Blogger Q&A session with Barbara Hulanicki

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited along to a special bloggers Q&A session with the legend that is Barbara Hulanicki. I’d met Barbara once before, back in 2010, but yesterday I had the chace to ask her some really indepth questions, along with the rest of us that were there. It was just a small group of us, so it meant the opportunity to ask question after question!

For the event I wore one of my original pieces of vintage Biba. The bright yellow blouse I wore has the best sleeves of any garment I own. I teamed it with my fail safe Freddie’s of Pinewood jeans (Freddies I LOVE YOU…that is all) and some Miss L Fire platforms. On arriving Barbara complimented me on my blouse and told me that a version of my blouse had appeared in the first mail order catalogue! I knew it was quite an early number…but I was surprised it was that early!

I spent the session furiously taking notes, so have tried to roughly (Very roughly…it’s not exact by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve just tried to reform the notes so they are coherent) transcribe all of the questions that came up, I hope it is as interesting for you as  it was for me and my fellow bloggers.

Massive thanks to Sophie (sat next to Barbara here!) for organising the event!!!

(Liz Eggleston looking fabulous in an original Biba jacket here ; ) )

Q: How do you feel about the fact that so many of your garments have ended up in museums?

A: Surprised, because no one took us seriously, they bypassed us. Honey and 19 paid attention to us at the time, but not others. My Husband would have been so pleased. I can’t believe people are selling it for so much, we must have made 3 million garments.

Q: What sort of fabrics did you like to work with?

Fabrics then were non-stretchy. I really liked working with rayons, particularly Burgess Ledward (I think) in Leicester. We bought someone out of retirement to make our fake crepe de chine. Fabrics with good drape were important. We used old fabrics too, particularly from three stores Derry and Tom’s, Barkers ( I think) and Pontill’s (?). We found the old fabric buyer at Pontill’s and opened up the old fabrics. Some had areas of fading but we cut them out.We found lots of old moss crepe fabrics there.

Q: Where was your inspiration coming from?

Old films. Garbo, Dietrich. Anything modern didn’t really appeal. We didn’t have anyone to knock off, because we didn’t like anything much that was around. Every young generation is doing their version of what they think each period is. We were looking back at the 30s and 40s and doing our version of it.   

There were lots of film/ music links with Biba and the Big Biba store was closely linked with the glam rock movement.

Suzie Quattro filming one of her videos in the big Biba store was particularly odd. I Remember walking past and seeing her jumping on thee mirrored platform. The song was perhaps not appropriate for the setting of the shop, but it was an interesting contrast.

The video Barbara mentions is Devil Gate drive;

Q:Who was the best person that wore your clothes?

The New York Dolls. O loved them. We caught stealing in the communal changing room. In one of their videos one of them is wearing a spotty Biba blouse that they stole from the store. They were so elegant, so well made up. 

It was easy because it was almost all one size. One person who came to work for us said we had to do a size 12, and it just didn’t sell. (At this point Liz Egleston mentioned that a dress she owns in maternity and normal Biba are exactly the same!).

We found American girls couldn’t get into the clothes, British girls didn’t work out, they ate barely any meat. The American girls were a different shape,  they couldn’t get their arms in the dresses or do up the boots.

Q: Who would have been your ideal customer?

Audrey Hepburn. She wore some of our high waisted things. That is who I had in mind to wear my clothes. (note: This made me think about the gamine, elegant, slender woman. Perhaps not the face you would imagine for Biba, but definitely the body!) She was the first young person who went into a coutre house and got Givency to make amazing clothes. When i was young you couldn’t get those clothes. I was so inspired by her, I wanted shoes just like her, I went round Brighton looking and looking for similar shoes, I cut up a pari to get the same look. They didn’t last! In that time you couldn’t get anything unless you made it yourself. 

Q: Do you live in a dramtic way?


Q: What was your inspiration for the interiors?

We were stimulated by films, but wanted it to be like someones glamorous living room. When we started people could buy vingtage furniture cheaply, art deco, art nouveau. We didn’t like a lot of modern stuff.  We had amazing stuff made for Big Biba, mirrored stuff, wallpaper, Egyptian furnitre. A lot of it was made by film studio people, we were very influenced by Disney.

It was all panned from the outset, and it was actually quite cheap. Only £¼ million for six floors for the refit. It was all assembled in the shop.

Q: Could it work again?


Q: What did you feel like as a woman in business?

There was TREMENDOUS sexism (Barbara bought up a number of examples, but spoke too quickly for me to take proper notes!) To begin with no one took us seriously, bottom pinching, reps, people in the factories.  It was really upsetting at the time.

