Although an excellent Biba range is now sold through House of Fraser, Barbara Hulanicki – who started the label in 1960 – parted company with it a long time ago. She has continued to design, now living in Miami and working as an interior decorator with a sideline in boutique hotels. She has produced wallpapers for Habitat and created collections for Topshop and George at Asda.
But she will forever be Biba. During its 14 years under her aegis, the label and her Kensington emporia were as integral a part of the Sixties and early Seventies scenes as Mary Quant or the Mini.
Hulanicki, born in Poland, studied at Brighton School of Art before starting a career as a fashion illustrator. It is appropriate therefore that the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery is celebrating the resort’s adopted daughter with a major exhibition, Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki, opening on 22 September.
Her career, encompassing the Biba years plus the before and after, will be told through a mixture of music, film, photography and fashion. Many of the exhibits have accrued from the museum’s Bring In Your Biba day, when the public was invited to rummage through their own wardrobes.
Biba was an unusually classless label. Hulanicki and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, started the brand as Biba’s Postal Boutique, selling their clothes through the Daily Express and Mirror.
The first of her Kensington shops didn’t have a sign above the door and kept its original shabby interior (which under her auspices was upgraded to shabby chic). The clothes – in browns, rusts and blueberry tones – were, she said, “The dull auntie colours I despised in my young days”.
Her career, encompassing the Biba years plus the before and after, will be told through a mixture of music, film, photography and fashion
The shop expanded in 1965 and again in 1969, when 30,000 people crossed the threshold on the day of opening. It found its final Hulanicki incarnation in the old Derry & Tom’s building on Kensington High Street.
By now, the brand was about more than fashion: you could buy Biba baked beans as well as make-up, and flamingos strutted around the shop’s roof garden. Despite the celebrity customers – Jagger, Cher, Twiggy and so on – it all became a bit too much. Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon were overruled by their business partners and relinquished control of the brand.
Hulanicki subsequently used her reputation to great effect. The Brighton show has examples of everything from her architectural work to her handbag designs, such as a lauded Art Nouveau number for Coccinelle.
Visitors may be less interested in this than the gusty blast-from-the-past glamour the exhibition offers. Instead of Proust’s madeleine, Hulanicki offers equally evocative chiffons and crushed velvet.
Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery from 22 Sept 2012 to 14 April 2013
Video: interview with Barbara Hulanicki
Video: a short film about Barbara Hulanicki