Review: From A to Biba by Barbara Hulanicki

From A to Biba: The Autobiography of Barbara Hulanicki is the account of Barbara Hulanicki’s life up to, and a little after, the collapse of the major fashion retailer ‘Biba’ in 1977. I had, of course, heard of Biba and the faint whiff of legend behind the name but didn’t really know much about it. Since reading the book, I have ‘googled’ (aahh…the wonders of Google) images of the clothing and found them to be beautiful – both Hulanicki’s vintage stuff and the modern (and prohibitively expensive) House of Fraser collection that Hulanicki was not involved in. This book itself follows suit.

The V&A museum have created a beautiful publication, with attractive cover art that looks clean and modern, sharp corners, silky smooth page-edges that cry out to be stroked and a spine that even I couldn’t bring myself to crack. (I admit it, I’m a shameless spine cracker – I can’t help myself, I’m sorry spine lovers!) The aesthetics inside were equally appealing and the images and illustrations were fantastic. I don’t care what anybody says – the physical look of a book is important and really can affect your enjoyment. The old adage of not judging a book by its cover is only true to a certain degree.

Hulanicki’s narrative jumps a little now and then, in the way that any recount of memories does but it doesn’t detract from the story much at all. Her passion is clear from the beginning and the pain of how her big adventure ended is obvious. In fact, she is excellent at creating emotion – the reader feels everything along with her, from the excitement of 1960s London and of starting a new venture, to the fear of everything falling down around her and the sting that I’m sure she still feels today.

I would be intrigued to read more of her reaction to the numerous Biba re-launches (something she touches on only briefly) and in particular, the House of Fraser collection, the most successful one to date, although it strays quite significantly from her original mission statement of beautiful dresses that are affordable to the everyday girl.

The book is an enjoyable read that taught me something of the history of the fashion industry and of London in the 60s and 70s. Even Hulanicki’s personal life was interesting and she is a relatable, intriguing character (even is she does paint herself as somewhat flawless and meek against the big, bad giants – I’m not saying she wasn’t right but everyone needs to take responsibility for their own mistakes sometimes, no matter how big or small and she doesn’t seem to do this at all). It is definitely a recommended read.

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