INTERVIEW | Barbara Hulanicki3rd February 2015
In the 1960s, way before the world was flooded with designers of the Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana ilk, London discovered Barbara Hulanicki, who very quickly became a fashion legend. Prior to the advent of the Swinging Sixties, fashion was dull and positively fuddy duddy and this remarkable Polish émigré changed all that with just one little gingham sundress. Her highly stylised clothing was inexpensive and accessible, something totally unheard of back then, but more than that it was exciting and glamorous and for the very first time ever, it put the fun into fashion.
Her fascinating story fills volumes, from the assassination of her diplomat Father in Israel in the Forties to being at the forefront of the revival of Miami Beach in the Eighties, and has been very well documented over the years. Whilst we wanted to mark the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of her magnificent groundbreaking iconic store & label Biba, we were much more interested in getting the real low-down on this dynamic woman and find out why she is still a fashion powerhouse after all these years. Our Contributing Editor Roger Walker-Dack has been a close friend and neighbour of Barbara’s for a few years now, so we asked him to get her to share some of the more personal tales of her extraordinary life exclusively for us, as after all she is also one of our favourite Gay Fashion Icons. Here is what transpired.
When I arrive at Barbara’s studio, which is a few blocks away from my apartment in Miami Beach, without even saying hello, she blurts out:
“You know I’ll go to hell if you use the story I told you about Cher!” She is (as always) laughing, so I reply, “you know I HAVE to include it, and you cannot possibly go to hell.”
She is after all, the only regular Catholic Mass-going friend that I have. It does however set the tone for a hilarious afternoon (and you will have to read on to hear what the Cher thing is all about).
RWD: So your first big break came in 1963 courtesy of Felicity Green the Fashion Editor at the Daily Mirror…
BH: I was in my 20’s and doing fashion illustrating at the time. Fitz (Stephen Fitz-Simon) and I had already married and although he was still working in advertising, we had started a small fashion mail order business together. Felicity called me and said she wanted me to design & draw a sundress that could sell for just 25 shillings, (around £23.00 in today’s terms). So I did this very simple number inspired by something that Brigitte Bardot (French film star and one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1950s & 1960s) wore that year in St. Tropez. After it appeared in the newspaper we went to collect our mail from the Post Office as usual and Fitz came back with an enormous sack of mail and a grin that was even bigger. He said there are about another six full sacks waiting for us. From this tiny picture we sold 17,000 of this one size dress, but when the initial elation faded we really started to panic as we had no fabric and no factory to make them. Somehow, more by luck than judgment, we made them all.
RWD: Making a nice contribution to your bank balance?
BH: NO! Fitz screamed at me as I had no idea then of how to do costings, and he told me that we had made just one halfpenny profit per dress. BUT at least it was 17,000 halfpennies!
RWD: The following year you opened your first shop in Notting Hill, which was a very rough area at the time.
BH: I badgered Fitz to rent an old pharmacy in Abingdon Road for just £25 per week purely as a stockroom just to get all the frocks out of our flat. Then one Saturday just after I opened the door all these people followed me in and asked to try the dresses on. Within an hour we were packed and it was mayhem, so I phoned Fitz at home in a panic saying, “get here quick and bring some more clothes”. We were not set up to be a shop but as the dresses were flying out, we suddenly became one.
As it was a stockroom, we had very heavy plum curtains covering the front window so we thought we had better now change them, and so we took them down overnight and painted the window cream and put up some lace curtain. However the very next day nobody came in at all, so the following night we had to paint it back and put the old curtains back which was a great pity as I was about to make them into dresses. (Giggling)
You mentioned your son Witold who is gay, and I know you are very close…
BH: A couple of years ago he got married. Now I have two sons and I’m crazy about them both.
RWD: Very Sound of Music! How did this first Biba store become an overnight sensation?
BH: It was all down to Ready Steady Go the hottest TV music show at the time. Vicki Wickham the producer lived nearby the shop and asked us to dress the show’s presenter Cathy McGowan each week. She also encouraged all the kids that were seen dancing in the audience to wear our clothes too. We fortunately became an integral part of the burgeoning music scene that was starting to explode in London in the 60s.
RWD: Soon it wasn’t just local celebrities that made the trek to your outpost in west London, so can you spill the beans about some of your more international big-name customers?
BH: The woman who had inspired my gingham dress two years earlier turned up to the shop.
RWD: Brigitte Bardot?
