'From A to Biba' by Barbara Hulanicki

Founder of the legendary 1960s fashion label 'Biba', designer Barbara Hulanicki remembers the moment it all began in this extract from her autobiography.

Like any other newly married couple, Fitz and I had to adjust to each other. When he came home from work he found me ready to go out on the town. He wanted to put his feet up and I had been alone drawing ghastly corsets all day and could not stand another moment in the flat. His evening meals with me were usually out of a tin, with an occasional lovingly mixed burnt omelette, for which he was most grateful. He was always given a choice; food that didn't generate much washing-up, or a hurricane in the kitchen. We could both see we were on a collision course, so I was desperate to try and find something we could do together. At first he was not convinced, but it was becoming obvious we would have to do something where our energies could be united. I felt more and more strained about this.

Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon, about 1960, photographer unknown. Biba archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One day Fitz came home and said I should design some garment. He thought we should try and sell it by post. Although we both earned a lot, we had no capital, so Fitz decided that if we could sell by post, we could receive the payment with the order, before we had to pay anything out ourselves. It was risky, because if anything went wrong we had the responsibility, but at least we had the chance to do something. I had a very strong hunch about an inexpensive long evening skirt. It was just a long tube with a drawstring. Joanne Brogden, who was still teaching at the Royal College and whom I'd kept in touch with, came to our aid and found us students to make up a sample. Fitz then took the skirt to Jill Butterfield on the Daily Express who, to our delight, was thrilled by the price, 2 guineas, and said she would feature it.

Fitz and I went home, got tiddly and tried to think of a name for the new venture. We were so excited about it, we really believed our fortune would be made. We went through a hundred names. Then I thought of using a name we were emotionally involved with. Gertrude, Fitz's mother's name, sounded too grand, and Victoria, my mother's name, even more so. Tusia, an abbreviation of my mother's name, was unpronounceable. Bet, Fitz's sister, sounded like gambling. Finally we agreed on Biba, after my sister. Biba's Postal Boutique was born.

'With compliments' label from Biba's Postal Boutique, 1960s, Biba archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We tried the name out on Liz Dickson and Dimitri, then her husband. He said it sounded like a charlady's daughter, so we felt we had got it right. We were not interested in high society but in real people on the streets. We were both terribly excited. At last something was happening.

The next step was a logo. During my days at Helen Jardine's I had become very friendly with a fashion illustrator called Moira McGregor. Her boyfriend, John McConnell, was a graphic designer. We approached Mac who came up with an ace logo that looked like a Post Office rubber stamp. We then found a receiving postal address in Oxford Street.

Jill Butterfield featured our skirt one Monday in June 1963. The picture was rather small but the address was there and so was a good description of the skirt. Next morning we rushed to Oxford Street in Fitz's sports car – hood down to accommodate the anticipated avalanche of mail. I sat in the car in Golden Square while he went to collect it. As he turned the corner on his return journey his face was very sad. In his hand he held a small parcel. We sat in the car and counted the letters. There were fifty envelopes with 2 guinea postal orders. After four days there were no more envelopes. We had totalled two hundred orders for skirts. The dress department at the Royal College sewed them and we packed and despatched them from our flat in Cromwell Road. We had made 6d profit on each skirt. This covered the daily petrol to Oxford Street.

There followed a denim children's dress in the Observer and another children's garment in the Evening Standard. We had no orders for these at all. Not one. It looked as if our new career had ended before it had begun. On the evenings after work, rather depressed, we had talked of taking one of those little advertisements on the back pages of newspapers. We invented the 'Wigechief', which was a cotton triangle scarf with a little false fringe sewn in the front of it. It was meant to cover your rollers as you did your housework. By then we were really scratching.

Various labels and price tags from Biba, early 1970s, England. AAD/1996/6 : AAD/2014/1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One Tuesday morning I had a telephone call from the Daily Mirror. Would I come up to Fleet Street and see Miss Felicity Green, the fashion editor – probably the most powerful of them all at that time. As her secretary showed me into her room I was terrified, but she really wasn't quite as frightening as I had imagined. Miss Green told me she was doing a feature on four career girls and she wanted me to be one of them. She had noticed Biba's Postal Boutique and wondered if I'd design and make up something for the feature. Nervously I said how about a pink gingham dress? She agreed, but felt it ought to have some interesting detail, so I suggested a hole in the back and a Brigitte Bardot kerchief to match. She said that sounded rather nice but it must be inexpensive. She felt 2 guineas was rather steep so I said, "How about 30 shillings?" Miss Green said 25 shillings was nearer the mark. I said fine and went home.

Well, it wasn't fine. Fitz nearly did a back flip when he heard of my attempt at haggling. I have never dared to discuss prices again. Since that day my job has stayed at designer, to stop me doing everything for nothing! This division of labour has proved to be largely successful.

Sketch for reversible gingham dress, 1960s – 70s, Biba archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sample was made up and looked really nice. The dress was sleeveless, had two darts and was quite short. The back had an enormous round hole in it. I had bought the sugar pink gingham in John Lewis, and had assumed that all the mills in Manchester were stacked with bales of sugar pink gingham. We sent the dress in to the Mirror and never gave it another thought.

On 3 May at 4 o'clock in the afternoon there was a call from Miss Green. Very sternly she said, "Barbara, you do have a supply of pink gingham, don't you?"

"Yes, of course, Miss Green," I said, shaking in my shoes. I relayed the message to Fitz, who immediately rang Humphrey, my mother's second husband, in Liverpool, and asked if he had any friends in the gingham business. Humphrey rang back and said he had met a friend at the golf course who said he had all the pink gingham we would ever need in a lifetime.

The following morning Fitz went to work as usual. He said he would buy the Daily Mirror on the way and ring me from the office. He was back home in five minutes clutching ten copies of the paper. The centrefold was divided into four unequal parts.

The last was over three-quarters of a page. A great big beautiful picture of Paulene Stone purred sexily at us. She was draped in gingham checks – a smaller inset showing the detail of the big hole was positioned in the corner of the page. Miss Green's copy was short, sharp and commanding. We couldn't wait for the next morning. Fitz told me not to get too excited.

Biba promotional material, Biba archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On 5 May 1964 very early in the morning we parked the car in Golden Square and waited for the hour when the first post would arrive. As usual I sat in the car while Fitz walked round the corner into Oxford Street. He took longer than usual. When he came back he had a grin from ear to ear and was dragging a huge sack behind him. I ran to help and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. We opened ten letters at random and they all had postal orders in them. We dragged the sack to the car and drove home. When we reached home we sat on the floor of the living room and tipped the sack upside down. We took bets on how many envelopes the sack held. Fitz won. It was four thousand letters. Later that day Fitz went back to work. I continued my drawings of the monstrous corsets for a newspaper advertisement. I had covered the letters with a blanket.

The next morning we thought we ought to go up to Oxford Street and see if there were any more straggling letters. As Fitz came round the corner he had a bigger grin on his face than the previous day. He was struggling with an even larger sack. As I leaped on him to hug him he said, "Not yet, there's another sack left in the office." That day the count was seven thousand letters.

The complete From A to Biba: The Autobiography of Barbara Hulanicki is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.

Header image:

The model Twiggy at the Rainbow Room, Biba store, Kensington High Street, 1960s, photographer unknown. Museum no. AAD/1996/6 : AAD/2014/1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.