Barbara Hulanicki began her career in clothing as a fashion illustrator and photographer in the late 1950s. By the 1960s, she was designing threads for the likes of Twiggy, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and, later, David Bowie and selling them through her popular Biba store in London. She moved to Miami Beach in the 1980s, to design a nightclub interior for Ronnie Wood, then stayed. She continues to make waves in fashion circles, with a new fashion line, exhibition and BBC show based on her career in the offing for 2022.
One of the world’s venerable clothes designers, Barbara Hulanicki sits in her historic South Beach studio building surrounded by dozens of drawings, photos, artworks, fabric swatches, coffee cups and scarves draped across various racks. Sixty years of design work sits alongside new and upcoming drawings. Outside is busy Collins Avenue, where throngs of tourists stream through the streets.
She has lived here since the mid-1980s, when Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones hired her to design the interiors for his short-lived nightclub, Woody’s on the Beach. She stayed when Chris Blackwell of Island Records commissioned her to create interiors for his string of boutique hotels. Before that she was the toast of London where her Biba shop completely changed the way women dressed as the sexual revolution took hold and created a youthquake generation who demanded a new way of dressing.
Despite the pandemic, she has stayed incredibly busy, ready to unveil a new clothing line under the name Hula, a BBC mini-series is being made on her life, and an exhibit of her 1980s fashion photography graces the walls of the newly renovated Betsy Hotel just two blocks away.
Quick to laugh with a keen eye that doesn’t miss a beat, the eternally black-clad blonde icon keeps up with everything — shooting pictures of what street girls are wearing as well as frequenting the high=-end designer shops at Miami’s Design District.
“I was born in Warsaw in 1936, but my parents then relocated to Jerusalem, in 1942,” she says. “From an early age, clothes were more than a mere necessity for me. I must have been such a pain for my mother because I didn’t want to wear the same clothes as my sisters. I hated those great pouffy knickers which felt like a balloon underneath our smock dresses. We all had to wear matching clothes. I rebelled and refused to have the same red shoes my sisters had, so my poor mother had to find me others. It was tough in Jerusalem because there weren’t many shops. You had to make or sew everything.”
“In the 1950s, buying affordable and fashionable clothes became a preoccupation. Making up garments from paper patterns was one option, although not always that successful because I got bored. My mother couldn’t stand seeing these half-made things so she would have to finish them off and I remember forever saying, ‘No Mama, make it tighter!’”
After her father was murdered in a political assassination when she was just 12, the traumatized family moved to London to stay with her wealthy Aunt Sophie.
“She wanted me to go to university but I ignored her wishes and went to Brighton College of Art instead. I remember entering a fashion contest run by the Evening Standard with a panel of four judges including Norman Hartnell, couturier to my aunt. She told me to submit a design for a fussy day dress. But I also entered a design for an Italian-style beach outfit in candy-colored cotton with a white Eton collar. I imagined Audrey Hepburn wearing it in Sabrina. My design won the beachwear section of the competition and Aunt Sophie was not pleased. I remember there was this stony silence as she regained her composure.”
After a stint making fashion illustrations for British Vogue, the Times, the Observer and the Sunday Times, Barbara met her future husband and business partner Stephen Fitz Simon.
“He was the person who really encouraged me to start designing,” she recalled. “He could see that photography was coming in and about to take over from illustration, which would put me out of a job, so in 1963 we launched a fashion mail-order company together. Mail order grew at an unprecedented rate during the 1960s, outstripping all other forms of retailing, and for a small company like ours it was the most economical way to operate.”
“I didn’t want my own name associated with it. I wanted people to focus on the concept of our company — inexpensive fashion for everyone — rather than a personality. We decided on Biba, my little sister’s nickname. It was feminine and unusual, a name people could bring their own ideas to.”
Her ad for a little gingham mini dress with keyhole detail and matching headscarf was a huge hit, selling over 17,000 in a matter of weeks.
“By the spring of 1964 we were struggling to fulfill the huge number of orders we were receiving for our first big hit — a pink gingham dress,” she said. “So on 5 September 1964, we opened the doors to our first shop at 87 Abingdon Road in Kensington, and without advertising or even a sign on the door, we sold out the stock on the first day.”
