As the wind whistles and whips through the ballroom of the Brighton Hilton Metropole Hotel on a breezy July morning, designer and founder of the Biba brand Barbara Hulanicki smiles, acknowledging it as her aunt’s spirit.
The woman who helped make fashion affordable on the high street has spent the night in her Aunt Sophie’s former Metropole suite – numbers 109 and 110 – ahead of a day of filming and interviews connected with the new exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
“It’s the first time everything has been brought together,” says curator Martin Pel, who has been working with Hulanicki for the past three years.
He floated the idea of a retrospective to the designer at a screening of the biographical film Beyond Biba at Brighton’s Sallis Benney Theatre back in October 2009.
Since then Hulanicki has been trawling her archives, and the museum has appealed to Biba fans for exhibits.
The exhibition will look at Hulanicki’s early years, the height of Biba fever when Hulanicki and her husband Stephen “Fitz” Fitz-Simon opened the six-storey Big Biba in 1973, and her later career as an interior designer in Miami.
Brighton played a big part in the Biba story, as the place where the Hulanicki family moved after being forced to leave Palestine following the brutal assassination of Barbara’s diplomat father in 1948, supported by her aunt.
“We used to have to come here all the time on Saturdays and Sundays to be taught about life and manners,” remembers Hulanicki. “She had all this incredible stuff in her wardrobe, which for a 12-year-old was horrific. When I look back now, they were beautiful clothes from the pre-war days.”
It was Aunt Sophie who supported the family, although Hulanicki admits their relationship was fairly rocky as she got older.
“We would get £3 a week or month from her, and if we went and spent it there would be absolute hell!” she says. “She would teach us to invest it in something.
“When I went up to London – to escape – I spent all my first week’s £5 on shoes that didn’t fit me. She was furious!
“When I left Brighton, my aunt gave all the money we had saved to the Hungarian refugee fund. That was the end of me and my aunt.
“I do have this wonderful letter from her to my sister, though, when she talks about ‘Barbara in that junk shop of hers’.”
Hulanicki learned fashion illustration at Brighton Art School under Joanne Brogden, who went on to head the school of fashion at the Royal College Of Art.
“She would terrify us,” remembers Hulanicki. “We were always trying to impress her, but never could.”
Her desire to design clothes came from her family life.
“My mother was always making us amazing things,“ she says. “We all learned how to sew – she was very big on sewing and embroidery.”
Her first steps in the fashion industry were as an illustrator, first of all in a studio, then as a freelance artist.
“Illustration was important,” she says. “There was a gap of 30 days before they could release any photographs. We had to go in and draw what we had seen from memory. Going to a Dior show and having to watch 40 black short dresses – it was so boring, with a little sleeve here, a little opening there, or two buttons.”
It was through illustration work that Hulanicki met Felicity Green, the fashion editor of the Daily Mirror, who would play an important part in her move into designing her own clothes.
“I knew I didn’t want to sit in a workshop picking up pins, because they wouldn’t let you do anything for years,” recalls Hulanicki. “It was a very closed shop.”
With the support of Fitz, who she met through a mutual friend, she began selling dresses by mail order, shifting between 100 and 200 at a time, but not making any money.
“Felicity Green rang and said, ‘What about doing the gingham dress that Brigitte Bardot is wearing? I want it for 25 shillings.’”
Hulanicki reportedly received £14,000 of orders, although Fitz was furious.
“He said, ‘Why aren’t you pricing things for what the fabric costs?’,” says Hulanicki. “I made a halfpenny on the gingham dresses.”
Much to Hulanicki’s relief, none of those early dresses have been tracked down, with Pel only able to find a scarf for the infamous Bardot dress.
“I told all my friends, ‘Don’t you bring any of those old dresses out!’” she laughs.
The first Biba shop opened in 1964, in a former chemist shop in Kensington’s Abingdon Road.
