My V&A: Barbara Hulanicki

From the groovy 1960s fashion emporium, Biba to her latest designs for Top Shop, Barbara Hulanicki tells her story

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My V&A: Barbara Hulanicki

Barbara Hulanicki was born in Poland in 1936 and brought up in Jerusalem.

She emigrated to England after the war, settling with her family in Brighton.

Barbara Hulanicki

I’m absolutely fascinated by the Ethiopian crosses. They are very like the Greek Orthodox and that whole period of churches that I grew up in, in Jerusalem.

Image of Ethiopian Processional Cross, Gondar, Ethiopia, 17th-18th century)

Hulanicki

We spent all our weekends going around all the amazing Byzantine churches.

I was drawn to the visual arts from early days because when we lived in Palestine there were no toys or any sort of superficial children’s games you had to really draw, most of the time you did drawings and used pencils, crayons…and that was your way of amusing yourself.

The first time I came to the V&A must have been when I was at art school. Big treat was to come up to London for the day. That must have been in the late 50s, I suppose. I was planning to be a fashion designer but at art school they really looked down on any fashion students and they would say things like ‘oh you are one of those, we won’t bother with you’, you know.

By the early 1960s Hulanicki was working as a fashion illustrator for Vogue and the Times.

Meanwhile, with the help of her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon, she set up a mail order fashion line.

The fashion scene at the time for somebody like myself was absolutely desperate. There was this huge market of 17, 18, and 19 year olds that were desperate for clothes, nowhere to buy anything. Then one day Felicity Green who I had worked for, many times doing illustrations, she called me and said ‘Barabara, I want you to design me a dress’ and I said ‘oh yes great’ but on the day that the article came out, which came out sooner than we thought, it was like, a third of the page on the Mirror with very tough copy. And we had this address in Oxford street a PO BOX address for letters for mailorder. And I always remember we went, you know, to get our mail and I was sitting in the car and Fitz went round the corner to get the mail and he came round the corner and he was dragging two sacks with a grin on his face like this, just dragging these sacks full of mail and he said ‘oh no, there’s more’ [laughs]. And I mean eventually we sold 17,000 dresses in one size. Can you imagine?

The success of the Mirror offer convinced Hulanicki to open her own fashion store. Named after Barbara’s sister, the first BIBA opened in Abingdon Road, Kensington in 1964.

We had come from a family that was very much from the past, lived in the past I was terribly drawn to paintings and art nouveau paintings, Pre-Raphaelites or anything in the past really, I was living in the past but sort of redesigning it into the present. I mean the whole look of the painting is very much the influence of the Biba look which was a pale face and dark lips…browny lips. Rossetti, oh I love him. And it’s (the woman in the picture) Morris’s wife.

Image of – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Day Dream’, 1880

Hulanicki

The Biba girl started (here), then she moved on, but definitely this (the Pre-Raphelites) was a very strong influence.

The art nouveau thing came because I was drawing a lot. I was drawing for a very famous art director for Vogue and he said I want art nouveau scene. I was drawing that for ages and I sort of got very involved into that and then into this whole Alphonse Mucha drawings which were very intricate and very beautifully decorative.

Image of jewellery - René Jules Lalique, Tiara comb, France, 1903-1904

Hulanicki

This particular piece is so pretty it must have been a young girl’s coming out or something. Lalique. It looks very pinky in this light.

BIBA quickly emerged as the fashionable shop for Swinging London’s In-crowd.

By 1970 it had become a five-storey department store complete with a roof garden.

These would have been our fabrics, we would have already been developing our own fabrics, that’s why it was much more interesting, our own prints our own colours. It was very 30s looking and that was sort of seventy...it was the beginning of the big store.

This was the first logo by John McConnell then as we moved into the art deco shop we had this art deco design by Steve Thomas and Tim Whitmore. And then every floor had its own illustration. This was the pregnant mums, if you notice the big belly. We did categories that we needed ourselves so that when our baby came we did kiddie. ‘Cause I had to dress my baby somehow and I didn’t want it in pale blue fluffy things from Harrods I wanted him in black, purple. So, the poor chap had to suffer those.

When BIBA closed in 1976 Hulanicki reinvented herself as a successful interior designer.

In 2009 her comeback range for Topshop sold out within days.

She is working on a new collection.

Hulanicki

This is a part of the illustrations, sort of a monster bug lady.

David Redhead, V&A

Who is this for?

Hulanicki

This was Topshop, yes this was a Topshop thing. A lot of illustrations on fabrics.

Redhead

You sold out incredibly quickly.

Hulanicki

Yes, thank god! [Laughs] No. But to all ages which was really nice I mean it was all a new age group of people too.

Barbara donates her BIBA dress to the V&A collection.

Redhead

So what would you like to give? I’ve got you on record now.

Hulanicki

I’ve got a few things I would like to give, like some shoes. They were always personal things, personal things that I…I have to copy the shoulder pads first. [Laughs] Because nobody knows how to do shoulder pads now.

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When Barbara Hulanicki was a young fashion illustrator in 1960s London, young women were still expected to dress like their mothers.

Biba the shop she founded in 1964 changed all that, becoming  Swinging London's grooviest shopping destination and a hangout for stars from David Bowie to Marianne Faithfull. Here Barbara looks back at her childhood in Jerusalem, chooses some of the V&A objects that inspired her exotic style (from Pre-Raphaelite art to Art Nouveau jewellery) and bemoans the lost art of designing good shoulder pads