There are few more ardent observers of the evolution of female beauty than Barbara Hulanicki OBE whose doe-eyed, gangly limbed Biba Girl is as imprinted in our culture as Botticelli’s Venus. Think of Twiggy with her long lashes and pixie cut, the face of the Sixties youthquake and long term friend of Hulanicki's. The Biba store which opened in 1964 in London’s Kensington became a retail phenomenon over the course of its 10-year existence, a leopard print and velvet mecca of music and style where Mick Jagger or a Beatle could be found lounging under an Art Deco table lamp while their girlfriends shopped the racks of micro-minis, floppy brimmed hats, languid velvet dresses and feather boas. The store even employed a 14-year-old Anna Wintour.
On the eve of a Miami exhibition of her recent illustrations Hulanicki chats to FashionUnited about the Swinging Sixties, the ever changing female ideal, the state of illustration today, and the exhibit which focuses on “the return of proper, hand drawn fashion illustrations."
“I’m so excited that this sort of art exhibition is 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 work was plentiful. “One day you’d be drawing underwear,” she says, “the next you’d be at a fashion show, and the models would give you just five minutes to do a drawing.”
The rise of Biba in Sixties London
Regularly traveling to Paris to draw the runways of Dior and Givenchy, Hulanicki felt out-of-place among the polished Parisian women. But at a Givenchy show she shared a tiny elevator with her idol, Audrey Hepburn, who had emerged as a fresh new face that young women could look up to at a time when the figure of the fifties, what Hulanicki refers to as “the ladies who lunch type," was out of favor. In awe of Hepburn’s long willowy proportions, especially in the torso and neck, that provided an illustrator with so much opportunity for fluidity in line she also admits to being momentarily struck by the actress’s large feet.
Of the retail landscape, she says, “There wasn’t anything for young people then,” and this inspired her to found Biba with her husband.“Even then, we were 24 and we felt old. Most of the market was 15 or 16 but they all had jobs as typists. They came to London from all the provinces––music was starting with the Beatles and Stones––and they had money but they didn’t spend it on food. It went on clothes.”
A Miami resident since 1987 when Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones invited her over to design the interior of his nightclub, Polish-born Hulanicki considers her inspiration a marriage of London and Miami. "The Biba girl is a bit too cute for now," she says.
At the onset of the sixties British girls were skinny, she says, because the country was still suffering from lack of nourishment associated with wartime rationing. “They had no boobs, no bums. We only did one size because everyone was straight.” This was before the invention of stretch fabrics, and Hulanicki remarks that, with her Polish bones and being used to a richer diet, she often couldn’t fit in the dresses. She remembers worrying she would have to change all her patterns with the introduction of the Pill: “Suddenly I see these girls with hips and thighs and I could have cried.”
Accustomed to being at the epicenter of an energetically artistic community in Swinging London, Hulanicki has found the same among Miami’s Latino community. "Women are much more shaped here,” she says.
Hulanicki delights in the return of interest in fashion illustration of late but makes a distinction between drawing and illustration. The work in the exhibit—vampish portraits, pop-art inspired Americana, quirky robot character––falls into the latter category. For her, drawings refer to detailed garment sketches that you would pass to a manufacturer or patternmaker, and were “a nightmare,” whereas illustration was “a gentler art form.”
For the exhibit, Après BIBA - Barbara Hulanicki Salon Exhibit at The Sagamore, which opened on Tuesday night, Hulanicki pulled together a selection of artworks from her recent archives within a whirlwind 3 weeks. “I have a library of stuff,” she says. And for a limited time, those who are lucky to be the South Beach area can view a portion if it. Admission free.