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The Fashion Issue 2009

Barbara Hulanicki

What started as a mail-order business run out of Barbara Hulanicki’s flat quickly turned into a cult fashion line in which virtually every piece sold out as soon as it hit the shelf.

by Tara Sinn
02 March 2009, 12:00am


Interview By Tara Sinn
Portrait By Naomi Fisher



If scientists ever got off their asses and invented a time machine and I could travel to any place in any era, I’d choose either Egypt circa 3000 BC so I could see the pyramids being built, Berlin in 1912 so I could watch Houdini perform his “Chinese Water Torture” trick for the first time, or Swinging London in the 1960s so I could walk into the legendary Biba department store and pick up some spider eyelashes and black lipstick to go with my cat-print pantsuit. If I were lucky, I would even catch a glimpse of the founder and creative genius behind Biba, Barbara Hulanicki. What started as a mail-order business run out of her flat quickly turned into a cult fashion line in which virtually every piece sold out as soon as it hit the shelf. The first Biba boutique was located in a former chemist’s shop and quickly became a hangout for young people who wanted something a little dark, a little glamorous, and a little different from the prevailing mod aesthetic of the time. Biba soon moved into a seven-story department store that included themed floors. The top floor was the legendary Rainbow Room restaurant and nightclub, which hosted everyone from the New York Dolls to Liberace. As Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

Biba was entirely the creation of Barbara, a former fashion illustrator, and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon. He handled the business end of things, giving Barbara free rein to do whatever she wanted creatively. It was the first lifestyle department store in London and maybe the first ANYWHERE EVER. When was the last time you were in a store that housed a castle and a moat and live flamingos and penguins frolicking in a rooftop garden in the sky? Barbara was kind enough to speak with Vice over the phone from her studio in Miami, where she designs luxury-hotel interiors and takes on select fashion-related projects, including a line with Topshop due in stores this April.

Vice: It seems like you had such a clear vision with Biba. It was a very specific art-nouveau- and art-deco-inspired, old-Hollywood glamour look. I was wondering how that came about.

Barbara Hulanicki:
First and foremost, the inspiration was the period in which we were living. There were absolutely no clothes for young people in England. I mean, in America there were wonderful things happening in the early 60s but in the UK we were all desperate, just desperate, for clothes. Another inspiration was old movies—mostly things with Garbo and American musicals.

The color palette was great. Everything was dark browns and purples and lots of black. It was very lush and boudoirish.

I was designing in England, which is very dark and gloomy, and our color palette there is not as strong as it is in America. For instance, where I am now, in Miami, the sun soaks up color. So it was all to do with light, really.

It’s funny because when I think about the fashion of the 60s, mod colors come to mind—pop-art reds and whites and royal blues. Your aesthetic was different.

Definitely. That stuff you’re talking about was Carnaby Street. We were snobby about that.

What do you mean?

Well, Carnaby Street was mass market and a bit cheesy. It doesn’t seem it now, but it was then.

Yeah, I can see that.

We were sort of upmarket—inexpensive, but upmarket.

I read that you were in art school and you started out as a fashion illustrator.

I did fashion design at art school, but that seemed to take too long. I was desperate to get a job and get out of my home life and be independent. Illustration was often used in editorials back then—photography hadn’t caught on yet. It seemed the quickest way to get to be independent but still have something to do with fashion.

How did you go from illustrating to making and selling clothes?

I was illustrating in a studio when I met my husband, Fitz, who was in advertising. He said, “You’ve got to go back to design. You’ve got to go freelance,” which I did and my career really rocketed. I was in all the big magazines—Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue, Harper’s, Queen magazine—and traveling a lot to France, doing shows there. That was amazing training. I kept seeing that there was absolutely nothing for the young. Paris was all for ladies who lunched.

It seems like everything you were doing—the clothes, the shop, the way you presented retail as an “experience”—was the complete opposite of what everyone else was doing at the time.

Well, it was all the things I wanted myself. First of all, I had a loving husband who hated shopping. So I thought that a way to get the boys to stay was to get them a seat. Then they could watch the girls and it would work. Remember, there weren’t that many clubs in those days. People didn’t go and eat out. There weren’t that many concerts. Now you can hang out in all sorts of places, even Starbucks, but there used to be nowhere like that. The boutique, especially on a Saturday, became a big meeting place.

In the beginning, everything you made was limited run, which really created the idea of cult items that people just had to have.

Retail is like fishing. You never know what’s going to sell big. We were cautious. We sold, and as we sold, we made more. Everything was practical, it wasn’t thought out in a marketing room or anything.

