Barbara Hulanicki, icon, entrepreneur and trailblazer

From a postal boutique to an international lifestyle brand, Barbara Hulanicki trailblazed her way through the Swinging Sixties, revolutionising highstreet shopping and cementing her place in fashion and social history.

Barbara Hulanicki, 2011, at the Royal Pavilion, credit Tessa Hallmann

In 1963 Barbara Hulanicki started a small mail-order fashion company, Biba’s Postal Boutique, advertising her designs in the back of the national newspapers for which she may receive 50 or so orders. By 1973 Hulanicki was the custodian of a seven-storey department store on Kensington High Street and the purveyor of all manner of goods – from womenswear to homeware, camembert to cosmetics. In just ten short years Biba had become an icon of international fashion and an iconic lifestyle brand.

Barbara was born in Warsaw in 1936. When she was 18 months old her parents moved to Palestine where her father was working. Shockingly her father was murdered when Barbara was 12 years’ old. To this day Barbara is unsure why her father was murdered but believes it may have been on the orders of the newly established communist government in Poland. The family were quickly moved by the British government to England, settling in Brighton to live with a benevolent but controlling Aunt Sophie.

After attending Brighton Art School (now the University of Brighton) in the mid 1950s Barbara began a successful career as a fashion illustrator covering the shows in Paris and London for the biggest couturiers of the day and working for, amongst others, Vogue, Tatler, and Women’s Wear Daily. The clothes Barbara wanted to wear – youthful, fun, and inexpensive – weren’t available in the shops so in the spirit of a true entrepreneur she established her own company, with her husband.

Biba dress

A year after the launch of Biba’s Postal Boutique Barbara opened her first shop. The boutique Biba opened in September 1964 in a tiny corner shop on Abingdon Road, just off Kensington High Street. It was an immediate success which prompted a move to a larger premises on Kensington Church Street 18 months’ later. Success would continue as would further moves to larger premises – in 1969 Biba opened on Kensington High Street, becoming a small department store, and in 1973 Biba bought the former 1930s’ department Derry & Toms, also on Kensington High Street, where you could take tea on the roof garden, see live bands such as the New York Dolls in the Rainbow Room’s restaurant, or furnish your house from top to bottom.

Sadly Biba would close less than two years after opening at Derry’s – the closing chapter on the story of the Swinging Sixties and a victim of the severe economic downturn of the 1970s. Biba would be revived many times over the coming decades – a symptom of the public and the fashion press’ desire for the Biba story to continue, but without Barbara at the helm these relaunches never reached the height or captured the glamour of the Biba that Barbara created.

Hulanicki moved on in the second half of the 1970s, establishing herself as an independent designer working for Cacharel and Fiorucci as well as starting her own fashion and cosmetics’ company, Barbara Hulanicki. By 1987 she had settled in Miami, where she remains today, becoming an award-winning interior designer, reinventing the run-down art deco hotels along Miami Beach and helping to reinvigorate Miami’s reputation as the fashionable seaside resort of yester-year.

From the exhibition Biba & Beyond at Brighton Museum, 2012

Today Barbara is still working across the design spectrum: fashion, products, interiors – her life dedicated to design – and Biba will be remembered for innovations in the retailing of fashion in Britain, influencing to this day fashion retailing on every high street in every country across the world.

Watch Barbara Hulanicki returning to Brighton in 2012.

Find out how much Biba meant to those who wore it in a special video made during the 2012 Biba and Beyond exhibition at Brighton Museum

Leave a Reply