Monday, 5 October 2009

Barbara Hulanicki

It’s not every day you get to sip cappuccino with one of the most highly esteemed names in British fashion, so when Barabara ‘BIBA’ Hulanicki found time during London Fashion week to talk with us, we were more than a little bit excited.

Settling down for a chat in the cafe at Liberty, she told us how entering a design competition had had a big impact on her own early career. Back in the 1950s her aunt had spotted a contest in the London Evening Standard. There had been three categories; evening wear, day wear and swim wear. Barbara’s aunt was sure she had come up with a winning idea and tasked her niece with drawing up a complicated ensemble which involved an outfit made from layers of silk which could be removed to reveal a cocktail dress. Despite not being particularly keen on the old-fashioned style, Barbara did as she was asked, however when she returned home she decided that she’d also enter her own idea for a playsuit. She recalls how several weeks later she heard that she had won and laughs at the trepidation she’d felt when faced with the daunting task of breaking the news to her aunt!

“It changed my life completely. It also taught me that I was right not to always listen to my elders and that I really should trust my own ideas.”

After studying at Art College in Brighton, Barbara began her career as a freelance fashion illustrator for newspapers and glossy magazines. Felicity Green, women’s editor for the Daily Mirror asked Barbara to design an outfit that the newspaper could offer its readers as a mail order offer. The result was a pink gingham dress which they sold over 17,000, it gained cult status and resulted in a British gingham shortage. Barbara’s husband Fitz, set off on a mission to fabric suppliers around the country in an attempt to source enough to keep up with demand.
Spurred on by their immediate success the couple went on to set up their own mail order business, selling their designs across Britain to fashion-hungry young women. Barbara talks about those early days with fondness but also remembers the chaos that often ensued as they tackled the overwhelming demands of being the nation’s coolest boutique.

It was only a matter of time before the mail order business expanded into their first shop. In 1964 the doors of a new boutique opened in Kensignton and the legendary BIBA was born, creating a completely new type of fashion retailing that would change the face of the British High Street forever.

We asked Barbara what advice she’d give to those starting out in their design careers nowadays; she stressed the importance of hands on experience;

“When we started BIBA we had to do everything ourselves. I’d say get as much knowledge and experience as you can. Learn the technical stuff too, the nitty-gritty. Work in a shop to see how people buy, learn how to pattern cut. Do as much as you can before you settle in a particular job. See what’s out there, find different openings; there will be things happening that you don’t even know about.”

We took along Coco, one of our newest Momiji as a gift for Barbara to take back to her home in Miami, “I love it, she’s adorable!” Chatting about some of the most memorable gifts she’d received she recalled the time Fitz had bought her a wooden armadillo! “I don’t know why!” she laughed “He was always terrified of giving me presents because I’m so difficult.”
With a career spanning nearly 50 years, Barbara Hulanicki is showing little sign of slowing down. Her recent capsule collection for TopShop, a collection of wallpaper for Graham & Brown and now even a documentary film about her life ‘Beyond BIBA’ mean that the creativity just keeps flowing. “I love doing new things, moving from one to another”

Finally, we wanted to know how she would approach entering the Couture Contest; if she were to make a Momiji that represented herself, what would it be like? “A little devil...a happy little devil!”

We’d like to say a big thanks to Barbara for being so generous with her time and her enthusiasm for supporting new talent.

If you’d like your creative skills to make it into the hands of a fashion icon then make sure your doll arrives with us before October 30th. Just under a month to go; it’s the final countdown.

For more information and a list of screenings for Beyond BIBA visit

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