Q: Do you think Biba was an intimidating brand? Were people scared to wear Biba?

The English street is as brave as it comes. The top came to it (the street) because it wanted to be with the incredible crowd. It really was accessible to all, it was a really strong generation and we were the old ones! We were 28, those leading were 8 or 10 years younger.  I didn’t have an age group in mind, But I hated those “can I help you” shops that we have now returned to. Lert the customer shop for themselves.
I used ot love Woolworths where you could help yourself with all the pick and mix.

Did you keep anything yourself? Not even an eyeshadow?


We had complaints about EVERYTHING. Even when we had shut. One woman came up to me in a shop in Knightsbridge and said where will I get my tights to match my dress now?

We had complaints with the baked beans too- these were Fitz’s idea, because he loved baked beans. People complained because our baked beans were 3p dearer than Heinz. Heinz made our baked beans!

Q: Did you use your own products?

Yes. Anyrthing we needed we put in the shop,baked beans, dog food!

Q: Did parent’s ever complain about the clothes?

Parents were very disapproving, but they never dared come into the shop. Manufacturers too were frightened to come in.

Q: Is it true that you had an area of the shop called shoplifters corner?

Yes, we labelled stuff up like that because it dodn’t sell. The problem is that people only shoplift things that is actually nice. All of the size 12 pieces we couldn’t sell ended up in shoplifter’s corner.

Q: Did you have a big problem with shoplifting then?

No, it was no more of a problem than any other shop at the time. Although we had a lot of publicity about it. For example, girls from Holland park school came in as a large gang. But the girls in the shop knew what they were doing, and would sense when someone was about to do something. The headmaster sent the girls from Holland park back in, and that’s why we got the publicity.

In the church street store the O.A.P’s used to come in and wait for the bus. Our insurance went sky high because they kept claiming for falling down the step. We used to have a table full of hair pins too, and the old ladies used to come in and steal them.

Q: What made you start the Biba cosmetics?

At the time everything was coral, you could only buy a lipstick in 20 or more shades of coral. The first lipstick we made was chocolate brown. Customers were bored of make up at the time. As it was so different the girls in the labroroatories were excited and we didn’t have to order such large quantities. The first lipstick that we made, the chocolate brown, was the only cosmetic we did to begin with and it sold out in under an hour. It was just a lipstick to start with, but we were doing something new.

Q: Was all the crazy coloured make up popular?

Everything was a silly price, so yes people did actually buy and wear it.

Q: Who was your favourite model you used?

Ingrid Boulting

Ingrid Boulting. Although Maddie Smith, who was one of the catalogue girls was very good too. She started off as a shop girl, alot of the girls who modelled for us did, as did Jo Dingeman and Stephanie Farrow, they were both very beautiful.



Madeline Smith, shot by Donald Silverstein

Jo Dingeman shot by Barbara Hulanicki

Stephanie Farrow shot by Hans Furer (Barbara did explain about this shoot, but I got a little lost in note taking at this point… I think there was another model who waid paid £1,000 but was not very good at all!)

The sales girls at Biba

(this series of images come from a fabulous post by “Sweet Jane”

Q: Did you get critiscm at the time for the Lolita range?

No. Not really. Most of the shop staff were only 15 or 16, everyone was just terribly, terribly younf them.

Q: What was the reception like to your designs at the time?

19 magazine was very important to us. It was only afterwards that the big magazines paid any attention. There was a sense of satisfaction, but still a “why didn’t you do it when we needed you to?”

Hopefully i managed to transcribe these notes relatively accurately, it’s not perfect but it gives you a rough idea of what Barbara had to say. It really was an amazing opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with such a fascinating lady who was so pivotal to the fashion scene in the period.  


Can you do the can-can?

Today I am sharing the dress I wore  to the ric rac club over the weekend. I ADORE novelty prints, but this is one of my all time best novelty prints. The dress came from ebay (of course!) and it was a completely exciting purchase as I wasn’t expecting to win it, but was the only bidder (I paid £45 for it). The dress is by London Town, and I have had a number of dresses by this brand. It is yet another of my labels that I need to research, I’ve had quite a number of pieces by London town, all of them have been incredibly fun and joyful items. The dress I wore to the last ric rac club (here) and the dress I wore for my graduation (here) were also by London Town.
So what makes the dress so interesting? Well, firstly the print is out of this world CAN-CAN dancers!!! I adore the fact that this conversational print has not only the dancing ladies but also the words can-can written on it. The bodice has a pretty pleated panel to the front and there are also amazing very full godet panels in the same limey yellow to the sides of the garment.
The dress is an absolute delight to wear, especially because the skirt is so full and I wore it with a simple black patent belt from H&M.
I even accidentally matched my nails to the dress!
Have you come across any dresses by London Town? I’d love to see further examples of garments by the brand!

