Barbara Hulanicki OBE is an illustrator, fashion designer and co-founder of Biba. Born in 1936 in Warsaw, Poland her family moved to Brighton, England when Hulanicki was only twelve years old. From 1954, she studied fashion illustration at the Brighton School of Art (now the University of Brighton Faculty of Arts). Whilst there she won a beachwear competition sponsored by the London Evening Standard newspaper.
Hulanicki left college in her second and began working as a fashion illustrator for publications British Vogue, Tatler, the Times, and the Observer. She also worked for Women’s Wear Daily in their London office. In 1961 she married Stephen Fitz-Simon. Two years later, the couple started Biba as a mail order company, advertising in the fashion columns of the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. With moderate success at first, the company really made waves in 1964 with a pink gingham dress, similar to one worn by Brigitte Bardot. The morning after the advert appeared in the Daily Mirror, they had 4,000 orders and went on to sell 17,000.
That same year, they opened their first boutique in Abingdon Road in Kensington. Biba aimed to offer celebrity looks on the high street. It prided itself on both its affordability and accessibility. The shop’s decor was inspired by Art Nouveau and Art Deco design, and had a stylishly extravagant atmosphere. It was not long before the popularity of the shop turned it into a celebrity hotspot. Artists, film stars and musicians including Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Marianne Faithfull would all frequent. Future influential editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, worked in the boutique when she was just 15. Women’s Wear Daily reported this of Biba and Hulanicki:
“she was the name in the lives of Britain’s fashion hungry”
Biba went on to open two more shops in Kensington, then moved into a seven-storey department store, dubbed Big Biba. Situated in the Derry & Toms building on Kensington High Street, it opened to much fanfare, attracting up to a million customers weekly, and was one of London’s most visited tourist attractions.
Due to internal disagreements Biba closed its doors and cease operations in 1976. Hulanicki continued to design, initially working for Italian fashion house Fiorucci and French brand Cacharel. She also designed children’s wear for a Japanese market, before changing gear. She moved to Miami, Florida and started an interior-design business. Her first client was Ronnie Wood. She designed hotels for Chris Blackwell in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and wallpaper for the store, Habitat. She won an award from the American Institute of Architects for her work on the Netherlands Building.
In 2009 Hulanicki returned to fashion designing an entire collection, reminiscent of original Biba, for British retailer Topshop. Following several failed attepts to relaunch Biba in the past by various people, in 2009 House of Fraser, with the aim of bringing it back to its high street routes, seems to have found success. Furthermore, in 2014 Hulanicki was asked to serve as a consultant which would mark her return to Biba, for the first time, after 39 Years.
In 2012, a major fashion exhibition “Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki” opened at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery celebrating the innovative and unique work that she brought to British fashion. The very same year Hulanicki was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to the fashion industry.