It’s so different now.

Yes. Everything is marketed for us and then they put money into it. We were doing it the other way around.

It must have been exciting to do it that way.

Tremendously. You’ve no idea. You never knew when you were going to catch the big one. In retail, it’s this moment that counts, not tomorrow, not the next day, not yesterday. You have to keep making money. Otherwise you die.

I was reading about the catalogues that you produced. In the 50s and 60s, catalogues were thick books of drawings. You were the first to do a catalogue with photos that looked like magazine editorials.

I was madly in love with photography and photographers and I said, “Wow, now is the chance to use some of these incredible people.” I mean, can you imagine, we had Helmut Newton doing it! He was big then, but not that big. I went through a friend of mine who was working at the Observer and I said, “Please ask him!” She said, “Of course he will, he would love to.”

Never know until you ask, I guess.

Absolutely.

You had so many different ideas, and many of them you actually brought to fruition. There was a men’s line, a children’s line, shoes, jewelry, grocery items, coffee, tea, cat food, dog food—even

Biba baked beans! I’ve also read about a Biba car that was being planned. That never happened, but we were absolutely planning it.

It seems like the expansion of the Biba line was a reflection of the changes in your personal life.

We had a home, so we did all the secondhand furniture that was dirt-cheap vintage stuff. And then you needed something that went with it all, so we did pillows and lamps. Then when we had a baby, we did baby clothes. It went on and on. And then to get the whole look, there was, of course, the shoes, the boots, the hosiery, and finally the cosmetics, which were really important.

You came out with a black lipstick, right?

Yes.

You were so ahead of the times! Even nowadays, if somebody does something that bold, people freak out. As recently as last year, YSL put black lipstick on their models and people were like, “Ooh, it’s so weird.” I can’t imagine what people thought about something like that in the 60s.

Well, you see, we were starting from zero because lipstick then was coral. That was it. So we had a completely blank canvas. That new generation was so hungry for anything new. It was fantastic. Our first lipstick was chocolate brown and it sold out in two seconds!

Did you wear the lipstick as well?

Oh yeah.

It sounds like you were creating an army of young girls that were all tuned into your look.

Yes, because I was tuned into them. I mean, it’s important that you’re tuned into your public. The English public is incredibly open and eccentric, totally open to new ideas. They’re not frightened of being laughed at.

Let’s jump ahead to when you moved into the seven-story “Big Biba” store. Not only was it a full-service department store, it was, again, a place to hang out. You had film stars, artists, and rock stars like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie coming in. Brigitte Bardot would be there. It just struck me that nowadays a lot of designers court celebrities so they can pack the front row of their shows with them and get them to wear their clothes.

Right, they pay them.

Yeah. But it seems like people just naturally came to hang out at the Biba store because it was a cool place to be.

I’ll tell you what, we had fabulous-looking girls in the shop and that was enough to bring those boys in. Even when you get a girl that isn’t so fabulous, she becomes fabulous because she’s with the others and she can try things on and look nice. So, they bloom, they bloom. Birds of a feather.

A few years after you moved into the big building, the shop closed. There were a number of factors involved—the economy in Britain, there was an oil crisis…

Just like now.

Yes, very much so. How did you move on from that? I imagine it was difficult and heartbreaking.

Terribly difficult. It was our whole life together, Fitz and I. We had to readjust, so we went off to Brazil and started a business there.

Why Brazil?

Probably because I saw too many Carmen Miranda films.

And it seemed like the place to go after London?

At the time, yes. It was sort of romantic and glamorous, but it was very hard work. Oh my God.

And how did you end up in Miami?

Ronnie Wood asked me to come and do a hotel for him, but it turned out to be a club. We just loved it here, so we stayed on and on and on. We loved America.

I hear you have some fashion projects going on now.

Yes, I’ve done a collection for Topshop in England and I’m doing handbags for Coccinelle in Italy. I don’t think they’re so well known here, but they’re very big in Europe. I’m still doing both fashion and interiors. I was hoping to just do fashion now, but the hotel work has started to come up again.

And then when does the Topshop line come out?

April.

I feel like Topshop has taken a page from what Biba did. They make current fashion that’s very affordable.

Yes, and they move so fast!


Barbara in the rooftop garden (complete with live swans) at the Big Biba department store in London.

Twiggy in Biba.

Classic Biba cosmetics chart. Click each section to enlarge

A 1973 Biba poster that was supposed to be used as an advertisement in the London Airport, but was banned on account of tushy.