If you say the name ‘Barbara Hulanicki’ to anyone with so much as a passing interest in fashion, their eyes will be sure to light up. In her career spanning over 50 years, Barbara has managed to establish herself as a British fashion icon, on top of being an expert of interior design. The following interview moves around the world, from her upbringing in Palestine, to her favourite coffee shop today in Miami, with a couple of celebrity faces in between our artist interviews series continues with a living legend…
I was going to start by asking, what are your earliest memories relating to art? When did you first become aware of it as an idea?
“Well, I was brought up in Palestine during the war. We were Polish Catholics, and in those days my Dad was a consul general. During that time (in the 1940s) there were no shops. You never got toys. Everything was one at home. My mother always entertained, as there were only three of us, and the entertainment was always drawing. We would draw draw draw! For us, it was a way of communicating. It just became natural.”
As I understand, you moved from Palestine to England (in 1948) when you were very young. How did the two countries compare to one another? What were your initial impressions of the UK?
“Indeed, I guess so. Anyway, I won that and then had to go to the awards ceremony. The issue was that they gave me this horrendous flowery medallion, which as a small child I was really embarrassed by. Everybody laughed!”
I imagine that when you’re a young child, being awarded a flowery medallion is pretty mortifying stuff?
“Oh my god! So my father had been in London before us during his role of consul general. He used to tell us all these wonderful stories at the time, of all these amazing food places and shops to buy things. I was 12 and had never been to a proper shop. When we then arrived, it was then freezing cold and raining! You couldn’t buy too much because of rationing. People had to live on one egg and 4Oz of cheese a week.
Eventually I went to art school in Brighton. We were kind of rescued by my Mother’s sister. She used to be horrible to us . Regardless though, she also decided to teach us English, which was very tough going, I must say. I used to think I was very good at English, as it was my second language. I then got there and realised that I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
As I got older I then went to Brighton Art College, where I was living at the time. I had always wanted to do fashion, but my family were terribly rude about fashion. I then had to take a fine art course which was horrible. We had to draw a lot of nudes. It was the case in those days that lots of homeless people would come off the street and offer to be drawn (for money). I just thought to myself ‘I can’t stand this.”
What was it that drew you to fashion over any other medium? I imagine that much of the clothing was very conservative during that time?
“Ah, well at that time, my mother was incredibly fashionable. She had all these wonderful clothes from Paris before the war. I used to be so embarrassed being beside her, because of how gorgeous she was. We obviously never had any toy dolls at that time, so for me, fashion was like having real life dolls. At the time there was a huge market for young people who wanted to get away from home and come to London. This was because of the music and because there were opportunities for them to earn money. There were also shops that they wanted to spend their money on. In the 60s the fashion market just grew and grew.”
I imagine that 10 years prior to you coming onto the scene that the clothing was very conservative?
“There was no clothing at all! Everything was second hand. The older generation had their clothes from before the war. The clothes being produced at that time were absolutely revolting. I then went travelling in Paris at that time and found that there were the most amazing boutique stores, with clothes that weren’t even that expensive. The clothes were just wonderful.”
“…my mother was incredibly fashionable. She had all these wonderful clothes from Paris before the war. I used to be so embarrassed being beside her, because of how gorgeous she was. We obviously never had any toy dolls at that time, so for me, fashion was like having real life dolls. At the time there was a huge market for young people who wanted to get away from home and come to London.”
Can you tell us about your initial jobs after you finished studying art?
“I got a job with a fashion illustration studio. While there was photography at the time, illustrating dress designs was still the more popular option. The studio was using illustrators for fashion shows, to draw the designs at fashion shows. I quickly worked my way up, before long I was doing designs with all of the newspapers.
Later I met my husband Fitz. He was in advertising and was very into mail order. At the time, that was the future. It was the equivalent of online. I would then do a dress to be put in a magazine, which would be sold. At the time we were only doing 800 or so, making very little money. We would make half a penny on each one. We would dispatch them ourselves and do the packing. It was awful really.
I was going to give up, when a friend of mine gave me a chance to put a design in The Mirror. I then designed a dress, which was priced at 25 shillings. So, I made the dress and didn’t think too much of it. We had an address in oxford street, where all our mail order requests would come to. Not long after I had done that dress for The Mirror, Fitz hopped out of the car to collect the post. I’m sitting in the car, and he comes around the corner dragging a huge sack filled with mail. He had a big grin on his face and shouted, “there’s two more!’ After that, every day we had a sack. We sold in a single day 9000 dresses in one size. We then had to produce all of that. That was when the drawing stopped!”
You then opened your store, Biba in 1964. Can you give us a little flavour of what that time in your life was like?
“It was absolute hell! I was working like mad. I was fulfilling all the mail orders and in the store, there were lines of kids wanting to buy everything. I had to ring Fitz saying “Quick, quick. bring some more stock.”
As I understand, the store ended up becoming a social hub for pop-stars of the time, such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. What was it like having these icons visiting you on a regular basis?
“At the time there was a TV show called ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ which had all the new bands on it. They would all come to my store to buy clothes before going onto it. I remember that there used to be a photo of me standing beside the Beatles. I actually tore it up, because I thought that I looked too fat in it!
Fitz didn’t like shopping. It was his idea that for people (like himself) there should be sofas in the shop, so that people could sit down. What we found then was that people used to hang out there. It certainly worked! Guys used to come in there to meet girls. We had the store very dark, with all the latest music played very loud. All the bands at the time weren’t really known either. Mick Jagger would always come in, trying to chat with girls. The likes of Cher and Brigitte Bardot arrived. It was amazing! I always used to ask the people behind the desk “who has been in today?” They were great, but often very blasé. One time I asked that and check out lady replied, “Oh, there is a fat lady who just went into the dressing room.” It turned out that the fat lady was a heavily pregnant Barbara Streisand!”
Today Barbara has a new collection Hula