Barbara Hulanicki and Biba

Mini dress, Barbara Hulanicki, 1967. Museum no. T.12-1982

Mini dress, Barbara Hulanicki, 1967. Museum no. T.12-1982

'...the classic Biba dolly...was very pretty and young. She had an upturned nose, rosy cheeks and a skinny body with long asparagus legs and tiny feet. She was square-shouldered and quite flat-chested. Her head was perched on a long, swanlike neck. Her face was a perfect oval, her lids were heavy with long, spiky lashes. She looked sweet but was as hard as nails. She did what she felt like at that moment and had no mum to influence her judgement.'

From A to Biba, 1983.

Hulanicki worked as a fashion illustrator after studying at Brighton art college in the late 1950s. She opened a mail order clothing company with her husband, 'Biba's Postal Boutique'. The business was overwhelmed with orders for a sleeveless gingham shift dress featured in the 'Daily Mirror'. Early in her career, Hulanicki also became known for the outfits she designed for Cathy McGowan, presenter of the TV pop music show 'Ready, Steady, Go'.

In 1964 the first Biba boutique opened in Abingdon Road in London. Women, mostly under 25, flocked there to buy Hulanicki's mod clothes in dark colours 'mulberries, blueberries, rusts and plum.' The interior of the shop was ornately decorated with Victorian furniture and antiques. Many of the staff were also customers. Inexpensive clothing was hung from hatstands and accessories were piled into bowls. There was often a huge crush when the latest outfit arrived, with every customer trying to grab one before it sold out.

Mini-length garments like the purple and yellow zigzag print mini dress above concentrated attention on the wearer's legs. This was a contrast to fashions of the previous two decades which had emphasised the female bust and hips. In her book From A to Biba Hulanicki provides an alternative explanation for the invention of the mini skirt. Soon after Biba opened on Kensington Church Street in 1966, she received a delivery of skirts made out of stretchy jersey fabric which had shrunk dramatically between leaving the manufacturer's and arriving at her shop: '... I nearly had a heart attack. The skirts were only 10 inches long. "God," I thought, "we'll go bust - we'll never be able to sell them." I couldn't sleep, but that little fluted skirt walked out on customers as fast as we could get it onto the hatstands.' 

At the start of the 1970s Biba relocated to the enormous interior of an Art Deco building and Hulanicki's refurbishment of it helped to launch an Art Deco revival. She held parties in the exotic roof garden, where flamingoes lived, and invited celebrities such as the designer Ossie Clark.

When Hulanicki and her husband sold part of their successful company, they began to lose control over the Biba empire. They decided to quit Biba to pursue other projects. Hulanicki is now an interior designer resident in the US.

Video: My V&A - Barbara Hulanicki

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