Style Leader Barbara Hulanicki's Life in Fashion and Design

After founding Swinging London's legendary Biba boutique, Hulanicki has gone on to create lush resorts in Miami and the Caribbean.

WORDS As Told To Tom Austin
January / February 2019
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I founded the London fashion store Biba in 1964 with my late husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, and in the ’60s and ’70s, Biba was our life: The Rolling Stones hung out there, along with Marianne Faithfull, Mia Farrow, Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot, Sonny & Cher, Barbra Streisand and all that lot. I designed some of the pieces for Julie Christie in Darling and clothes for Cathy McGowan: Cathy was the host of the television rock variety show Ready Steady Go! and known as “Queen of the Mods.” If Cathy didn’t wear Biba one week it was terrible, the end of our world.

In 1973, we opened a much larger enterprise, “Big Biba,” in an old seven-story department store, with the Rainbow Room for concerts—the New York Dolls played there—and the Roof Gardens; the movie Velvet Goldmine recreated the space for one of its scenes. Freddie Mercury of Queen gave us great advice about getting historic protection for the Roof Gardens, just so the city wouldn’t bother us when we had parties. All these years later, the production people from Bohemian Rhapsody called me: They wanted to recreate the old Roof Gardens for the movie.

Biba had an art gallery, too, and we put on an early exhibition with Guy Peellaert, who did the cover for David Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs. David also came to another exhibition we did of Bert Stern’s Last Sitting photos of Marilyn Monroe. We’d hired a Marilyn impersonator to sing in the Rainbow Room for the opening, but for some reason everyone was in the gallery—except for David and Angie Bowie, sitting alone in the huge Rainbow Room and watching this Marilyn impersonator. Back then, no one took pictures at events, but I wish I had a photo of that moment.

Some of my Biba clothes are on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the V&A just republished my autobiography, From A to Biba; there’s also a documentary, Beyond Biba. Here’s a photo of Twiggy inside the shop—she used to hang around after school, and we’re still great friends—and here’s Stephanie Farrow, Mia’s sister, posed with a lion. These are from a Biba catalog Helmut Newton shot for us. Later on, I shot portraits for an art magazine—Twiggy, Ron Wood and Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue, who was a wonderful eccentric.

When Biba ended in 1975, Stephen and I moved to Brazil. In the 1980s, Ron Wood from the Stones asked me to design a club for him, Woody’s on the Beach, on the ocean on South Beach. Stephen and I had visited Miami for the first time in 1969. The old people back then were fantastic: They used to have ropes going out into the ocean, and you’d see ladies in big ornate hats and gold gloves holding on to the ropes and slowly walking into the water. I never left South Beach after Woody’s opened. In 1989, I moved to the Alamac, a converted retirement home, and have rented here ever since.

I first met Chris Blackwell—who had built Island Records and a chain of hotels, Island Outpost—at Woody’s. Chris asked me if I would design a corridor—a corridor—at The Marlin on South Beach, and finally gave me the whole project. The hotel’s recording studio and Chris’ parties brought in everybody: Madonna, Kate Moss, Beyoncé, Sting, Prince, Grace Jones. We had a party for Mick Jagger, but no women were allowed to talk to him—Jerry Hall had issued an embargo. And when Bono came to the Marlin, some young journalist asked me what Bono was like as a little boy, and I suddenly realized this kid thought I was Bono’s bloody mother.

After The Marlin, I went to work for Chris full-time, doing costumes for music videos and designing all his hotels, including the Kent, Cavalier, Leslie and Netherland on South Beach. In the Bahamas, he had me do Compass Point and Pink Sands, and I also worked on GoldenEye—Ian Fleming’s old place—in Jamaica. Then Gloria and Emilio Estefan hired me to design their house on Miami’s Star Island, along with their Cardozo hotel and the clothes for her music video “Mi Buen Amor.” I’m still doing music videos—for artists like Iakopo and Shaggy—and designing hotels, from the Coral Sands in the Bahamas to the Lime Tree Bay Resort in the Florida Keys.

In 2012, I went over to London to get the OBE, the Order of the British Empire, and it was hysterical, being at the palace with all the equerries guiding us around. All I could think about was when I once closed Biba to the public for one of Princess Anne’s shopping trips—and then she didn’t even buy anything.

Miami is my home now. I’m on the advisory board for the Miami Fashion Institute, and the Conde Contemporary gallery shows my fashion illustrations. It’s so weird to live in Miami, with no winters to mark time by—the years and decades just roll on. But the mix of people in South Beach has always reminded me of Portobello Road in London—something is always happening—and this is exactly the right moment for my dream, a Biba hotel in Miami.

Barbara Hulanicki is a judge for the Platinum List Awards, which can be found at magazines.aa.com; click on Celebrated Living.

 

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