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5 minutes with: Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki

58 years after the first Biba store opened in West London, founder Barbara Hulanicki recalls the city in the ’60s and shares her fashion industry tips

1 September 2022

Barbara Hulanicki
Hulanicki's new collection 'Hula'
Matching hat and shirt from Hulanicki's new collection 'Hula'

Few periods in recent history are considered as creative and exciting as the Swinging Sixties, and at the heart of it was a handful of London designers who outfitted Chelsea locals and rock stars alike. 

Barbara Hulanicki was one such creator. Her brand, Biba, exploded onto the fashion scene in the early ’60s and came to define the era with its drapey fabrics, Art-Deco-inspired prints and “long and skinny” sleeves. Now, 58 years to the month since the first store opened, Hulanicki sat down with Sloane Street to discuss her glittering career, the key to longevity, and her London highlights. 

 

You started out as a fashion illustrator before founding Biba, and now you have a new brand, Hula. Tell us about the evolution of your career.

So, I went to art school and did two years of illustration – it was really awful. I couldn’t take it any longer. So I got a job at a studio in London and worked my way up to go to all the fashion shows in Paris. But it was the ’60s, so the shows were done for older ladies, which I found so boring. I was desperate for some decent clothes and couldn’t find any. 

Then I met Fitz [Stephen Fitz-Simon, Hulanicki’s late husband] and he suggested I go back to designing, which I did in art school. So we started something. And then Felicity Green on the Daily Mirror rang me up – I knew her through my illustration – and she said, “I want you to design me a dress for 25 shillings” and I agreed. It was a gingham dress because Brigitte Bardot was wearing gingham in St Tropez. Back then, a lot of the moods for fashion came from St Tropez. 

Then when the article [featuring the dress] came out, it was unbelievable. We got 17,000 orders, but we had no manufacturing, no fabric, and we didn’t realise that gingham is woven and takes a very long time to produce. It was a nightmare. Absolute nightmare. But we survived it. 

The first Biba shop was an old chemist store on Abingdon Road, a long walk away from High Street Kensington. Fitz worked out that the young people who had come to work in London had about 10 pounds a week. Six pounds was for accommodation and food, and three pounds was for Biba. So we had to keep very low prices. 

The whole thing was just absolutely amazing, and then all the rock stars started coming in. I had lots of sofas in the shop because I had a husband who didn’t like going shopping – and I thought that was the only way to get the boys to stay. It got so packed, and so then we moved up to a bigger store on Kensington Church Street.

Every two years we had to just move to a bigger premises. It was very stressful. Luckily, we laughed a lot in the evenings.

My new brand, Hula, is going to be really, really exciting. We’ve been working on it for ages, and now I’ve done the samples and we’ve had a photoshoot, so I can’t wait to share it.

 

What tips would you give to someone starting their own fashion brand?

You must realise what kind of work it is; you will live with it. Especially if there is two of you together [Hulanicki worked alongside her husband on Biba]. 

Now, the most important thing is that you must not put your own name on the brand. For instance, in the ’80s, a lot of people lost the rights to their brand names, and if that’s your real name, then it’s no longer yours. 

 

What has been your career highlight?

Opening the big department store in 1973 on High Street Kensington [known as “Big Biba”]. 

I couldn’t believe it. They were going to destroy it, you see. It was a beautiful 1930s building with all the details, and even a roof garden. So Fitz and I went to have a proper look, and I said, ‘We can’t let this be destroyed.’ So we got it.

 

You’ve seen so many cultural shifts – what’s the key to weathering these changes and remaining successful?

In fashion, you’ve got to look at your generation and who is shopping. The beauty of [Big Biba] was that we had a department store, so you could go in and see what was selling. And you could pick up vibes from people – whether they liked something or they didn’t. 

 

Though you are now based in Miami, you will always be a West London legend. What were your favourite places in the area? 

Sloane Street was magic in the ‘90s with fabulous designers such as Katherine Hamnett! In the old days, I would make a trip to see Azzedine Alaïa – my favourite designer who could really pattern cut – and the rest of the designer floor in Harvey Nichols.

My favourite place in the ’60s was always Portobello Road. On the weekends, all the people from France and Italy would come over and go straight to Portobello, do all the shopping, and then they walked to Church Street and into Biba. It was incredible.

 

What is your idea of happiness?

I would say food!

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Go on holiday and stay there. I like India because there are so many beautiful textiles – the colours and the fabrics are incredible; you can get almost anything. 

 

What is your most treasured possession?

My father’s Art Deco paintings – I’ve got those hidden somewhere. They inspired me terribly so in the beginning [of Biba].

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