Fashion Chat: Barbara Hulanicki

Barbara Hulanicki, fashion chat, fashion interview, Biba

I struggled to contain my excitement when I found out I was going to get to interview the legendary Barbara Hulanicki. After a few interview scheduling disasters we finally managed to have a chat while she was in London working. If any of my readers are wondering who Barbara Hulanicki is, then I can explain: she was the founder of Biba, a famous 60’s fashion brand and one of the most incredible fashion retail spaces in history. But if you don’t know what Biba was about, then shame on you! Read up about Barbara and her history here.

When I started by telling her about my blog and how I didn’t like celebrity designers and how the fashion industry has become so corporate and fast paced, she described me as “a girl after my own heart.” So I knew we’d get along.

(By the way, these fantastic images? They are her illustrations.)

Barbara Hulanicki, fashion chat, fashion interview, Biba

Alexandra Suhner Isenberg: What do you think of the fashion industry at present: the fast pace and the large number of collections being produced? The pace has always been fast in fashion, but now there is this expectation to work faster. You aren’t just doing two collections a year, there’s cruise, pre collection, diffusion lines, etc… The pace seems to be a lot quicker and a lot more demanding, particularly for the creatives. What do you think about this?

Barbara Hulanicki: It is an absolute disaster. Let’s face it, you are not designing clothes for the buyers (well, you have to, so they buy it) but the public just doesn’t know if they are coming or going. They see the new collections, and they see something in yellow but then it doesn’t come in for another 6 months. They are totally confused, the normal poeple, I don’t mean fashionistas. People who have nice taste and money. It is complete confusion.

ASI: What do you think of celebrities and the fact that they play such a big role in fashion today, as designers, ambassadors, etc…

BH: I think it is an absolute disaster! For the real designers, I think it is really awful. Becasue they produce really boring things, unless there is a proper designer behind them, but there never is because it is an ego thing really, not a money thing. It isn’t much money, is it? It is harming designers because celebrities take the space and the budgets meant for them. I know some designers that are just weeping.

ASI: I really despise that it has devalued the role of the fashion designer.If anyone can do it, then what is the point to go and study it? It makes it seem like if you can sing a song, you can become a fashion designer.

BH: Personally, I don’t think it will last long, because I don’t think the collections sell that much. The big stores bring them in to get the promotion to get the traffic into their stores, and they they get stuck with the stuff, because it is usually boring.

ASI: I hope you are right.

BH: I am sure, this phase has been lasting a bit too long. And also, a lot of the stores use celebrities to get into a market they are not in, a young market if they are stodgy. It is all commercial.

Barbara Hulanicki, fashion chat, fashion interview, Biba

ASI: You are the pioneer of experiential retail spaces. Tell me about some retail spaces you find inspiring or fantastic to shop in.

BH: I am a Barneys sucker, I love Barneys, for personal reasons. I like Topshop, they are definite about their ideas. But the street scene in England is absolutely terrible, it is the same stuff in absolutely every shop. I am not talking about designer, I am talking about the high street.

ASI: So the young don’t know how to dress? What about the fashion students?

BH: I do talks in school and I try and tell them that they have to learn how to pattern cut, how to draw, and all these skills that they don’t seem to learn. They have such high expectations, and they end up working in shops.

ASI: I think that might also have to do with the fact that there are so many courses in fashion.

BH: Absolutely!

ASI: It is crazy, the industry can’t support that kind of growth. There are courses for everything, for styling, for promotion, for illustration, I don’t understand how you can do a degree in fashion styling.

BH: Yes, Vogue is starting a school for fashion now too. I was talking to someone who told me that there is a terrible shortage of merchandisers, people who do the figures part. No one wants to do that, anybody in that line gets snapped up immediately.

Barbara Hulanicki, fashion chat, fashion interview, Biba

ASI: I remember when I used to lecture, all the student said they wanted to be a buyer. We would ask them if they were good in maths, and they would say no and decide they didn’t want to be a buyer anymore because they realize they have to do math.

BH: And be responsible for sales.

ASI: I have only been in the industry for 15 years, and even in these 15 years, there has been a incredible period of change. When I started, people didn’t really care about celebrities, and now it is so different. At that time there were a few good schools to study in, and that was it. Now there are hundreds.

Barbara Hulanicki, fashion chat, fashion interview, Biba

BH: The thing with celebrities too, was that they wear expensive designer clothing which they borrow for a night, so they look like they know what they are talking about. But really it is their stylist who is doing it. They are not developing any style or taste, are they?

ASI: Definitely not. Why have you relocated to Miami and do you miss London?

BH: Yes, but I come here every 6 weeks , so I come a lot.

ASI: That is perfect, you get your fill of London every few weeks but you don’t have to live there.

BH: And I get to enjoy Miami’s sunshine! I don’t think I could live in London again full time.

Want to learn about Barbara Hulanicki’s interior design work? Check out my interview with her for Vitamin Daily. And if you live in Vancouver, she is speaking at IDSwest on Sunday October 2nd, get tickets here.

Portrait from here.


  • Katie

    What an amazing opportunity! Hope to see more interviews by you in the future :)

  • Anonymous

    I’ve got a very exciting designer interview coming up soon.
    Alexandra Suhner Isenberg