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Barbara Hulanicki Interview

Saturday 24 July 2010

Barbara Hulanicki is the woman responsible for the founding of Biba – the magnificent clothing store where both David Bowie and Mick Jagger used to hang out. After spanning the fashion world for two decades (hell that is 20 years, not bad considering that most fashion designers are lucky if they last a full 20 minutes.) In effect, she is a living legend. She was the face of fashion in the 60’s and 70’s, in her absolute prime time; and it hasn’t just stopped there – since moving to Miami she is still designing: just this time it isn’t only clothes but buildings too. “The two really aren’t that different because they both need a lot of detail and it is all about the importance of the design”

Barbara was in Brighton to support Brighton Fashion Week, and being that
she adopted the City as her second home when she was very young, going to
Brighton College herself after moving from Poland with her family, she
seemed only too pleased to be asked back here to support upcoming
designers in and around the City.

I was eager to find out, first, what she thought of Brighton and its style
as so many people claim it to be ‘too indie and alternative’? “Brighton
style is very daring. It is different – people dare to wear things that in
most places they wouldn’t. And that’s what I like about it.” Had it
changed from her own days in Brighton? “It has got more outlandish.
Brighton makes me laugh because everyone dresses very ‘different.’ And it
is the young people who own the fashion. Brighton is such a young town and
that is what inspired me when I lived here and was first realising my
desire to work in fashion. People aren’t afraid to dress how they are
feeling. It is a very stylish place.”

And so I assume you feel very comfortable in this environment, considering
your highly successful career in fashion? “Well it depends. Brighton is a
very young town and full of students. And so if you are older it can be
intimidating to be surrounded by so many young stylish people! You feel as
though you have to look perfect. But on the other hand, Miami style can be
suffocating. Everyone just lives in their flip flops. It is very casual.
No one really makes too much effort with clothes.” Does that frustrate
you? “Yes. I want to dress up, but then I would end up looking like a
tourist and I don’t want to do that. All the tourists dress up in Miami.
It’s hard to live there.”

And what did you think of the collections at Brighton Fashion Week? “I
thought the clothes were great; very original. In Brighton you need
clothes that are going to stand out so they appeal to the people.
Originality is very important to me.”

When meeting someone of such great influence, you never exactly expect
them to be normal (in fact it is more of a shock if they are!), but what
surprised me most about this lovely lady was not her charm or her manners
or her sense of humour or the lack of some fancy entourage. It wasn’t the
fact either that she was happy to talk as long as I wanted (well, until
some BBC journalist whisked her away) or that she answered every question
with sincerity and politeness. No, what shocked me most was that Barbara
Hulanicki looked at me and said this: “I am tired of fashion. I am bored!
All I have been thinking about and talking about is fashion fashion
fashion. All the time. It is just so tiring! I have done the designing,
illustrating, photographing, manufacturing and the researching. It is
just so much!”

And what do you prefer? Is one part more boring than another? “No, it isn’t
that. I like all of it, of course I do. But I do like designing the most
because I think continuity is very important. Understanding where the
clothes were imagined from, where the material is from, how it is
designed, where the idea came from. These days things on the high street
are just picked from anywhere. Out of someone’s head.” It was at this
point that she gestured at my dress (Primark actually) and said “You see,
you have no idea where that idea came from.”

So why are you bored of fashion? “I am just a little bored at the moment,
but that is probably because I have done so much of it in my life. Ever
since my Mother let me dress up in her beautiful clothes: she was very
into fashion, and so it has been in my life since I was little. And then I
was doing illustration for Vogue and Woman’s Daily at a very young age too
because the work was readily available and I enjoyed the creative freedom.
And then of course there was my shop!”

Ah of course, the shop! The first Biba shop opened on Abingdon Road in
Kensington in September 1964 and was originally a chemist, which Barbara
and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, established as a response to the
demand for affordable clothing from the younger generation. The most
famous shop was to be on Kensington High Street, and this is where Mick
Jagger and David Bowie used to rest their legs at times when life just got
too tough. Pah. The Biba stores expanded to three more over the next
decade, with the shop finally closing in 1975; even though the name of
Biba, and of Barbara Hulanicki herself, continues to live on.

So when I hear about only this portion of her life, (bearing in mind this
happened in a space of ten years) I can see why she might be feeling a
little bit tired! So Barbara, what else have you been doing fashion wise?
Is it true that you support a lot of upcoming talent? “Yes I do and
recently I have been visiting shows in London and now Brighton. Of course
I wanted to do this because I think it is very important to support the
next generation but it is very exhausting!” I tell her that I feel
exhausted just listening to how much she has done, (and is still doing)
and she smiles with a chuckle that probably says “You have absolutely no
idea!” (Which is fair to say I probably don’t!)

She seems like she has a good sense of humour and a lot of determination.
“Yes you have to keep pushing. Keep planning. And because there is always
something to get in your way, you have to be able to laugh at it all when
it all goes wrong. It is about getting through those hurdles, but believe
me, there will always be another one just waiting to trap you.”

And if you were to do it all again, what have you learnt? “I wouldn’t do
it!” Barbara then clasped a hand over her mouth with a laughing gasp, and
smiled. “Also I definitely wouldn’t do the manufacturing part. That is
where it all just gets too tricky. The designing is fun but not the rest.
But seriously, I would change a lot of things and possibly change my whole
career had I known what was involved! I loved it yes, but I worked for it

So when a fashion legend says that to you that they are not only bored of
their talent, but that they wouldn’t do it again, it does throw you
slightly off track. I mean are they even allowed to say that? Isn’t that
like blaspheming on the fashion bible or something? But then again, I
figure good for you Barbara, you make the rules, and thank you for being
honest. However, this appeared not to have dampened her clear love for
fashion – no matter how tired or bored she was saying she was.

She has that kind of presence that makes you fall in love with her – there
is just something to do with the way she talks that makes her so
interesting, and of course having so many wonderful stories to tell does
help! She is soft and fragile and delicate and mysterious (but you can
tell she has some damn determination there too).

Finally, I wanted to find out the way she dresses herself? What shops and
designers she likes. Do you shop in high street stores Barbara? “Yes I do
as there are a lot of nice clothes out there.” Any favourite stores? “No,
but I can always find something in some shop. But I don’t always buy,
sometimes I just window shop.”

And how about designers? “Oh I really like that new Columbian designer?
You know, very new. Simple designs?” I’m afraid to say I didn’t, so we
didn’t get very far with that one. Anyone else? “Helmut Lang. And Rick
Owens, which is very expensive. But I like their labels because I like
clothes that are very clean cut, easy to wear, that fit well and made for
the body; not for a fancy catwalk show.”

And lastly, what are the plans for the future? “Just to stop all this
fashion stuff for a while! But I do have my Beyond Biba DVD coming out
which I am looking forward to.” What is it about? A documentation of your
life? “You will just have to watch it to find out!”

And with that air of mysteriousness, but complete loveliness, she breezes
off for another interview with another excited journalist, letting out a
little yawn as she does so. I thank her for her time and wish her well
with everything. She looks at me, smiles and says “I just can’t wait to
get back to Miami and wear my flip flops!”