Sale of the Horrockses brand name

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a rather interesting piece of information that it has taken me a few weeks to formulate properly into a post, the sale of the Horrockses brand name. As regular readers of my blog will be aware Horrockses garments are one of my biggest passions, but I mostly focus on collecting those items that were produced before 1964. Understandably though, with the resurgence in popularity of vintage items by the brand I was intrigued by the sale of the brand name, and the bigger consequences there could be for both the collectability of Horrockses dresses, and also how a parent brand may use the name.
Horrockses dress with print by Alastair Morton 1950 © Liz Tregenza 2012
Firstly, a little background on the history of the changing hands of the brand name post the period I collect- I concentrate here on “Horrockses fashions” rather than simply “Horrockses”. The first sale of the Horrockses brand was in 1964 to Steinberg and Sons (Owners of Alexon) who secured the royal warrant for the brand[1]. The label continued until 1983, before it was eventually discontinued. I know towards the end they attempted a revival of the 50s look dresses, but this was unsuccessful. I’ve never seen one of these I have to admit though. This is just something I have heard about, but I would love to see one if anyone has one! The Horrockses label then laid relatively dormant until 2011 (used only for very basic bed linen on the whole). I can’t work out from a quick bit of research who owned it in this period, but I am sure I was told it was Dorma at some point down the line… I know they had the rights for Horrockses cottons for bed linens etc, just not sure on fashion. This seems plausible as Dorma was bought out by Dawson international holdings in 2005, who currently own the brand name. The reason for the sale of the Horrockses brand now is due to Dawson international holdings going into administration last year. From my scant knowledge of IP (digging into the 1 module I sat during my first degree here!) It appears that the tradmemarks that Dawson international hold covers the likes of cosmetics and furniture as well as the areas that Horrockses bed linen/ Ulster Weavers kitchen textiles currently operate the brand under . Dawnson international holdings also hold the trademark for the brand that covers textiles for fashion. [2]
Horrockses dress by Pat Albeck- c. mid 1950s © Liz Tregenza
Original Horrockses prints have since 2011 been used for a limited collection of bed linen based on a number of original prints used for dresses, two of which I own (and love!). Personally I think this is a great way of re-using the original prints, without stepping on dangerous territory, but I am wary about the latest sale of the brand. My fear stems from how a brand may use the Horrockses name. Creating a new range of dresses based on Horrockses originals, in my opinion, would devalue vintage dresses and also cannot live up to the originals. This is partially due to manufacturing standards today and the fact that a key part of what made Horrockses such a distinctive brand was their use of fabric, and superior quality and advanced finishing techniques used on the fabric. Subject to modern manufacturing new Horrockses would loose their meaning. This is not simply personal elitism about the re-creation of the items, and not wanting others to have the same, I just feel that the “carbon-copies” which are likely to be produced will de-value the reputation of the brand as a whole.
A selection of Horrockses from my personal collection © Liz Tregenza 2012
Revivng brand names has a chequered history. Chelsea girl for River Island is an example of how this can be done relatively effectively I believe. Whilst the Ossie Clark London brand is an example of a heinous crime. Others, such as the numerous relaunches of Biba have had a mixed reception. Again though I step back to one of my biggest bugbears, why can’t we design anything new? Referencing the past is fair enough, but the way in which it is done is often disrespectful of past designs/ designers, and also what the companies stood for. I think producing homewares based on the original prints and styles is much more acceptable- I really hope that whoever buys the brand goes down this route, and doesn’t try to re-create the dresses.  Information on the internet suggests that House of Fraser are interested in acquiring the brand.[3]I wonder if they are considering attempting a similar revival to that of the Biba brand from a few years ago, or whether they would be considering something totally different for the brand.
Close up detail of a print by Margaret Meades 1953 © Liz Tregenza 2012
I am also intrigued as to how the sale of the brand name relates to the prints themselves. Does this sale equate to a sale of the prints too? Would they have free reign to use any Horrockses prints they want? Or would the new buyer be restricted to copying original vintage items they can source? Horrockses employed numerous freelance print designers, so this in itself could be problemous. This is undeniably an area that I don’t fully understand, but needless to say I am intrigued by.
Metis parters who are dealing with the sale of the IP have called for bids of £50,000 or more (seems cheap to me!). Bidding for the brand closes on 2nd May…so lets see what happens.
And to whoever buys the brand, if you are after an expert on the company with around 75 original dresses you are looking at her ; )

[1] Christine Boydell, Horrockses fashions: Off the peg style in the 40s and 50s p.176