There are few more ardent observers of the evolution of female beauty than Barbara Hulanicki OBE, whose doe-eyed, lanky-limbed Biba Girl is as imprinted in our culture as Botticelli’s Venus. Think Twiggy with her long lashes and pixie cut, the face of the ’60s earthquake and longtime friend of Hulanicki. The Biba store which opened in 1964 in Kensington in London has become a retail phenomenon in its 10 years of existence, a mecca of music and leopard print and velvet style where Mick Jagger or a Beatle could lounge under an Art Deco table lamp. while their girlfriends shopped the shelves of micro-minis, floppy-brimmed hats, languid velvet dresses and feather boas. The store even employed 14-year-old Anna Wintour.
On the eve of a Miami exhibit of her recent illustrations, Hulanicki chats with FashionUnited about the Swinging Sixties, the ever-changing feminine ideal, the state of illustration today, and the exhibit that focuses on “the return of hand-drawn fashion illustrations”.
“I’m so excited to have this kind of art exhibition coming back,” says Hulanicki who started her career as a freelance illustrator fresh out of Brighton School of Art working for magazines like vogue and Tatler. She had acquired an agent and the work was plentiful. “One day you were drawing underwear,” she says, “the next day you were attending a fashion show and the models only gave you five minutes to draw a picture.”
Biba’s rise in 1960s London
A regular traveler to Paris to sketch the runways for Dior and Givenchy, Hulanicki felt out of place among refined Parisiennes. But at a Givenchy show, she shared a small elevator with her idol, Audrey Hepburn, who had emerged as a new face for young women to admire at a time when the figure of the 1950s, what Hulanicki calls “the ladies that lunch guy”, was out of favor. In awe of Hepburn’s long, slender proportions, particularly at the torso and neck, which gave an illustrator so much scope for fluidity in line, she also admits to being momentarily struck by the actress’ large feet.
Of the retail landscape, she says, “There was nothing for young people back then,” and that inspired her to found Biba with her husband. “Even then, we were 24 and felt old. Most of the market was 15 or 16 years old, but they all had jobs as typists. They came to London from every province – the music started with the Beatles and the Stones – and they had money but they didn’t spend it on food. He went over the clothes.
A Miami resident since 1987, when the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood invited her to design the interior of his nightclub, Polish-born Hulanicki sees her inspiration as a marriage between London and Miami. “The Biba girl is a little too cute right now,” she said.
In the early sixties, British girls were skinny, she says, because the country was still suffering from the lack of food associated with wartime rationing. “They had no boobs or butts. We only made one size because everyone was straight. This was before stretchy fabrics were invented, and Hulanicki remarks that with her Polish bones and being used to a richer diet, she often couldn’t fit into the dresses. She recalls fearing that she would have to change all her regimens with the introduction of the pill: thighs and I could have cried.”
Accustomed to being at the epicenter of an energetically artistic community in Swinging London, Hulanicki found the same within Miami’s Latino community. “Women are much fitter here,” she says.
Hulanicki welcomes the renewed interest in fashion illustration lately but makes a distinction between drawing and illustration. The works featured in the exhibition—vampire portraits, pop-art-inspired Americana, quirky robot character—fall into the latter category. For her, designs refer to detailed clothing sketches that you would pass on to a maker or pattern maker, and were “a nightmare”, while illustration was “a softer art form”.
For the exhibition, After BIBA – Barbara Hulanicki Salon Exhibit at Sagamore, which opened on Tuesday evening, Hulanicki gathered a selection of artworks from her recent archive in a whirlwind 3 weeks. “I have a library of stuff,” she says. And for a limited time, those lucky enough to be in the South Beach area can see some of it. Admission fee.