Biba was Hulanicki’s dreamchild, the store that became the epitome of the Swinging Sixties, then the retro Seventies in London. It first opened as a small boutique in Kensington in 1964, selling instant fashion at cheap prices. Several incarnations later, it was a fanciful, five-floor, 200,000-square-foot store in Kensington High Street. But Hulanicki and her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simons, had expanded too quickly, lost control and eventually quit in a boardroom bustup with their owners, British Land.
The last Biba store closed in 1975, but Hulanicki still can’t escape its ghost.
“I just want to let it go,” she says, sipping a cup of tea in the Palm Court of the Waldorf Hotel. “But people here won’t let me. It’s always, `Biba this and Biba that.'”
For three years, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simons have lived in Miami, where she wrote her Sixties novel, “Disgrace.” The book — the story of two sisters, Georgina and Milla, who are brought up by their Old World Aunt Eva — has just been published in Britain by Sidgwick & Jackson. Hulanicki’s own experiences come through in the novel’s strong evocation of the period. It isn’t pretty.
“It was a dark time,” she insists. “London was seedy and dirty, and we still were getting over the War, so there wasn’t that much available in the shops. That is why our audience was so receptive. But you always had to come up with new things, whatever it was — plays, music, clothes, books. People were very fickie. But that suited our personalities, so we were always one step ahead.”
Something that neither Hulanicki nor Fitz-Simons got involved in, she says, was the drug scene, but they knew many who did. “A lot of these 15-year-olds suddenly were thrown into situations they didn’t understand,” the 53-year-old Hulanicki says sadly. “What you have to understand is that we were 26-year-olds then. We were old compared to the others.
“That’s why we were able to do what we did. The thing was that the Sixties were really not that stylish, because the materials were so bad. Anything new being done in England in the Fifties and Sixties was really quite tacky. The aristocracy held onto its English chintz and antiques, but progress was wimpy bars and awful blocks of flats.
“I really preferred the Seventies,” Hulanicki continues. “Everyone says the Seventies were so dull, but by then things were getting crisper, and everything was getting more glitzy. It will be interesting when the kids today begin to rediscover the Seventies.”
Hulanicki also dismisses the idea of the Sixties as a time of fun, peace and love. To her, those years meant hard work, rising at 6 a.m. and often staying at the shop until after midnight. The Age of Aquarius was the Age of Exhaustion.
“We were constantly fighting the Establishment and continually being blackened by it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a passive environment then. The people who played were passive. Those who were entrepreneurs were aggressive. They had to be.”
Part of her struggle was against the class system. Hulanicki, whose parents were Polish, spent her childhood in Palestine, where her father, Witold, was stationed as a diplomat. He was killed by Jewish extremists when Hulanicki was 12. She went to England with her mother and two sisters to live with her Aunt Sophie, on whom her new novel is based.
“When I came to England, Poles were not accepted at all,” Hulanicki says. “It was very, very difficult, because the English were very insular then. The class structure was just starting to break down during the time I’ve set my novel in — the early Sixties. There was a real watershed then. Some of us went forward into more democracy, while others continued on in the same way.
“We were shocked when we came back to Britain this time, though. The class structure is here again. You have the rich and the poor, and there’s no mixing them.”
Hulanicki says she gets the same “vibes” from Miami today that she did from Sixties’ London. “There are a lot of young people there, which is what attracted us. There’s a lot of creativity and energy in Miami now.”
Hulanicki is currently decorating a sky-scraper, including its swimming pools, and doing the costumes for an antidrug play that will tour the Florida schools. “That’s what I love about the U.S.,” she says. “You can do anything you set your heart on.”
Would she ever do an American Biba? “Sometimes I get tempted on Saturdays walking through the stores, but by Sunday the idea has worn off,” Hulanicki says, laughing.
“It could work again, particularly now with the young people so fascinated with the Sixties. They are in the same mood that we were in then. They appreciate good design. They don’t want bland things anymore; they grew up with blandness. They want creativity.”
She stops herself in midflow. Hulanicki seems excited by the idea but afraid to get too carried away. She looks around the room thoughtfully.
“But the young have to be catered to by the young,” she concludes, sighing. “Maybe in another lifetime, I’ll do it again.”