Earlier this year, I found myself in the fortuitous circumstance of sitting down with Barbara Hulanicki, legendary designer of Biba, to talk about her career. This came about because of my podcast, Hello Atelier!, where I visit with designers of all different mediums to discuss their process and work. I reached out to Barbara and, to my everlasting surprise, she agreed to be interviewed. Amidst the ocean and palm trees of beautiful Miami, I was a bundle of nerves; Barbara is one of my favorite designers – what would she be like? Would she be tired of talking about Biba? Would I get through the interview without looking like a total idiot? Well, she was lovely, happy to talk about Biba, and I think I did. But only just.
Barbara and I together – can you tell I’m excited?
Biba was the fashion label and store designed by Barbara and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon. They started the business in 1963 as a way for them to work together, and her youth-oriented designs immediately catapulted them to success. For twelve years, Biba was the place to go in London for everyone from office workers to rock stars like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury. By the time it closed, Biba had moved to a huge, Art Deco department store which they re-designed into a glam retail fantasyland. It is said that a million people visited that store per week.
Barbara and Fitz at the height of Biba
Barbara’s early designs invented the 60s “Dolly” look that would prevail during the latter part of the decade. Her garments were designed square and straight—no hourglass shapes were found in Biba. This shape—which was perfectly suited for models of the day like Twiggy—would be the basis for all her designs, and even 12 years later her 1930s-inspired clothing still featured her signature square-shoulder look. Biba clothes also stood out for their muted palette. Barbara preferred a jewel-toned palette of dark purples, browns, and mustards that complimented the Art Deco interior of the store.
One of Barbara’s illustrations and a similar final garment.
What stands out about the Biba aesthetic for me is the joy in dressing up. Every day was an experiment with a new look and every look was an event. Before Biba, satin, velvet, and sequins were only for the evening. But the Biba girl would have no qualms about donning a velvet dress or satin trouser suit for a day in the office.
Twiggy in front of the Egyptian dressing room at Big Biba
So, how does one incorporate that Biba glamour into their wardrobe? With the holidays approaching, you have a perfect opportunity to start wearing all the gold, velvet and satin you want! Here are a few ideas for Biba-inspired sewing…
A glam holiday ensemble starts with outerwear. A Biba coat wasn’t just functional, it was a statement. Why not create a Seamwork Camden cape out of a luxurious purple cashmere coating or raspberry and gold tweed? Why not go full Biba with a metalic cheetah print brocade?!
Nothing says the 70s like a maxi dress. Here are three fabrics to make a festive Seamwork Winona: a gold and eggplant crinkle knit, a plum covered stretch lace, and a rich copper burnout velvet. Don’t forget the platform boots!
A square shoulder was a Biba trademark— and a nod to Hollywood glamour. A Ceylon dress made in a metalic jacquard or graphic bohemian print can go from daywear to eveningwear in an instant. Feeling feisty? Why not go for a full cheetah print?
The impact that Barbara had on fashion design and the retail world is too much for one blog post. Luckily many books have been written that cover her fascinating life and work. In fact, I am hosting a giveaway of six different, gorgeous, Biba books through Hello Atelier! These are books that hold an esteemed place in my library, and I hope they will in yours. To win one of six Biba books, simply click on the link below. To hear more of Barbara’s story, hop on over to Hello Atelier!