Biba was off and running, becoming a beacon of celebrity couture, Mod chic styles, a rock ‘n’ roll and celebrity haunt. Barbara designed everything from the interiors that saw clothes draped on hat stands — something she updates for Hula — to period furniture and accessories in a multi-story department store.
“I think there should be a plaque on 87 Abingdon Road. Biba transformed the way the ordinary girl in the street dressed. It was a tiny corner shop, an old chemist in a quiet residential street. But before long, Biba was mecca to everyone from shop girls to debs. Not only did the clothes look amazing, you could afford to buy something every week.” — Twiggy, from Twiggy in Black and White, 1997
“I love this leopard clad photo of Twiggy because so few were taken in the Big Biba shop,” Barbara says. “We made this coat for Twiggy. She was very special to us, and it was never work with her, just fun. We did a three-quarter-length version without a hood, which was a huge seller, too. I think I’ve still got one in London. It’s too hot to wear in Miami, where I live now.”
So large was her influence that she was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2012 by Prince Charles for services to fashion.
Now her newest collection, Hula by Barbara, is set to launch this Spring, backed by British company BrandLab Fashion. They are creating a virtual showroom designed by Barbara that can be “walked around” as you click on the outfits for details and ordering.
“We met Barbara at Miami Fashion Week in 2019,” says BrandLab Fashion Director Dan OConnell via Zoom from London. “I went running over to hug her, she must have thought we were stalkers. I got her interested to design a line that will be sold in a unique way through a virtual showroom and also through retailers including Harrods. She designed the showroom with checkerboard floor, colored wall panels and hat stands — something she used at her 60s Biba boutiques extensively. She really got it right, the collection is very fresh but also connects to the youthful fun of her earlier designs. Dresses, pants, tunics, flowing blouses. There are matching hats and scarves for everything. She started with a mail order dress and matching scarf so her aesthetic is the same and she has kept up with new technology. The showroom can be walked around virtually then you click on the clothing to get details and to order. We blast this showroom out to all the retailers worldwide, they can feature it on their site and in their stores.”
Leopard makes a stylish appearance, as does a new fabric designed by Barbara with artful squiggles in deep fuchsia, yellow gold and periwinkle blue. The design process was all done online and then fabrics sent by mail, with Barbara arising at 2:30 am in Miami to keep up with London time for Zoom meetings.
In the 1980s after Biba closed and before she moved to Miami, Barbara was taking photos of fashion trendsetters in the UK, including Twiggy and Anna Piaggi.
Over at the newly-renovated Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive, curator Lesly Goldwasser has been focusing on regional artists. She was installing an exhibit by late Miami photographer Andy Sweet when Sweet’s representative, Ed Christin, mentioned he was also working with Barbara and she had some gorgeous little-seen images in her vast archive. Lesly paid a visit to Barbara’s studio two blocks south and was blown away by the vintage color photos.
Goldwasser said, “I knew about Barbara as during Art Basel last year I was showing a big British collector around the hotel when he spotted Barbara having her daily morning coffee in the lounge. He was thrilled, exclaiming to me ‘Did you know you have a living legend in your lobby?!’ ”
“I decided to exhibit these little seen photos of hers rather than her illustrations as we could make large prints. They are wild, funky and colorful! The show is called London 1986, Après BIBA. We also have a wall covered in her skull and flower wallpaper. She is truly an international icon, so talented in so many areas of photography, fashion and design.”
Barbara Hulanicki was the most influential hotel designer of the revitalization of South Beach, winning an award from the Miami Design Preservation League for her design of the Marlin Hotel. She also designed the interiors of the Leslie, Cardozo, Carlyle, Kent, Netherland, and Cavalier.
A 2009 Documentary, Beyond BIBA: A portrait of Barbara Hulanicki, is on Amazon Prime, and BIBA, a six-part drama series based on Barbara’s book on her life, From A to Biba, is being produced by BBC and Buffalo Pictures.
Keeping busy, she was commissioned by upscale leather goods company Bottega Veneta in 2021 to create illustrated ads for their fall line.
She has been mentoring teen design students at Design Lab Miami, many of whom are going on to Parsons Design School in New York. At the graduate fashion show, a parade of kids came out dressed like her in blond bob wigs, dark sunglasses and black Biba T-shirts, much to her surprise and delight.
From Biba to Hula to fashion mags and BBC, this powerhouse creative and Grand Dame of fashion, goes into the new year with new designs, exhibits and a TV series.