Not so much a name, more an inspiration

barbara hulanicki, Barbara Hulanicki, biba, british boutique movement, interior design, seventies fashion

The room is large, brown-ceilinged, brown-carpeted and the wallpaper is edged with stripes that remind you of nineteen-thirties’ cinema architecture. It is the office of Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz Simon who together are BIBA.

Barbara curls over the arm of the sofa in the curvy kind of art nouveau shape she has made famous again in furnishings.

“When do I show a new clothes collection to Fitz? Never!” Barbara laughs at the idea. “It’s got nothing to do with men. They mustn’t decide what ladies like to wear.”

Herein lies the success of the Biba empire, a look, an environment, some say a way of life, created by one girl whose husband knows when not to interfere. “I haven’t a creative idea in my head and I’m colour blind,” he says. “What Barbara wants to do, what she feels is right, is absolutely up to her.”

How right is proved by the tide of events which has swept BIBA from her first poky back-street dolly-girl clothes shop into a seven-floor Kensington, London, store. For in September, 1973, the entire building that used to be Derry & Toms, a monument of British store tradition, will be filled from top to bottom by BIBA. A Biba that is bigger, more influential than ever before.

From eve shadow through to refrigerators, from hairslides to washing machines, from underslips to sauce-pans, the Biba look will permeate our lives.

Barbara’s trademark began with a fluid body-clinging style in clothes made up in old-fashioned fabrics with old-fashioned prints in smoky, sleepy colours. Everything about them was soft and slithery and nostalgic. She loved old things. “Modern ones are so cold,” she said.

So what Barbara began in 1964 was the “granny look” but she sold it to dolly girls and the Biba Way of Life had begun. Though you may never have been one of the eager crowd straining the corners of her first pint-sized boutique in West London, you have been affected just the same.

I WANT this bedroom….

For Barbara, a fragile-faced girl with the. straight blonde hair of a child, wide high cheekbones, fine hairline eyebrows, has turned out to be the powerhouse for an explosion in looks. No one could seem shyer: no one could appear less dominating or more likely to mind her own business. That merely shows how misleading appearances can be. For when you look in the shops and see slinky little crêpe dresses, pretty puffed sleeves, romantic shirring, tucking and bias cuts, they may not say BIBA on their labels but, make no mistake, it’s Barbara from whom the whole idea of them sprang. When you glamorize the furnishings of your house with satin cushions or switch to romantic old Tiffany lampshades of satin and fringe or hunt down some graceful junk—she is the girl who set free this feeling for the pretty ideas of the past. “I need things that have lived,” she says.

And when in 1970 she produced a range of make-ups in oil portrait tones, inevitably we deepened our facial colour schemes and left the hard lines off our eyes. Such clumsy artifices simply were not the BIBA Way of Life.

How Barbara developed that distinctive taste which marks all her work is an interesting conjecture. We know she is Polish by birth and parentage but came to this country as a small girl and was brought up with her two sisters in Hove, Sussex.

We imagine, then, a child who, like her father, loved to draw: a gentle environment which fostered her soft and romantic style of sketching. When she came out of Brighton Art School and moved to London to draw for the papers, the Slavonic stamp in her own looks also characterized the girls she sketched. They were cool gentle blondes with spun-glass features, soft hair done simply, no gawky edges. Whether she knew it or not, she drew herself. We picture an elegant home too. As a. friend of hers told me: “Plushy fabrics, high ceilings, decorative cornices—all the paraphernalia of Edwardian elegance we’re beginning to yearn for and appreciate again—Barbara lived with these and it’s largely thanks to her that we’re getting a taste of them back.”

Looking at Barbara’s wallpapers, cushions, lampshades and ornaments, at the mauve and moody bedrooms of friends who have decorated decorated in the Biba style, I agree. The astonishing thing is that her ideas took seed—and survived—in the op, pop, and Space era of the sixties. Clean functional lines in clothes and homes were the order of the day.

But: “I don’t believe fashion is dictated by the lives we lead,” said Barbara. And predicted long, really long day skirts at the height of the mini: sludgey prunes, greys and purples in the heat of the Courreges white and red craze: flat silky hair when towering, back-brushed domes were in their prime: and old-world furnishings when the Technological Revolution was upon us.

How did she sense we would take to these alien things? Sagittarians, she was born on December 9, 1938, are supposed to be strong on intuition! In her bones she felt that people would retaliate against the growing speed, rush and noise by dressing and furnishing in a nostalgic style.

“Old things are interesting be cause they have a lot of workman ship, a lot of feeling,” Barbara says. “I have to design new thing,, for mass production but I try to give them the look of attention.

“It’s a struggle. Today people know what they like—and they like clothes on the bias with frills and a handworked look. It is increasingly difficult for manufacturers to produce what I want—good machinists are hard to come by. But we fight on.”

