Biba and Beyond: Topshop, Ronnie Wood and tiny skirts as Barbara Hulanicki revisits Brighton

By Ben Miller | 18 September 2012
A photo of two young female fashion models posing for camera decades ago
Biba models strutting their stuff under the watchful lens of Brian Duffy (circa 1973)© Brian Duffy / Duffy Archives
Exhibition: Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, September 22 – April 14 2013

She won the Outstanding Contribution to Fashion at the Global Fashion Awards in New York last year, commands the aesthetic adorations of Alexa Chung, Kate Moss and Fearne Cotton, designed a bar for Ronnie Wood in Miami and became an OBE in the most recent New Year’s Honours’ list.

But Barbara Hulanicki, the Warsaw-born, Art Nouveau founder of fashion powerhouse Biba (originally set up as a mail order company more than 50 years ago) has a connection with Brighton as strong as any in her trimly-tailored closet – her family fled Palestine to settle in the city after her father, a mediator between Arabs and Jews, was brutally assassinated in a gang killing in 1948.

A photo of a long elegant all-in-one dress in dark purple and triangular yellow shapes
The print of this dress is known as the banana print. It first featured on Biba wallpapers in the Kensington High Street shop (1969-1973). The print has since become a Barbara Hulanicki classic, most recently featuring on a wallpaper for Habitat in 2006© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Photo: Tessa Hallmann
Hulanicki rebelled against the aunt who lent them financial support, studying Fashion Illustration at the local Art College and creating illustrations for The Times and Vogue. Her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, handled the business yin to Hulanicki’s yang under their Biba’s Postal Boutique enterprise, and a Brigitte Bardot-inspired pink gingham dress, commissioned for the Daily Mirror, shifted 17,000 units.

This stratospheric success heralded the first Biba boutique, in London in 1964, where a black and white tiled floor, navy walls, clothes on hat stands, kooky lighting and loud music made up a store with an edgy difference swiftly embraced by Cathy McGowan, the presenter of pop show Ready Steady Go.

Back in Brighton, a store was briefly established. “We employed a manageress who lived above the shop, but we hadn’t realised that she was a mobsters’ moll who entertained half the Brighton underworld,” says Hulanicki.

“Stock was disappearing by the armful, and when a very famous ex-boxer came to see the ‘governor’ in Kensington to demand protection money, we felt we should call it a day.”

The fleeting threat of violence couldn’t impede their success. A new store, on Kensington Church Street in 1966, was four times the size of the original shop, a whirl of “big-brimmed hats, double-breasted wool coats, tights, gloves, bags, jumpers, shirts, dresses, underwear and feather boas”.

Swinging London loved them. The only hitch almost surfaced in a set of stretchy miniskirts which shrunk dramatically after their manufacture – Hulanicki says she “nearly had a heart attack”.

“The skirts were only 10 inches long,” she recalls. “’God,’ I thought, ‘we’ll go bust - we’ll never be able to sell them.’

“I couldn’t sleep, but that little fluted skirt walked out on customers as fast as we could get it onto the hat stands.”

Her attention to atmosphere paid off as the cool list – Sonny and Cher, Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Princess Anne and Twiggy among them – rushed to join in.

By 1969, a Kensington High Street outlet nine times the size of the Church Street one had popped up, with Egyptian topped columns, Edwardian fashion styles, Victoriana, marble floors, a fairy wonderland for children, nappies, baked bean tins and 100,000 weekly visitors who gave it a turnover most department stores could only dream of.

Dorothy Perkins bought a 70% stake with Hulanicki remaining creative Queen, launching a make-up brand and ending up in a six-storey tower described as an “extraordinary lifestyle shopping experience”, although prices were kept low.

At the point where this show’s focus begins, in 1974, Hulanicki’s relationship with then-owners British Land had deteriorated.

She walked away with her husband, launched boutiques and a make-up line, opened shops in Holland Park Avenue and Regent Street, produced fashion photos for the Evening Standard, illustrated Sarah Ferguson’s wedding dress and wrote her memoirs, the neatly-titled From A to Biba.

Since then, just in case she risked itchy fingers, she’s variously created restaurants and clubs in her Miami domicile (Woody’s on the Beach, for her Rolling Stones commissioner), designed Gloria Estafan’s recording studio, visualised buildings from Holland to the Bahamas and made luxury handbags, wallpapers and paint.

“I find anything that is rebellious is interesting, always,” she told Topshop, who she made a fashion collection for in 2009 which included skin-tight animal print flares and three-quarter sleeve suede jackets.

Her starting point and a place in tune with her feistiness, Hulanicki’s return to Brighton charts an astonishing career.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday except public holidays). Admission £3-£6 (free for under-16s).

More pictures:

A black and white photo of a woman in a black and white striped suit during the 1960s
A Biba model posing for Ron Falloon (1964)© Ron Falloon
A photo of a piece of fabric with a gold crest design on it above the word biba
The famous Biba garments label (circa 1968-9)© Royal Pavilion and Museums
A photo of a set of make-up bokes with the word hulanicki on them, and red lipstick
Make-up (circa 1985)© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a young female model draped on a sofa in a pink suit during the 1970s
A Brian Duffy photoshoot from the 1970s© Brian Duffy / Duffy Archives
A photo of a female fashion designer with shoulder-length blonde hair in a dark blue suit
Hulanicki recently won an OBE for her achievements© Dania Graibe
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