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Swinging London’s Biba diva

Regulars | By Brigid Keenan

Barbara Hulanicki created a Sixties brand that became a fashion legend, says Brigid Keenan

I have known Barbara Hulanicki since the Sixties, when I was the junior fashion editor on the Sunday Times and she was a sought-after fashion illustrator; but until this interview I never knew about the tragic and traumatic event that changed her life for ever.

Born in Warsaw before the war, she grew up with her two sisters in Jerusalem where her father was the Polish Consul – until one terrible day in 1948, when a Jewish militia group entered their house, dragged her father outside and shot him. It has never been explained why.

She was 12 and, like the rest of the family, never got over the loss. Her father became her hero and, because she never wanted anyone to steal or tarnish his name in any way, she called her iconic fashion house Biba after her younger sister. (Her son is named Witold after his grandfather; Biba lives in Portugal and they speak often.)

The British government flew the Hulanicki family to Britain where they settled in Brighton. Her mother’s wealthy sister rescued the shattered family – and unwittingly became Hulanicki’s inspiration. ‘Aunt Sophie bullied us all and made me wear her old clothes, made in plum and sepia – everything she forced me to wear became ideas for Biba – not that she ever appreciated this. She once described our beautiful big Biba store as “that junk shop of Barbara’s’’.’

In England, Hulanicki went to what was then Brighton School of Art where her teacher – ‘the amazing Joanne Brogden’ – told Hulanicki that she was so bad at pattern-cutting that she should concentrate on fashion drawing. ‘I took her advice and got a job in London in a studio where I worked my way up until I was sent to Paris to do the collections. I met Audrey Hepburn, my idol, in a lift at Givenchy. She gave me a great smile and my knees buckled with awe!’

Soon after her London move, in 1961, Hulanicki met Stephen Fitz-Simon, who worked in an advertising agency. They were a perfect match: she the brilliant budding designer, he the businessman. Together they launched a small mail-order catalogue – but one unlike any other. It had photographs by future stars such as Helmut Newton and Sarah Moon, and clothes at rock bottom prices.

‘We were all working and earning some money but there were no affordable clothes for our age group except Foale and Tuffin at Woollands’ 21 Shop.We manufactured in the Greek factories in Fontwell Road, and Fitz used to have to go Greek dancing on Fridays to keep in with the manufacturers…’

Daily Mirror featured a special offer of a gingham dress with matching scarf for two guineas – it sold 17,000. It was such a hit that Fitz and Barbara gave up their day jobs and opened a small shop in Kensington which soon became a larger one (Cilla Black helped them unload the van when they moved).

There were queues round the block for the purple suede boots, feather boas and minidresses. Eventually, in 1976, they opened the legendary Biba store in what had been Derry & Toms. ‘I was always into doing the whole picture. The clothes needed shoes and hats and bags; then there was make-up, a hairdresser, nightwear. Then our customers moved out of bedsits into flats and houses; so they needed home stuff, then they had babies – and I had Witold. So we did children’s clothes; then, as they began travelling in Europe, they wanted interesting food – then health food. We were going to open a small cinema – we even heard through the grapevine that Elvis wanted to make his comeback in the Biba Rainbow Room…’

Fitz had only been able to buy Derry & Toms by selling 75 per cent of the business to Dorothy Perkins. When Biba closed in 1976, it was because Dorothy Perkins sold the business on to property developers. The couple moved to Brazil (where, ironically, Barbara’s father had been intending to go when he left Jerusalem). After a stint back in London, they moved to Miami – where Hulanicki’s heart was broken again when Fitz died in 1997. In Miami she continues a flourishing business designing hotel interiors, wallpapers, clothes (for Baar & Bass in Chelsea) and fashion drawing.

Hulanicki, 81, has always had younger friends, which she thinks is important as one gets on. Her main tip for looking good is simple – ‘Don’t get fat! No picking food! It’s easy – just keep an empty fridge… and sorry, but no cheese or booze. And I walk everywhere.’

Because she works in colour all the time, she always wears black: ‘During the day, I wear leisure stuff and sneakers but go wildly sparkly at night.’ She hates lipstick but uses Bobbi Brown foundation and eye make-up and describes herself as ‘bottled blonde’. Dark glasses have become her trademark – the ones in the picture are by Cutler and Gross.

This story was from September Issue issue. Subscribe Now