Barbara Hulanicki and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, created one of London's hottest labels in the Sixties — Biba — and their store on Kensington High Street became a hangout for the hip.
Swinging London is remembered for its free spirit and innovation, and Hulanicki had a front-row seat. Her 1983 autobiography "From A to Biba" is being rereleased this month as part of a series of fashion books published by V&A Publications, a unit of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In North America, it is distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc. and will sell for $15.95.
Hulanicki wrote a new foreword for this edition, in which she looked back on the spontaneity and energy of the Sixties. She and her husband kept the label going for 12 years and catered to the era's icons, including David Bowie, Twiggy and Marianne Faithful.
"I look back to the Sixties with great fondness," Hulanicki recalled over tea at Soho House in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. "It was me and my husband, and he did the business side. It was such a free time, and we were doing business without investors."
The book is inscribed "To all Optimists, Fatalists and Dreamers," and, in a way, it sums up who she was. A Polish native who was raised in the U.K., Hulanicki had worked as a freelance fashion illustrator, going to the collections and sketching for the likes of British Vogue, the Times of London, and WWD, before founding Biba in 1964. Hulanicki's Web site, barbarahulanickidesign.com, says that a pink gingham dress with a round hole in the back and a matching head scarf put the label on the map, and the rest became fashion history.
"The young market was so strong and it had suffered so much under their parents that it was all rebellion," Hulanicki said. "They had just enough money for a bedsit [a one-room apartment], a Biba dress and a party."
And boy, did the party spread. Before she knew it, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon, who died in 1997, were selling their merchandise to Bergdorf Goodman, Macy's, Bloomingdale's and independent retailers.
"It was a big party, day and night, but you did work all the time," Hulanicki recalled of the era. "But it wasn't as druggy as people make it out to be. It was some pot smoking, maybe a bit of LSD, but there was no cocaine. But the pot was very strong."Reversals forced Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon to close the business in 1976, but she doesn't appear to have any regrets. Hulanicki wants new readers to realize "just how much you can do with the energy and a will," she said. "You can break through. You can do things you really want to do, and with a good partner, you can work, and keep laughing."
There have been multiple attempts to relaunch Biba, most recently with Bella Freud, who left in June. Manny Mashouf, chairman and founder of the fashion retailer Bebe, took a 60 percent stake in the Biba label in July.
Of the revival efforts, Hulanicki said, "I think they're bonkers. It was something that was very much of a period. Now, they keep doing expensive things for Biba. That's not what it was about. It should be like an H&M or a Topshop. But I am watching it with real interest, because this is the first time that somebody who knows how to manufacture is involved."
Hulanicki now lives in Miami and designs hotel interiors, working with Chris Blackwell and his Island Outpost Group on Miami projects such as the Marlin, the Cavalier and the Leslie hotels, as well as the Pink Sands resort in the Bahamas. She may have swapped garments for interiors but she still keeps a close watch on fashion, and one of her pastimes is taking in the collections on Fashion TV.
"They should stop doing big buttons everywhere," she chuckled. "And I don't understand how many bags you can have. With my mother, it was the sable coat, now it's the shoes and handbags that really make the statement."
That said, she has even caught the fashion bug herself again. This December, Hulanicki will launch the Hula collection for the Home Shopping Network. It will include tunics, Russian shirts, sequined scarves, printed T-shirts and accessories like quilted handbags, scarves and flip-flops. Price points haven't been determined yet but she can't wait to experience selling on television.
"I like the idea of what it can be," she said. "It's so instant. If you f--- up, you know it immediately."
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