August 29 2014

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viva biba



Beginning in the early 1960s, Barbara Hulanicki revolutionized fashion with Biba, an Art Deco-inspired emporium that sold everything from skinny-fit minidresses and bruise-colored lipstick to cheekily packaged dog food. It was the start of cheap chic and lifestyle retailing—still the twin engines that power British fashion—and it gave shopping a permanent shake-up. This week, Harry N. Abrams is rereleasing her autobiography, From A to Biba. But first we got Hulanicki on the phone to answer a few questions.

What was fashion like when you started Biba?

There was no fashion for young people. This was in 1962, ’63. The war babies—we didn’t call them teenagers, in the U.K.—were really skinny and would buy things that were almost nice from a shop called C&A and have them altered to fit. And we would drool over Elle when it arrived from France.

Were you aware that you were revolutionizing fashion when you started Biba?

Not at all. My husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, and I started it on a whim. We just followed our instincts, and people responded. But you have to remember, it was an absolute oasis. We were doing clothes to fit young bodies, and no one else was. And everything was £3.

Who were some of your celebrity clients?

Julie Christie came in, Marianne Faithfull, Cher, the Stones, the Beatles. But they weren’t big stars then,—it wasn’t the kind of celebrity culture you get now. The real stars were the girls who worked in the shop.

How has fashion changed since you were doing Biba?

I think now you have to design for a fashion show. If you design something wearable, it looks boring. And people can’t afford to have as many fittings as we used to. One dress we did, we spent two years getting it right. We’d do the same patterns in different fabrics over and over again, because people loved them.

The closest that any shop seems to come to Biba now is Topshop. Are you a fan?

I love it. I buy lots of stuff there. They have good basics, the fit is good, and they’ve always got good shoes.

Would you ever launch another fashion line?

If my husband were alive, yes. It was very 50/50. He always took care of the business end of things, and let me get on with being creative.

Nancy MacDonell

Photo: Mandy Smith in the first Biba catalogue, Donald Silverstein. Courtesy of Harry N. Abrams and Barbara Hulanicki

Dept. of Culture