Designer Barbara Hulanicki may be in her seventies but – with her shaggy peroxide blonde bob, dark glasses and black jacket, jeans and boots combo – she looks like a rock star; which is appropriate as she is treated with the same reverence as a pop icon.
The woman behind the legendary fashion emporium Biba is now the subject of a documentary which, when it was recently shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre, proved to be a magnet for anyone interested in fashion. The scenes at her post-screening book-signing session were what you’d expect at the stage door after a pop concert.
No wonder Hulanicki drew an impressive crowd: Biba is still a huge influence on today’s fashion – not only in terms of its look, which drew on the styles of the past while setting new trends – but also in its ethos of “disposable fashion”, which paved the way for today’s High Street shops. Barbara explains: “The idea was to buy things and then, when you were done with them, give them to someone else. Everything was £3.”
Biba began life as a mail order catalogue in 1964 and by 1969, the shop was the second most popular tourist spot in the capital (only the Tower of London attracted more visitors). “People would travel from all over the country every Saturday, because the fares were so inexpensive,” says Hulanicki. “There was a sort of club atmosphere about the shop – lots of people who went on to get married originally met there.”
During its heyday, Biba was to fashion what the Beatles were to pop music. It was also a mecca for the coolest celebrities of the day. Hulanicki recalls: “Anybody who was anybody at that time – whatever country they were from – would come in. Brigitte Bardot, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful … Barbra Streisand came in when she was pregnant. She went into the (communal) changing room with her great big belly, and took all her clothes off. But you know the girls in the shop were so blase about celebrities that I used to have to beg them for information on who had been in!”
As a student, Hulanicki’s style was very heavily influenced by two movie stars of the 1950s – Grace Kelly and, in particular, Audrey Hepburn. “Her style was just magic,” she gasps. “She was very simple and always wore black.” So, did she ever pop into Biba when she fancied a day-off from her Givenchy wardrobe? “No, but I heard she bought some of our clothes. Somebody told me that she actually said that the only place that fitted her shape was Biba. I was so thrilled! Of course, she was already quite old then…. she was 28!”
As Hulanicki moved on to her Biba period, she fell under the spell of movie stars of an earlier era: Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, neither of whom would have looked out of place lounging around in the decadent art deco fabulousness of the most famous of the Biba stores, all of which were designed inkeeping with their architecture.
Hulanicki walked away from Biba in 1976 after a prolonged period of difficulties with her new business partners. She and her late husband, who had worked with her at Biba, lived in Brazil for a while but, in 1987, wound up in Miami, a city which captured Hulanicki’s imagination – thanks, largely, to its once-glorious Art Deco architecture which she has helped to conserve. Over the last 20 years, she has worked as an interior designer, designing Miami Beach night clubs for the likes of Ronnie Wood and Gloria and Emilio Estefan.
Is she surprised by the ongoing, worldwide fascination with a shop that closed its doors over 30 years ago? “Isn’t it bizarre,” she says. “It keeps growing and growing. My son says that I get rediscovered every two years. It goes quiet then it starts again.” Of course, part of the reason for this is that the coolest, hippest celebrities all seem to own some vintage Biba.
Which of today’s famous fans does she think wears it well? “I love Kate Moss. I love all the bad girls – Amy etc. Everybody seems to collect this stuff, which is interesting – and very nice. But it’s strange because it started out as throwaway fashion!”
* Beyond Biba (November Films; £35) comes out as a special, limited edition (only 1000 copies) DVD on December 7 from http://www.beyondbibamovie.com. The standard edition of the DVD will be in shops in the New Year.