Adventures in Biba: Meeting Barbara HulanickiPosted: July 7, 2013
Sometimes life can be overwhelming. I have many lovely experiences to recount from the last few weeks, but putting finger to keyboard has not come very easily to me lately. So apologies for the lateness of this post.
Three weeks ago, I was very kindly invited to meet Barbara Hulanicki (designer, illustrator and general legendary goddess…) at Paper Dress Vintage in East London by the gorgeous Sophia of Black Spring Press who have just published Seamless From Biba. Shoreditch is not a natural habitat for Miss Peelpants, and I knew I was limited on time due to working that evening, but it was Barbara Hulanicki… how could I not?
As a ‘blogger’ event, I had assumed that there would be a veritable vintage scrum and scramble. I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a peaceful and beautifully appointed vintage shop, and see Margaret of Penny Dreadful Vintage, Liz of Advantage in Vintage and Lisa of Snoodlebug. Later I realised that Ana of Where The Roses Go was also in attendance, but sadly didn’t get a chance to talk to her (though I did admire her amazing hair from afar…). And that, was pretty much that. It was intimate, casual and so, SO much fun.
Sadly I didn’t have any of my more – ahem – flamboyant Biba pieces to hand, as I was staying with my mum in London, but I was able to wear my most favourite and wearable piece of Biba. A thick cotton fitted jacket with the most extraordinary floral print, which I knew I had to possess the moment I first saw it in the V&A Cutting Edge book. Possibly the second most exciting moment of the evening was when we were introduced to Barbara and she spotted my jacket, did a double take and pointed at me with an exclamation of ‘I recognise that!!’. She was able to confirm that it was indeed, as I had heard rumoured, a Sanderson upholstery fabric. She went on to say that they produced it in four colourways, and reminisced about taking four models to Italy – all wearing the same suit in a different colourway. ‘The Italians thought we were mad!‘.
What followed was more like, as Barbara said, a tea party. We all sat in a small circle, on squishy sofas and this all rendered it rather hard for me to take many photos or make many notes. It really felt like she was in conversation with all of us, and as I was directly opposite I just wanted to enjoy having a natter with one of my all-time inspirational people. So I made some sketchy notes afterwards and make no claims to precise quotations, just details.
I took the chance to ask if it was true that she used ‘vintage’ fabrics from the Thirties and Forties, and she confirmed that they did indeed. Kensington High Street was home to three department stores, Barkers and Derry & Toms being the most well-known but Pontings (further down from Derry & Toms, to the left as you emerge from High Street Kensington station) was famous for its haberdashery department. So in the early Seventies, when Pontings was on its uppers, Barbara was able to purchase rolls of unused fabric from thirty/forty years earlier. She admitted that they often had to cut around faded panels and other flaws from storage and age.
During a discussion about how films had inspired her designs from a very young age, and then the fact that Biba clothes were often used in films of the time (I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname was cited as an example, and roundly dismissed as being terrible. Something with which I greatly disagree but wasn’t about to get started on…), Barbara admitted that many things were filmed in Big Biba (including the Suzi Quatro video for Devil Gate Drive) without her knowledge. She laughed as she remembered driving past the building late one night and seeing lights on; something was being filmed and she had no idea!
I couldn’t resist the urge to share my “discovery” of the sequence from Side by Side (not the greatest film in the world but it has value and merit as ‘of its kind’, if you get my drift…) which was filmed in the rooftop restaurant. And, sure enough, she had never even heard of the film. Which is probably understandable, but it is getting a proper release this year so you can all make up your own minds…
I was keen to ask her about whether or not she had experienced much sexism, or whether Fitz had largely protected her from the worst of it. ‘Ohhh yes‘, she exclaimed, and said that, in the early days of Biba, nobody had taken her seriously and the suppliers she was dealing with would often leer at her ‘girls’ in their mini skirts and were dubious as to whether they should even be dealing with her. Of course, later on, when they saw how successful Biba was and were trying desperately to sell her things, she took her revenge. Explaining that they had a meeting room with a very, very low and large table, she laughed as she remembered that they were expected to sit on cushions on the floor. ‘And of course they’d all come straight from boozy lunches and when they sat down, their stomachs were hanging out over their trousers. And then we’d send the girls in, and they didn’t know what to do‘. Psychological warfare on lecherous pigs? Barbara is definitely my kind of lady!