BH: She had just got married to Gunther Sachs (filmmaker, international playboy and Bardot’s 3rd husband) and she came into the store one Saturday completely unannounced. I think he wanted some paparazzi coverage for her visit but we were being very proper and English and didn’t call the press and just treated her like any other customer. Almost. She just started stripping off in the middle of the shop but Mr. Sachs insisted that she should have some privacy so we had to take them into the tiny back stockroom, which was separated by some curtains from Fitz’s office. Normally he would just jump out of the shop’s back window the moment a famous customer would come in because he couldn’t stand any fuss, but this time he was on his chair peering over looking at a near naked Bardot happily prancing around.
Fitz was never that impressed by celebrities so I really had to persuade him to accept a dinner invitation from a couple of American customers that we had never heard off. When they first came into the store they looked like an odd pair, as she was much taller than him, and they were both wearing these ridiculous baggy trousers and sleeveless furry waistcoats. We just muttered “what the f—k” when we saw them. Dinner was a disaster as the woman was utterly boring and so after we dropped them off back at Claridges Hotel where they were staying, Fitz turned to me and said, “we are NEVER going out to dinner with customers EVER AGAIN!” The couple were Sonny and Cher! (Roaring with laughter.)
RWD: You outgrew the first shop within two years?
BH: Yes, in fact that would become a pattern for us as we up-sized every two years. Fitz had a great nose for finding the most amazing old fashioned properties, and one day he called me and said he found a fantastic old grocery shop in Kensington Church Street but rather than checking our references before giving us a lease, the owner had insisted on meeting me. The landlord was a craniologist and he had looked at Fitz’s head, which he approved of but he wanted to see mine before we could take the shop. Luckily I passed the test and he said we could rent it (laughs).
We then hotfooted around to see our bank manager as we had a great cash flow in and out but nothing actually in the bank. He lent us £1000 on the condition that we pay it back immediately we open the store. So on the first day of trading all I could see towering over a sea of young girls fighting over the clothes was our bank manager standing in the doorway counting people! (laughs). He got his money back very quickly.
RWD: So decades before social media how did everybody find out so quickly about the new shop?
BH: Mainly word of mouth. Although Cathy McGowan’s agent did some PR and he took a great photo of her and Cilla Black on the back on the truck pretending to help us move, which I thought at the time, was very cheesy.
RWD: Did you continue your novel idea of having just one large changing room in the shop?
BH: Well it started off that we didn’t have either the time or money to do individual ones, but by the time we moved to Ken Church Street everyone loved stripping off together. Even celebrity customers, like a very pregnant Barbara Streisand who came shopping with her husband Elliot Gould. In those days real stars didn’t travel with an entourage. She was lovely, and such a sweet person.
RWD: (laughs) I think you must be one of the few people who have met La Streisand who would ever describe her like that!
And did the future Grand Dame of Vogue Anna Wintour really start her career as your Saturday girl?
RWD: So you taught her all she knows? (laughs) And do you think that Ms. Wintour has this first job down on her resume?
BH: No comment.
RWD: Well if you are going to be tactful about this, can you agree that she may have copied her signature habit of wearing oversized glasses from you?
Well, changing tack then. Your life has not just been filled with celebrities, as there have been more than a few rather dubious characters that have forced their way into it at times too?
BH: We used to have a shop in Brighton in the 60s and it was far from the genteel town that it is now. It was just like Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (an underworld thriller set in 1930s Brighton when it was the home of several gang mobs) and it had been the scene of an infamous Mods vs. Rockers fight/riot. We got a phone call that a very tough cookie called ‘Carol The Arrow’ was in the store pushing a pram that she wanted the staff to fill up for nothing. Then the following week a very large scary looking gentleman turned up and offered us protection if we paid him a fee every week. Fitz just swore and we immediately closed the shop instead.
RWD: After two years in Ken Church Street you moved to an even bigger store in Ken High Street and then exactly 2 years later you leave that to move into the enormous old Derry & Toms, which you turned into a ‘Harrods for hippies’. How did that happen?
BH: Our shop was opposite three old large House of Fraser Department Stores, which were all really doing very badly. One of them, Derry and Toms was a really wonderful art deco building and Fitz had heard that they were not just going to close the business but actually demolish the building too. At the time, the English really didn’t care for that style of architecture. We sat up on the spectacular Roof Garden, and I just screamed to Fitz “they can’t do this, we simply must stop them.” Without really thinking it through I just badgered him and said we’ve got to save it. So he just picked up the phone and rang Sir Hugh Fraser direct and said, “we want to move into your store”. By this time we were very hot retail wise and the big clothing chain Dorothy Perkins had invested in Biba and so Sir Hugh said, “Well if you can give me ‘X’ amount of money by tomorrow it’s yours,” just like that. The next call Fitz made was to the Dorothy Perkins Board and they gave us the go-ahead, so by the following day, it was indeed ours.
RWD: Was it all really just a whim?
BH: Well, yes but we were bursting at the seams in our store.