“There were no boutique shops,” says Hulanicki. “They had nothing but ‘madam’ shops in King’s Road – all ‘Can I help you madam?’.”
Biba produced clothes in short runs at a price women could afford – and which were soon being worn on television by Ready Steady Go’s Cathy McGowan, causing a stampede for the new designs.
“In those days, it was all one size – not through choice, everyone was tiny,” says Hulanicki. “Rationing had a lot to do with it. Fitz worked it out once: the women had £9 a week; they had £3 for their bedsitter, which they shared; £3 for a Biba dress, and £3 to eat – and often they didn’t.”
Biba grew rapidly, moving to new premises every couple of years. And Brighton was home to the only Biba shop outside of the capital, at 21 Queen’s Road, now home to Fair.
It wasn’t a resounding success.
“It was very much the Brighton of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock,” says Hulanicki. “We employed a manageress who lived above the shop, but we hadn’t realised that she was a mobsters’ moll who entertained half the Brighton underworld!
“We couldn’t get very good staff. We had to send girls down from London, but nobody wanted to come after a while because they would miss so much in London.
“People would walk out of the shop with stuff and the girls couldn’t care less.”
The shop was eventually closed after Fitz received a visit from an ex-boxer demanding protection money.
“Fitz loved it,” laughs Hulanicki. “He knew the guy, they got on very well!”
The constant moves to bigger premises meant that Biba had to bring in partners, including Dennis Day Ltd and Dorothy Perkins.
When Dorothy Perkins was taken over by property developers British Land things began to change. Big Biba opened in 1973, in the Derry And Toms building in Kensington High Street, selling Biba-branded baked beans and nappies alongside fashion items.
But the working relationship between Hulanicki, Fitz and British Land deteriorated, until the couple walked away the following year.
Initially Fitz and Hulanicki went to Brazil, with Hulanicki laden down with old patterns and samples of her Biba fashions.
“Fitz said one day, ‘This stuff is holding you back, just get rid of it.’ We took everything in a truck and went to a dangerous favela in Sao Paulo. We just stopped and dumped everything in the place and drove off,” remembers Hulanicki.
Unable to resist the temptation to see what happened next they drove back to see everyone opening the boxes. “People were picking up the clothes, looking at the labels and throwing them away!” she laughs.
The third room in the exhibition covers Hulanicki’s later career as an interior designer – something she began in 1987, working with Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on his bar and nightclub Woody’s On The Beach in the US.
“I went to Miami for a six-month project,” she says. “It lasted two years.“ From there she met Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who asked her to work on the interiors of 11 hotels along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, including the Cavalier, the Leslie, the Marlin and the Kent.
She has sound advice for anyone planning to stay in a boutique hotel, though, based on her own experience.
“Never stay in a boutique hotel unless it’s the day it opens,” she says. “It’s good for the first year, usually, as the owners are all excited about the project. Then the reality hits and they all want to redesign everything, as nothing is right and people are complaining.”
In April 1996, the pair opened a fashion shop in downtown New York called Fitz Fitz. Sadly, that October Fitz fell ill and the shop closed. He died the following January.
In 2003, Hulanicki designed both a handbag collection for Italy’s Coccinelle and her own wallpaper and illustration range for Graham And Brown, before returning to her fashion roots in 2009 for Top Shop and now George@Asda.
She was awarded an OBE for her contribution to British fashion in 2011 – something she describes as “a shock”.
“I don’t like the past – it’s terribly frightening looking back,“ she says.
In fact, it was only after Big Biba closed she got an idea of the effect it had had on her customers.
“Fitz used to get attacked by men saying the buttons had come off the clothes,” she says.
“Now people were coming up to me saying, ‘Where am I going to buy my tights from?’ “In England people don’t like rags-to-riches tales. They love rags to riches, to rags again.
“I wish Fitz was alive to see how much everything we did is worth now.”
- Open Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays, 10am to 5pm, tickets £6/£4, £3 for Brighton and Hove residents. Call 03000 290902