Barbara Hulanicki, Biba & Beyond – Interview by Claire Staunton
At Peter Staunton Design we are always Inspired by an Iconic figure, someone who has stood the test of time, that we can draw inspiration from. Barbara Hulanicki is all of these things and more, still relevant today after decades in fashion and design, Barbara Hulanicki has most certainly stood the test of time…..
We have been lucky enough to interview Barbara Hulanicki going right back to the 1960’s when fashion and design really started to make a change. Clothes say it first, and the movement follows, this was the start of the women’s liberation, when women stopped dressing to conform and had the courage to dress how they wanted.
In 1964 skirts were short & beehives were high, fashion was playing a huge role in shaking things up. This was the decade that holds great significance, women wanted to look different & the boutique scene in London had exploded thanks to Barbara Hulanicki who founded Biba with her Husband Stephen Fitz-Simon.
The start of Biba began in 1964 as a mail order postal Boutique, offering a Pink gingham dress with a headscarf to match. The dress was advertised in the Daily Mirror, Biba received over 17,000 orders. The first store opened in September 1964 on London’s Abingdon Road growing into a vast emporium with a department store opening in 1969 on the Kensington High Street.
This was a time when the majority of designers were men. Biba was way ahead of the times, employing mainly women & even having a creche in their department store because it made business sense. There were no PR or Marketing departments everything was word of mouth and word travelled. Time Magazine promoted London as ‘The Swinging City’ and named Biba as “the most in shop for gear”. The store was a magnet for artists, film stars and rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Twiggy, Bridgette Bardot and Marianne Faithfull. The store only ever closed once for Princess Anne.
The Biba store brought Hollywood glamour to the high street, and shopping became sociable, attracting up to a million visitors a week. Each floor had its own theme, injecting fantasy, fun and adventure to each of its floor’s. The most iconic room in Biba was the Rainbow room, located on the fifth floor this was a major hang out, a large open space with giant rainbow coloured lighting on the ceiling.
Unfortunately, Biba closed in 1975, but this was not the end for the Multi-talented designer. Barbara went on to design hotels for Chris Blackwell in Jamaica and the Bahamas, also designing wallpaper for Graham & Brown, and receiving an OBE in 2012.
Barbara Hulanicki is a true icon of British design. We are inspired by her life and designs and feel honoured that Barbara was kind enough to agree to our interview.
It was your husband that encouraged you to design clothes, do you think this is something you still would have done if you hadn’t have met Fitz, and why?
When I was at Brighton college of art I did a general art course with fashion as the subject. I was so bored with having to draw saggy bodies in the art classes and pattern cutting in the design section, that when someone told me about an illustration studio in London, I wrote a cheeky letter to them asking to work in the fashion illustration department, and to my surprise they offered me a job. Little did I know it was to make the tea.
I graduated to drawing corsets and all details, and then onto advertising agencies, and then I went freelance to go to illustrate the fashion shows in the Paris collections.
After Fitz and I married, he suggested I should go back to design at the time he was in advertising and said the big thing was mail order and we should try it together. And that’s how BIBA started.
If your career was just starting out now & you had to choose between Fashion or Interior design, which would you choose and why?
Interior design! I was always into interiors.
After such an illustrious career in fashion, how & why did you get into interior design?
Ronnie wood asked me to design a nightclub for him, only taking three months to design..ha ha..it took two years!.
And after that I met Chris Blackwell (English Hotelier, Former record producer & Island records founder who helped forge the careers of Bob Marley, U2 & Grace Jones to name a few) who had bought ten hotels on the beach and asked me if I fancied working on them and I said I would love to!. That’s how it worked in the early days on the beach!.
Fashion tends to have fewer restrictions than interior design as it moves at a faster pace with ever-evolving trends. Have you found Interior Design more restricting than fashion, or have you come across much corporate red tape for your commercial hotel work?
It was easy with Chris Blackwell as his brief was, “I want it to look Jamaican”, obviously this was Jamaican in Miami. We didn’t have any corporate rules back then. Chris gave me his brief on the design, he left and didn’t return until it was ready to open, so no red tape, no corporate rules!!.
That sounds so exciting and wonderful to have your own creative freedom after the brief you were given by Chris Blackwell.
Yes, although my first drama was when I was told that the beds had to hold six people without collapsing…that was the rock and roll days of Miami Beach. In design, you want to make sure everything is designed to last and last
It all sounds like a designers dream, but has there been any drawbacks to designing for the rich & famous?.
Sometimes when people are too rich it is hell as there is no stop to the spend.
I can only imagine the freedom during these inspiring times that you must’ve had, not to mention the great design that was born from this freedom following the more austere times of the previous decades. What was this period like for you?
All I can say there was no corporate and when it came to designing you designed what you were desperate to have yourself as there was nothing to buy. Nowadays people have no clue how. There was literally nothing except old junk furniture which of course is priceless antiques now. I was obsessed with it and don’t forget young people now are earning money at a very young age.
I understand you didn’t enjoy the milestone of turning 40?.
On my 40th birthday, I thought it was the end we had lost BIBA.
A lesson to be learnt for young designers not to use your name on the brand eventually you take in partners to grow, and they fuck it up and your name is on the brand.
After disagreements with the British Land Board about creative control, Barbara Hulanicki left the company she had founded in 1975. Biba had become a victim of a corporate takeover, Biba was never the same, everything that made Biba was deconstructed. The store which had always been subdued was replaced by strip lighting, departments were renamed. They had ruined the most beautiful shop, the heyday of Biba had gone, and the shop was not a success, closing just over 18 months later.
I read a quote in an interview that Barbara once did and its one that always sticks in my mind, Learn and learn, Knowledge and experience is something nobody can ever take away from you. They can take everything material but not your mind.
An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail, creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye. When everyone was wearing Coral lipstick, Barbara Hulanicki made Chocolate Brown, she made an impact on the lives and dreams of the girls and women who bought her clothes and her designs are still going strong.
At Peter Staunton Design we will always push the boundaries of design because if you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will always have to settle for the ordinary.
Thank you Barbara Hulanicki for always inspiring us!
Keep tuned for our next Iconic Interview…