When asked about the make-up colours, including green and blue lipsticks and blushers, Barbara confirmed that they all sold well and that there was always a veritable scrum surrounding new colours appearing in store. She remembered another occasion in Italy, as their make-up was being sold through Fiorucci there, where they had models each made-up with a single colour scheme. So one had blue eyeshadow, mascara, cheeks and lips, another green, and so on, and they all piled into the back of a taxi afterwards. Of course the taxi driver was too stunned at what he saw in his mirror to drive off, those mad English!
The majority of Biba models were taken from the shop floor, including Madeline Smith, except for a few notable exceptions such as Stephanie Farrow and Ingrid Boulting. The latter of whom Barbara admitted was her favourite model. She remembered an occasion where Boulting had been hired for a make-up shoot, and then said – on the day – that she couldn’t wear mascara. ‘But we’re paying you to wear the mascara‘ – she exclaimed in mock frustration at the memory. She also remembered a photoshoot where Sarah Moon had burned every single negative except for one. ‘This is the only one which came out’ claimed Moon, Barbara laughed as she said ‘She meant that was the only one she was happy with and had burnt the rest!‘. Fitz refused to let her use the solitary negative, ‘as it had cost us £1000!‘ and put it in the safe. (It was, apparently, used at a later date when the shock had worn off…).
She also said, with great sadness, that Helmut Newton was one of her favourite photographers to have worked with, but that she was too nervous to ask him again. Then, years later, his widow told her that he had loved doing the Biba catalogue and was hoping to be asked again. Which I’m pretty sure is an important lesson in ‘it never hurts to ask’ that we could all do with heeding.
One of the first questions I asked, but which feels more appropriate to mention here last, was for her opinion on having been so widely criticized at the time, in quality terms, and yet now so widely collected and sought after by serious collectors and museums. She smiled and said ‘Oh it’s wonderful. I only wish that Fitz had been alive to see it!‘.
I get the feeling that he always knew, because he always had faith in her and in Biba. It’s a testament to the both of them that it is still so coveted to this day, and retains a mystique despite all the copies and relaunches.
There were many other questions, answers and anecdotes, too many of which I have probably forgotten:
- She recalled how the attempt to sell Biba in American stores was a bit of a disaster because they were a completely different shape to the British girls. Too muscular in the arms and legs for tiny Biba sleeves and skinny suede boots.
- I asked about the ‘Lolita’ label and whether they had any criticism at the time. She said no, but that she realised they could never get away with it nowadays. ‘We just didn’t think about [the connotations] at the time. Our shop girls were so young, some were 15, so it was just a natural thing for us to do.”
- I also asked her if she thought that the Biba concept (i.e the complete lifestyle from one shop, with one strong identity) could ever work again. ‘Oh yes, definitely, but the price points would have to be much higher‘.
- They did use all the products themselves, including the baked beans and dog food. ‘The baked beans were actually Heinz beans but in Biba packaging… We used to get people complaining about the fact they were 3p more expensive than Heinz!‘.
We moved to pick up our books and have them signed, and she very kindly took our business cards. As I handed mine over, I had a momentary panic – my logo girl illustration is the image on the front of my business card! I’m basically handing over my puny illustration to Barbara Hulanicki, a woman whose illustration-style I worship (while trying desperately hard NOT to copy…). The panic dissipated as she asked if the illustration was mine, and then said something very complimentary. I’m not going to try and quote her, as I wouldn’t want to put the wrong words in her mouth, but needless to say – if Barbara Hulanicki compliments you on your illustration, your life is pretty bloody amazing at that precise moment.
As we talked about living in Brighton, and the recent exhibition, I remembered how upset I was to miss the opening event there due to a pesky toe-breakage. I think it’s safe to say that the karmic universe delivered me a more than sufficient replacement. It was an hour of pure joy, which I will always treasure. Thank you to everyone who made it possible, and mainly to Barbara herself for being so engaging and friendly.
Seamless from BIBA is currently available for £17.50 on Amazon.