RWD: But how many floors did Derry’s have.
BH: Seven with the lower ground floor. We had food, paper shop, flowers, a hippy dippy shop, bedding, logo, cosmetics, a huge t-shirt department and masses of clothing and accessories. The food section was mainly health food, which was relatively a new thing in the 60s and our chef made up healthy conscious dishes for the Rainbow Room Restaurant, which was packed all the time. I insisted that he also served in the staff canteen too, which caused a near rebellion with all the store staff people demanding baked beans and sausages instead. (laughing). So I just gave in and let them eat the comfort food they were brought up on then.
RWD: So much of the merchandise in the store was black which was also odd as the 60’s were famous generally for such vivid colours and flower power. Even baby clothes and nappies. Did you sell them?
BH: OH YES. Witold (my son) wore them (laughs). I LOVED black, still do, and when I was 18-years-old you could not buy a black dress anywhere because that was considered the colour for old women and widows. Black was forbidden as too was purple. After black our biggest colours were plum, purple, oxblood and (urgh) brown!
RWD: Even in your cosmetic range?
BH: Oh yes, and that attracted some very special customers too including Freddie Mercury who loved our make-up. He was also the boyfriend of Mary Austin (a store Manager at BIBA and the ‘girlfriend’ of Freddie Mercury who was left the majority of his estate when he died in 1991) who had worked for us for years. However one day I came across a very distraught Mary crying her eyes out and when I asked what the matter was, she told me that Freddie didn’t know if he was going to be gay or straight.
RWD: When did he let her know his decision?
BH: I don’t know but I was so upset for her (roaring). He was always there afterwards, as they remained very good friends.
RWD: When we think of BIBA we always think of TWIGGY too as you are synonymous with each other.
BH: We first met her in Abingdon Road when she was still in school and she’d come into the shop and spend all her pocket money. I would see this amazing creature with this stunning Garbo-like face. When she started to model for us we had to make our skinny clothes even smaller for her as she was tiny. We were always a good fit for each other and when she went on to act on the stage we designed her set and all her costumes and her make up too.
RWD: Is it amazing that you are still so very close to her some 50 years later?
BH: Well she visits me a lot in Miami and she actually has her own clothing line in the US which she sells on the Home Shopping Network. Last week we were just sitting on the beach together and the discussion turned to the fact that armholes are not high enough on frocks. We found ourselves roaring our heads off, as here we were half a century later, sitting on the glamorous Miami Beach and that is the topic of our conversation!
RWD: We actually caught up with Twiggy recently and chatted to her about you.
TWIGGY: I remember very clearly the first time I saw Barbara in the Abingdon Road shop. She was the most stylish and beautiful woman I had ever seen. Along with most of London, I was overwhelmed by the style and decor of the store, as there was just nothing like it in London. The other amazing thing about Biba was that you could buy affordable, wonderful clothes for young women. I was a little bit in awe of her at first, but that didn’t last for long, and we soon became dear friends.
I think her gorgeous clothes, and my style at that time fitted so perfectly together and we did many photo shoots together You’ve also got to remember, there was really nothing else like it at the time, Barbara Hulanicki was a huge trendsetter, and a huge talent in the fashion industry.
Apart from being so incredibly talented, she is the warmest, funniest and kindest of people. After we met, we soon became close friends. I’m happy to say our friendship has continued for the last 50 years. Barbara is still my inspiration and my style icon. I love her to bits.
RWD: After the BIBA store you chose Brazil for the next phase of your life… Why?
BH: Well we wanted to be far away as possible from London at that point in our lives. Brazil was not only glamorous but it was offering wonderful manufacturing facilities where we could make products and export to Europe. We went there clutching large orders for t-shirts that we got from Fiorucci (a hip 1960’s Italian fashion label that wanted to recreate London’s Swinging 60’s in Italy) & Cacherel (a young French fashion label) and we met this suave ex-Pat gent who couldn’t do enough for us, we ended up partnering with the young Lord Duoro. He also fixed up financing from a bank run by ex CIA officers, Well, we think they were ex…
We exported a ridiculous amount of t-shirts and ended up with an office in Paris courtesy of M Cacherel. He then gave me a small amount of money to decorate the place, and he loved the results so much that he wanted me to do the whole building. Back then I had no interest in doing interiors, so he pleaded with us to stay and design clothes instead. During the negotiations he handed me a swatch of 4 ghastly colours and told me this is what I should work with. I was horrified as we were using 22 different colours then, so we said a polite “NON” and hotfooted back to Brazil.
RWD: Then how did you end up in Miami Beach?
BH: The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood asked me to design a club for him there. He said it would only take six months. And then six months turned into two years, then in to five, and now over twenty years later I am still here.
