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Ageing, ageism, photography, stories

7th February 2017

Barbara Hulanicki, 79

Polish-born Barbara rose to fame with Biba, the fashion label she founded alongside her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon [Fitz] in the 60s. She has recently been reunited with the brand, now run by House of Fraser and resides in Miami, where she has found a second career in interior design.

“I was brought up during the war and had a happy childhood in Jerusalem, where my father was a diplomat. There were no toys or anything like that, you had to make things yourself. That’s probably why I ended up doing what I did. My parents were very creative too so it wasn’t very rebellious of me to go to art school! I was exceptionally influenced by my father; he did all these paintings and illustrations in his time and he’d tell us stories about England. After he was killed [Barbara’s father was assassinated by a paramilitary organisation in 1948], we moved over to the UK. It was a terrifying time.

I won’t ever stop working, I’d die of boredom.

In London, I went to art school and then found myself a studio that specialised in fashion illustration, I started making tea then worked my way up. Eventually, I was covering shows like Dior, Balenciaga, Gucci and Nina Ricci. I was 21 or 22 and was earning money but I noticed there were no clothes to buy – people wore their mother’s things. Felicity Green on the Mirror used to do a great fashion page and gave me my big break in 1964, asking me to design a low-cost dress, which she then featured in the paper. We got 17,000 orders! Fitz came back from the mailbox the next morning dragging a sack of post with him with a huge grin on his face. That was the start of Biba.

I met Fitz at a party and we got on like a house on fire. We were together for 35 years – before his demise in 1997. We worked alongside one another, but we never crossed each other’s paths as we trusted each other. I believe in astrology – I am a Sagittarius and Fitz was Pisces; it was a good match. Sagittarians are a pain in the arse, we get terribly depressed and then suddenly we’re happy again. As far as dating goes, I’m done. I have huge friendships though, especially in London. All my friends there are about 10 years younger than me, which is great. The English are tough to break but once you’re through, you’re through. Americans are quite different. They are very positive though – yesterday doesn’t count.

We first came to Miami in 1989 – it was amazing as there was nobody here – you’d walk along the beach and all these opportunities would just present themselves. Ronnie Wood had opened a club and wanted us to come and do the interior design. Then I met Chris Blackwell from Island Records; he’d bought 12 buildings which he wanted me to do up. That got my interior design stuff going. I love living here now – there’s something going on every night. There’s a fantastic gay scene and lots of creatives. I don’t drink as I can’t work well the next day and I find it depressing. I get invited to all these fashion parties and everyone is fucking drunk!

Keep plodding. Especially when you feel like nothing is happening. Suddenly it just clicks.

Exercise-wise I walk a lot and I go to Alexander Technique – it’s terrific for aches and pains. There are so many health food places here too so it’s easy to eat well and the shopping is fabulous of course.

I won’t ever stop working, I’d die of boredom. Before Fitz passed away he said I should get back to illustration. At the time, I said ‘no, I hate it.’ But now I am doing more of it. Drawing is such a high. If you’re depressed, you start drawing and you feel amazing.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned in life? Keep plodding. Especially when you feel like nothing is happening. Suddenly it just clicks. Something you did six months ago reappears, even years later. You might not even appreciate it, as by then you’re ten paces ahead – but appreciate it you must.

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