Thursday, 10 December 2009

Focus on: Barbara Hulanicki

I haven't written one of my "Focus on" pieces for ages, which is a shame. I enjoy writing them, and also find that even though they are quite rudimentary, they help focus my mind. Whilst writing a single level narrative about a specific designer, my brain runs ahead of me making connections to novels and articles I have read and tying them together with my thesis. I want to do some serious work on my PHD application this afternoon, so i'm hoping this will help!!

From paper dresses to dresses in the paper, today's designer is Barbara Hulanicki (predominantly, this is about the Biba of the 1960s and 1970s) I say dresses in papers because Hulanicki and Biba had a start in life that many modern designers would perceive as decidedly unhip: she started selling her designs by mail order in the back of middle class British newspapers such as the Daily Express. In fact, it was from here that she got her big break; a pink gingham dress sold in the back of the Daily Mirror which enabled her to start up Biba properly.

She got this far with the support of her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, and Biba was a partnership between the two of them. This is interesting to me because it echos the story of Mary Quant, who was encouraged to start her business by her husband, Alexander Plunkett Green. In fact there are several reports that suggest he was "the brains" behind the whole operation. It fascinates me that two of the women that are plonked on a pedestal as icons for the generation that saw true independance for woman (in some form or another) were being held on that pedestal by business-savvy (and in Quant's cae, very wealthy) men. In May this year writing about the death of her husband in The Guardian Hulaniki said: "I wish Fitz was still around [he died in 1997]. It was so terribly hard after we'd been close for so many years. I had to learn to do all the things he'd done, like writing cheques"

Disregarding the finances (which sixties designers notoriously struggled with!) I wish I had been able to see Biba in its glory days; to soak up all the different departments (and they really did sell everything you could need) and the overall sense of cool. This description from The Independent is one of the best i've read: "Six storeys of Deco-inspired glamour, swathed in silk and satin, the walls painted black, plum and chocolate brown, with mirrored pillars and faux Tiffany lamps, ostrich plumes, peacock feathers and chrome fittings. Ten thousand feet of breathtaking opulence, the first fully developed lifestyle boutique, selling a retro-modernist vision of late-capitalist splendour two decades before anyone would fully comprehend the concept." But don't be fooled into thinking anyone would have been welcome through the doors of Biba; that side of the cultural revolution happening all around was squarely ignored. You had to be young, (and 30 was ancient!) hip, slim, and beautiful.

Biba's tagline in recent times is "a labour of love, a label, a lifestyle" and what a beautiful lifestyle. It must have been wonderfully exciting to be involved in this, and even more wonderful to wear the dresses, which are my new obsession.

If you want to know more about the Biba story there is a screening of the Beyond Biba film at the Lexi Cinema this Saturday, and the screening is followed by a Q&A with the director afterwards. Which is pretty exciting - I wish I could be there!

Hopefully more of this kind of post are to come - i'm feeling on a roll!
Love, Tor xx


Kb said...

Great post, I too wish I was around back then. Biba seems like Topshop Oxfors Circus, but a cooler, 60s version.
Are you coming to the blogger meet up on Saturday?

KD said...

Super post! I wish I could attend the movie screening.