RWD: That is when you started designing buildings and interiors and so much more.
BH: Well after ‘Woodies’ opened Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records) asked me to redesign a whole heap of hotels that he had bought in Miami as a job lot. In fact I once sent him a postcard of the famous Tides Hotel that he had totally forgotten he owned too.
RWD: Heady times as the whole stable of stars he handled then included the likes of Bob Marley and Prince were all there too.
BH: Oh yes, after I designed the Marlin Hotel which had its own Recording Studio, EVERYONE hung out there: U2, Madonna, Beyoncé, that group of English girls that I always forget… THE SPICE GIRLS. I recognised most of them, except one night at dinner and I had to ask someone “who is this little boy sitting next to me.” They replied, “It’s Prince!”
RWD: Wasn’t Miami also dangerous too in those days?
BH: Very, but not for me as I somehow ended up doing work for some very heavy gangsters.
RWD: How come?
BH: There was nobody else here doing what I was doing and if I went to sit on the beach I would end up being offered jobs. These very colourful characters (!) would say, “I’m opening this and I’m opening that” and plead with me to do it. They were both the old and new money of Miami Beach. Plus I was a little naïve, BUT they thought I was stupid and would have no idea what they were up too.
Once in the middle of the night I got a frantic phone call from one of them pleading for me to come down to his club bringing any fabric I could lay my hands on. It turned out that the contractor had installed the two-way mirror the wrong way around everyone could see into the office and watch them loading bundle after bundle of cash into the safe. I just gave them some new curtains and said nothing.
(Whispers) But maybe I should be careful to what I say as some of those ‘gentlemen’ could still be around! (laughs)
RWD: Then you moved into doing people’s houses. How did you get the gig to do Gloria Estefan’s house here?
BH: Rock people just talk to each other and word gets around, and as there are lot of them here, I was always busy.
RWD: All these decades later, Miami is still home for you. Why?
BH: It’s such a vital and unique place that never stops still and is always evolving. Every two years it’s completely different, and there are always interesting things going on.
I love seeing all the stores here and seeing what is going up and down, and discovering why. Everything changes suddenly, including values. Now it seems like it is after a depression just as it was in the 1970s when glam rock disappeared and everything got scruffy and we moved into t-shirts and jeans, which is what is happening here now. I find it totally fascinating as a new generation comes along, and I can’t wait to see what the next lot does.
RWD: I can never ever keep track of all the different projects you work on at any time these days.
BH: I’ve just finished doing collections for GEORGE at ASDA, and am now working with the HOUSE OF FRASER. I am also just designing a new Hotel in Hollywood (Florida). I have my own collection called ICONCLUB which consists of t-shirts and accessories made/sold in the UK that are based on my fashion illustrations and graphics, and we are about to launch a brand new product range called YO BROOKLYN. Oh yes, we are doing a new home wear range from India too.
RWD: It strikes me that you never ever think of any of this as work?
BH: Well it isn’t, I just move from one thing to another: nothing ever seems to finish.
RWD: You mentioned your son Witold who is gay, and I know you are very close…
BH: A couple of years ago he got married. Now I have two sons and I’m crazy about them both.
RWD: Did he never want to follow you into fashion?
BH: NO! (laughs) He lives with his husband in New York and teaches Alexander Technique and Yoga.
RWD: What does he think of having a fashion legend and a gay icon for a mother?
BH: (roars) You will have to ask him…
(and we did…)
WITOLD: I don’t remember the black nappies and the clothes at all, but what really made an impact was the stores as the colours and the open spaces and all the shop fixtures were like magic. This was even before Big Biba when Mum designed a whole floor specifically for kids, with a castle and moat, a giant record player, a Snoopy doghouse that you go inside. You can imagine how amazing that was for a six-year-old! Even before that, there was a theatricality to everything that was so exciting.
I do think of my mum as a fashion legend and as an icon and there is no doubt that her work is unique and people will be rediscovering her over and over again for easily the next hundred years! I feel like I was raised by her creativity as much as I was by her and I feel the same connection to her work that I feel to her. She is however first and foremost my mum first.
Whenever people who don’t know her ask me about who she is and what she does, I say something like “Oh, she’s a designer. She’s done a lot of work in fashion and interior design.” My husband, Kris, then steps in and says, “Yes, and she’s famous. She has a Wikipedia page and everything. Look her up!”
RWD: You have this remarkable history that has filled several books and a movie too, and one that HM The Queen saw fit to award you an OBE for, but you strike me as a person that never dwells in the past and always lives in the present and looks forward to the future. Will you ever stop working?
BH: No, I plan to outlive you all
To find out more about Barbara and Biba visit: