If I had a TARDIS or other method of time travel and could go back in time, one of the many eras I would go back to would have to be the 1970’s, and I would plant myself right in the middle of Big Biba and live there for awhile. No kidding. I would also buy as many Biba outfits and products as I could get my hands on, and try to soak up some of Barbara Hulanicki’s genius. I love this woman.
Born in 1936 in Warsaw, Poland, Barbara’s mother moved the family to Brighton, England after Barbara’s father, Witold, was assassinated in 1948, an event which would have a lasting impact on Barbara’s life. Barbara grew up in the shadow of a domineering, controlling and flamboyant aunt, whose use of colour would later inspire Barbara’s fashion designs with their signature plum, rust, gold, bronze, dark romantic look.
Barbara began her career in fashion as a fashion illustrator after studying at the Brighton School of Art (now the University of Brighton Faculty of Arts) and did freelance work for Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily among others, and even illustrated sewing pattern envelopes! While in school she won a London Evening-Standard newspaper fashion design contest for beachwear, which helped inspired her to create Biba in 1964 as a mail order business. She ran Biba out of her home until the business grew to be so wildly successful that opening her own shop became a necessity.
Biba would later change shops several times, before Barbara and her husband/business partner Stephen Fritz-Simon eventually bought the enormous Art Deco department store that would become Big Biba – the most glamorous, decadent department store to ever exist, which even had it’s own night club – The Rainbow Room! (You can read a wonderful post on The Rainbow Room here. The author of that post, Kasia Charko, has written many in depth and amazing posts on Big Biba, from her time working for Biba as an illustrator, please do check out her wonderful blog!)
Biba was frequented by some of the biggest icons of the day, including Marianne Faithfull, Twiggy (who was a frequent Biba model), The Rolling Stones and the late David Bowie. Just about everyone shopped or hung out at Biba, and for good reason, too – the shop (from the very first right up to the very last) was a gorgeous and wonderfully fun place to be, and Barbara’s clothes were an absolute sensation – gorgeous, original, well made and cheap!
Barbara’s Biba fashion line was inspired by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, and was a very cool 1970’s take on 1920’s and 1930’s fashion. Her choices of fabric colour and pattern were always gorgeous, visually exciting, and an absolute revelation. She even launched her own Biba makeup line, so that the girls who bought her clothes could achieve the proper Biba Girl look – and there definitely was a look!
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In this video, the lovely Lisa Eldridge shows us how to achieve the Biba look using original Biba makeup, you can use similar shades in modern cosmetics to get the same effect.
Unfortunately, in the end, Big Biba was the brand’s undoing and became a very expensive bust, but Barbara Hulanicki didn’t let that stop her – she’s been active in the fashion and interior design world ever since and is still kicking ass and being amazing to this day (in April of this year she released a new line of art prints for Amazon, called Pinboard Prints, which you can also find on her Pinterest page!), and she was even honored in 2012 by being appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the fashion industry!
Barbara has written a number of books about her Biba days, including an autobiography called From A to Biba, which I absolutely love and highly recommend and an amazing workbook, Barbara Hulanicki’s Fashion Illustration Workbook, which I also own and love – it’s more like a colouring book than a workbook, but it is still amazing! A documentary about Barbara was made a number of years ago called Beyond Biba, which I would absolutely love to see!
One day I would love for my Biba collection to be much larger and include more than just books, but until then, I will just look at the pretty pictures, sigh, and dream. I would also love to be able to meet Barbara one day, she truly is my favourite fashion designer and illustrator and is a huge all around inspiration to me.<3
I’ll finish this post up with some gorgeous examples of Barbara’s work, and a note to say I’m still trying to find the perfect pattern to make the Art Deco/Biba inspired outfit I wrote about awhile back, I’ve actually been spending time pretty much every day hunting on Etsy for the perfect 1930’s or 1970’s pattern but struggling, especially to find one in my size (32″ bust, 26″ waist, 34″ hips). I’m determined though, especially since I’ve given myself yet another ridiculous deadline and want to have it done by my birthday on August 24th. Goals, am I right? Sometimes they are completely unrealistic, but then, Barbara turned a mail order business she ran out of her home into a huge fashion empire, so I should be able to make one outfit. 😉
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I hope you’ve all enjoyed my little tribute to a truly amazing woman! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Biba and Barbara Hulanicki in the comments – let’s all show this wonderful woman some love!
Update: I found a wonderful shop on Etsy called Biba Boys, which sells (among a ton of other wonderful vintage items!) authentic vintage Biba clothing, cosmetics and other stunning Biba memorabilia! I’m absolutely dying just looking through this shop, it is so amazing! I’m broke at the moment or else I would seriously be raiding this shop – I’m sharing it with all of you instead so that you can benefit from my obsessive searching and have your own amazing Biba items, even if I can’t just yet! Definitely go and check them out, their store absolutely fabulous!