as an icon of style, say your designs have always reflected you?
I don’t really design for myself, but I kind of pick lovely simple sort of things that no one can really say, “Urgh, I don’t like that – she doesn’t know what she’s doing!” That’s why I play safe in black.

What makes a piece of carefully and consciously designed applied art special?
Usually the shape and how it looks on the body, or anywhere else for that matter. As I was always illustrating for years before Biba, I was very conscious of the body and shapes; what makes women look good. But the awful thing was, when I was illustrating, if you were working for a brand or even a magazine, all the manufacturers involved would send you clothes that looked ok but were disgusting shapes. They were awful and that’s why they used drawing as such a viable medium – because you can still make anything look nice when it’s drawn. So that’s very important to me, to be able to put pen to paper first and make something appealing.

Biba_3Biba fashion campaign, 1972

You have transformed your inspirations and reference points into a timeless aesthetic, but in today’s world, what do you get excited about and why?
In the past it was always these larger-than-life films. They were one of the first things that really sparked my imagination after having being forced into these grand couture clothes of my aunt’s which, of course, I think are fantastic now – but at the time, when I was around fourteen or fifteen, I thought they were so stuffy! But now, it’s everything, everywhere. There’s so much going on now, often too much at times. In many ways it all comes down to the shape once again, the shape of the clothes. For example, when I go into a shop now, I can spot immediately, “Oh my god, these people really know how to cut”, instead of inhumanely lumping everything off to a third-world country to get it cut for them there.

How would you describe the Biba lifestyle that you created?
It was really all about assembling what we actually needed. Younger generations today have no clue of how there was nothing to buy, absolutely nothing, except vintage – which one lived on. So the lifestyle kind of revolved around vintage and things that worked with the old stuff, which are all now fantastic antiques – but then, you were picking them up for £2, if you can believe it.

Biba_7The Kent Hotel garden, Miami Beach

Obviously, a fabulous fusion of art deco and art nouveau is the aesthetic modus operandi in your world. Could you tell us a little more about where this stemmed from?
Definitely the art nouveau came from my father. He was doing a lot of illustrations at the time in water-colours, which his family thought were terribly (Hulanicki huffs in exasperation)… well, they were very avant-garde at the time. My father was a little bit too advanced for those around him and had that sort of Viennese look, you know. The art deco, it honestly came from old films, which weren’t all that old at the time.

I drew heavily on the early Dietrich and Garbo films, the Cedric Gibbons art direction, the whole lifestyle of it all. It’s funny because when young people begin to see these things in a different way, it gets its own new character, and even now when people re-do the swinging sixties and glam seventies, they’re doing it almost looking through rose-tinted glasses. But it works.

Between 1963 and 1975, Biba became a household name throughout the UK and elsewhere. For many of these years, it reigned style supreme. How would you best describe this time?
There really wasn’t anything much around us, so you were free to do an awful lot of what you felt without much comment. There was a fair bit of flack because it was very against the parents; it pitted the younger against the older because many still thought children should be seen and not heard. It all created some wonderful drama – parents wouldn’t dream of coming into our first shop – god forbid what they thought was going on in there.

Biba_6Barbara Hulanicki for Chesney’s fireplaces

Speaking of this, how can one benefit from looking back at iconic design of yesteryear?
I think it washes off on you for the best, and it’s better than looking at other people’s work from the same time, because nowadays you’ve got a lot of fantastic work, but it often seems everybody just copies everybody else. They feel insecure unless they’re all doing the same thing as somebody else.

Where did you find all the courage to be one of the first to really go against the grain throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s?
When I first met my husband Fitz, he soon picked up on the fact that I was so browbeaten by my aunt. This must have been around the time I was about twenty, and soon after, I left home and made it clear I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. From then on, Fitz had this way of saying you’re always right and everybody’s wrong, so I took that and went ahead without looking back.

Naturally your name is now synonymous with contributing iconic fashions to the industry, but where does the line actually sit between “fashion” and creating a whole lifestyle that incorporates interiors, etc?
Honestly, the whole thing leads from one thing to the other. Especially in the early days it felt so obvious and right. It was always something I needed myself, funnily enough! Initially that way of making something my own worked very well.

How do you think someone makes something their own?
Aclose relationship with colour and being able to mix it with things is always a fantastic method, although here in Miami we are in the land of white sofas at the moment, which is horrific to me.

Biba_5The Marlin Hotel, Miami Beach

What made you want to relocate from Europe to be primarily based in Miami?
There was never a point where we made a sudden decision to move. We used to come here in the sixties a lot, for the amazing vintage shops actually. Then at one point Ronnie Wood was going to open a hotel that became a club, and he asked us to come along for six months, and that six month stay turned into two years – because, of course, nothing gets done here – especially in those days, everything was very slow. The rest is history.

Over the past twenty years your interior design output has generally been centred in and around the Caribbean and surrounding areas. How do these locations apply most significantly to you?
I was very lucky to meet, after Ronnie, Chris Blackwell of Island Records. He was from Jamaica, English-Jamaica, and he came to me and said, “Do you want to do a corridor?” So I passed the corridor test and did The Marlin Hotel. He then bought some more and his next brief was hilarious: he wanted Jamaica in Miami Beach. What was great about it was that he never tried to interfere because he was used to recording people, and, you know, you obviously don’t interfere with people trying to make music. He would sort of say, “I want a sofa here and a sofa there,” and come in a year later and say, “Oh, this looks all right.”

As for the rest of world, which place is your favourite, and specifically, the one which always stimulates new ideas for you?
I think going back to London is just amazing. It’s got such a different mindset really. And the sense of humour is something you can only find there. The culture is so ingrained – it’s something very special and it’s good because it’s not all money, money, money like it is here.

What piece of design can no house go without?
Not the ubiquitous white sofa; quite the opposite. Colour, paint, movement, you’ve got to be a little brave with it, but test it out to be sure. Getting colour right is dependent upon light too.

Of course, colour has its uses but, as you’ve mentioned, black is the go-to hue for you. What is it about black for you?
I’ll tell you what it is. When I was a young girl, black was a big no-no. Navy was the closest you could get to black without something being deemed avant-garde, you know, you had to brave to wear it. That’s what made black so desirable to me.

Finally, looking to the future, what do you think it holds for really engaging design in the fashion-meets-lifestyle industry?
These two separate entities are so connected nowadays and it’s not really linked so much with how much you do it yourself. In London, once upon a time, people would do really fabulous things from nothing, and it’s almost like consumers are frightened of making cracks in the walls now, whereas before, what you could do or source for yourself first was much more important than what you could get from someone else. Every so often I see a kind of return to this – when someone gets bored of a piece of design, they unload it and it finds new life somewhere else. I’m finding more and more that you see some wonderful things returning to stalls.

As for you yourself, what does the near future hold for you?
I have no particular idea. I’m quite happy sitting here because incredible things can happen around you when you least expect it. Sometimes when you play it by ear you can have the most unexpected person approach you and ask you to get involved in the most unexpected project. I like that.

And to close, what have you learnt most from being such a design force for a decent chunk of the 20th century and beyond?
You never learn enough. I’m always hungry to see, to experience and to do new things.

by Livia Feltham

To find out more about Barbara Hulanicki’s world and her latest projects, visit here


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