Get­ting Dressed: Bar­bara Hu­lan­icki

Bar­bara Hu­lan­icki cre­ated a Six­ties brand that be­came a fash­ion leg­end

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Brigid Keenan

I have known Bar­bara Hu­lan­icki since the Six­ties, when I was the ju­nior fash­ion edi­tor on the Sun­day Times and she was a sought-af­ter fash­ion il­lus­tra­tor; but un­til this in­ter­view I never knew about the tragic and trau­matic event that changed her life for ever.

Born in War­saw be­fore the war, she grew up with her two sis­ters in Jerusalem where her fa­ther was the Pol­ish Con­sul – un­til one ter­ri­ble day in 1948, when a Jewish mili­tia group en­tered their house, dragged her fa­ther out­side and shot him. It has never been ex­plained why.

She was 12 and, like the rest of the fam­ily, never got over the loss. Her fa­ther be­came her hero and, be­cause she never wanted any­one to steal or tar­nish his name in any way, she called her iconic fash­ion house Biba af­ter her younger sis­ter. (Her son is named Wi­told af­ter his grand­fa­ther; Biba lives in Por­tu­gal and they speak of­ten.)

The British govern­ment flew the Hu­lan­icki fam­ily to Bri­tain where they set­tled in Brighton. Her mother’s wealthy sis­ter res­cued the shat­tered fam­ily – and un­wit­tingly be­came Hu­lan­icki’s in­spi­ra­tion. ‘Aunt So­phie bul­lied us all and made me wear her old clothes, made in plum and sepia – ev­ery­thing she forced me to wear be­came ideas for Biba – not that she ever ap­pre­ci­ated this. She once de­scribed our beau­ti­ful big Biba store as “that junk shop of Bar­bara’s’’.’

In Eng­land, Hu­lan­icki went to what was then Brighton School of Art where her teacher – ‘the amaz­ing Joanne Brog­den’ – told Hu­lan­icki that she was so bad at pat­tern-cut­ting that she should con­cen­trate on fash­ion draw­ing. ‘I took her ad­vice and got a job in Lon­don in a stu­dio where I worked my way up un­til I was sent to Paris to do the col­lec­tions. I met Au­drey Hep­burn, my idol, in a lift at Givenchy. She gave me a great smile and my knees buck­led with awe!’ Soon af­ter her Lon­don move, in 1961, Hu­lan­icki met Stephen Fitz-si­mon, who worked in an ad­ver­tis­ing agency. They were a per­fect match: she the bril­liant bud­ding de­signer, he the busi­ness­man. To­gether they launched a small mailorder cat­a­logue – but one un­like any other. It had pho­to­graphs by fu­ture stars such as Hel­mut New­ton and Sarah Moon, and clothes at rock bot­tom prices. ‘We were all work­ing and earn­ing some money but there were no af­ford­able clothes for our age group ex­cept Foale and Tuf­fin at Wool­lands’ 21 Shop.we man­u­fac­tured in the Greek fac­to­ries in Fon­twell Road, and Fitz used to have to go Greek danc­ing on Fri­days to keep in with the man­u­fac­tur­ers…’ Then, in 1964, the Daily Mir­ror fea­tured a spe­cial of­fer of a ging­ham dress with match­ing scarf for two guineas – it sold 17,000. It was such a hit that Fitz and Bar­bara gave up their day jobs and opened a small shop in Kens­ing­ton which soon be­came a larger one (Cilla Black helped them un­load the van when they moved). There were queues round the block for the pur­ple suede boots, feather boas and minidresses. Even­tu­ally, in 1976, they opened the leg­endary Biba store in what had been Derry & Toms. ‘I was al­ways into do­ing the whole pic­ture. The clothes needed shoes and hats and bags; then there was make-up, a hair­dresser, nightwear. Then our cus­tomers moved out of bed­sits into flats and houses; so they needed home stuff, then they had ba­bies – and I had Wi­told. So we did chil­dren’s clothes; then, as they be­gan trav­el­ling in Europe, they wanted in­ter­est­ing food – then health food. We were go­ing to open a small cinema – we even heard through the grapevine that Elvis wanted to make his come­back in the Biba Rain­bow Room…’

Fitz had only been able to buy Derry & Toms by sell­ing 75 per cent of the busi­ness to Dorothy Perkins. When Biba closed in 1976, it was be­cause Dorothy Perkins sold the busi­ness on to prop­erty de­vel­op­ers. The couple moved to Brazil (where, iron­i­cally, Bar­bara’s fa­ther had been in­tend­ing to go when he left Jerusalem). Af­ter a stint back in Lon­don, they moved to Mi­ami – where Hu­lan­icki’s heart was bro­ken again when Fitz died in 1997. In Mi­ami she con­tin­ues a flour­ish­ing busi­ness de­sign­ing ho­tel in­te­ri­ors, wall­pa­pers, clothes (for Baar & Bass in Chelsea) and fash­ion draw­ing.

Hu­lan­icki, 81, has al­ways had younger friends, which she thinks is im­por­tant as one gets on. Her main tip for look­ing good is sim­ple – ‘Don’t get fat! No pick­ing food! It’s easy – just keep an empty fridge… and sorry, but no cheese or booze. And I walk ev­ery­where.’

Be­cause she works in colour all the time, she al­ways wears black: ‘Dur­ing the day, I wear leisure stuff and sneak­ers but go wildly sparkly at night.’ She hates lip­stick but uses Bobbi Brown foun­da­tion and eye make-up and de­scribes her­self as ‘bot­tled blonde’. Dark glasses have be­come her trade­mark – the ones in the pic­ture are by Cut­ler and Gross.

Back to black: jacket, printed T- shirt and back­pack, all by Bar­bara Hu­lan­icki; leg­gings by Nike

Bar­bara in 1970, in Biba fake fur coat and jew­ellery by Nicky But­ler

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