Barbara always fights for the colours of her make-ups, her tights, her boots, her bags, sends them back time and again. The shades must be exactly right because they have to match clothes, even furnishings. “I’ve made myself awful problems by co-ordinating everything but working girls and busy wives haven’t time to charge around matching one thing to another. They want to buy it all in one go.” It is Barbara’s ability to see the whole picture which makes people call her enterprise a way of life. She shrugs at the suggestion. “All I’ve done is try to provide what I need myself! At the time I started, people used to talk about investing money in a dress. What a crazy idea that would be now! Imagine always feeling a dress was something to feel guilty about unless it was a sound investment. Fashion should be as cheap as possible so that it can be lighthearted,” she says.

Everything of Barbara’s is blindingly recognizable and usually worn by several women -in any moderately crowded room, but such is the standing of Biba that it is one-up-womanship to be wearing it. Her sway is incredible. Quite vulgar plastic baubles and brooches are all right—Biba says so. Armholes cut fiendishly narrow are okay–Biba has made them so. She it was who plunged clothes-shopping into darkness and beset it with the deafening throb of pop. These things don’t go with your romantic, nostalgic look, I complain to her. “One gets both extremes today,” she replies. “That’s what’s fun.”

Fun it certainly is for Barbara. She gets a big kick out of the sheer audacity of some of her clothes—leopard print heels on platform shoes, big leopard print gauntlets on gloves, sequinned tops and culottes to wear with felt hats and veils. Wearing’ a camel coloured sweater with quietly matching pants —but swinging a foot shod in an outrageous five-inch heeled shoe!—she declares:

“The charm today is in all the contradictions. The tarts look like ladies in good mink coats and crocodile bags and shoes. And the ladies look tarty in platform soles and ankle straps.” It’s this humour that her few critics don’t catch on to. The fancy dress element in Biba is a chuckle, a chuckle we needed. The potted palms and the curly bentwood hat-stands. The knee-length ropes of coloured beads and the bizarre tassels. At the time she began Biba, Barbara was visiting couture fashion collections in London, Paris and Rome to sketch clothes for the newspapers. “Dozens of little black padded numbers. They were stiff, self-conscious, serious and boring.”

It was the pompousness of fashion she was out to slay, and she is still at it. “All the really grisly fabrics are coming back,” she warns with great relish. “Cheap shiny nylons we used to sneer at—they’ll look marvellous, though. They’re stretchier, softer. People will never get into hard clothes again.”

Biba salesgirls do not offer assistance—it is rumoured they would get the sack. Barbara is also responsible for communal changing rooms, which lots of us hate, but the owners of Biba can worry all the way to the bank about that! “If we provided individual rooms for every customer, half the store would be changing rooms,” says Barbara.

Biba is now not just a London store, but a world-wide selling organization. They compute the quantities in which Biba will stock and sell Barbara’s creations, chase suppliers, arrange the link-ups which have built up the company into a world-wide industry selling clothes in America and cosmetics all over the world. Dorothy Perkins, the chain which stocks Biba make-up through Britain, has a seventy-five per cent holding in Biba and is behind the huge new store.

Barbara and her husband work from early morning to eight and nine o’clock at night, often for long unbroken periods—then they spot a gap and fly off somewhere like Istanbul for a long weekend with Withold, their five year old son. They are a tight, devoted threesome and—in this publicity-minded age—very private people indeed. It is a fetish with them. Their home, furnished from top to bottom in Biba products, is a fortress. For all her beauty, Barbara hates having photographs taken. She is scared to be seen on television or heard on radio and would faint if she had to address a group. She is a doer, not a talker. Although she is backed by a strong team, most of whom have been with her the full eight years of Biba’s existence, she herself designs the prototypes of every line and is never influenced by other fashion pundits. That is her claim. In fashion I would say it is a justified one. She does her own thing and that is what has made her a cult.

In furnishing, WOMAN Home Editor Edith Blair says: “Barbara came in at a time when young people were wanting to make their homes glamorous, but hadn’t the antiques, old china, Victoriana their parents owned. Biba introduced excitement with inexpensive ideas. Her dyed feathers are marvellous—you don’t have to buy flowers or plants. Her fringing brought a cosiness into decor. Satin and huge cushions look romantic. Her softer look as penetrated many homes.”

Woman magazine, December 23rd 1972

4 thoughts on “Not so much a name, more an inspiration

  1. Of course you knew I'd like this! Thank you for your comment on my post about my Biba wedding 'dress'. I remember the move to the Derry & Toms building and it was very exotic. I bought tons of stuff there, including black soap! And dressed my new baby in Biba's deep brown outfits. Oo-er – such a contrast to the pinks and lemon yellows everywhere else. Cx

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