How Biba’s make-up and cosmetics line started a beauty revolution

Ahead of a new Biba retrospective opening at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum, Hannah Tindle speaks to Barbara Hulanicki about its pioneering make-up and cosmetics line

Biba cosmetics advertising
(Image credit: © Barbara Hulanicki )

Biba’s make-up and cosmetics line, launched in 1970, was pioneering in every sense of the word. Alongside the likes of Mary Quant, another iconoclastic fashion label emblematic of the late 1960s and early 1970s subculture, it revolutionised how make-up was designed, marketed, and worn, speaking to a new generation pushing against mainstream conventions.

And, it’s hard to imagine that the beauty industry, which is now estimated to be worth $599.33 billion as of 2024, would look anything like it does today, without the risk-taking of Biba founder, Barbara Hulanicki.

Biba makeup

Illustrations of Biba make-up and cosmetics

(Image credit: © Barbara Hulanicki )

Biba’s make-up and cosmetics sparked a beauty revolution

‘At the time, there was nothing like it,’ says Hulanicki, who was born in Warsaw, the daughter of a Polish diplomat. She is now 87 and living in Miami, Florida. After moving to Brighton in 1948, and gaining a degree in illustration from Brighton College of Art, Hulanicki went on to work freelance upon graduating. After meeting her late husband, advertising executive Stephen Fitz-Simon, the pair founded Biba in 1963, as a small mail-order fashion store.

‘By the time we had opened our biggest store on Kensington Church Street, we had the counters for our perfumes and things. And Fitz [the nickname of her late husband] said to me: “Well, where are the cosmetics?” So we did some research and found this big factory in East Grinstead, just outside of London, that made all the products for Revlon. And we went to see what we could do with them. On our first meeting, we faced this huge table with about 20 businessmen sitting around it. And I thought: “fucking hell!”’

Biba lipstick

Biba lipsticks came in a rainbow spectrum of shades, which had never been seen before

(Image credit: Photography by Tessa Hallmann)

Hulanicki understood right away that said businessmen weren’t going to buy into her unconventional vision, as her then-assistant Delisia Price (who ended up heading up the make-up line before make-up artist and hairdresser Regis Huet) remembers. ‘Barbara had amazing ideas about cosmetics. She wanted to, and eventually did, create a huge range of colours. Because at the time, you could get nothing: no foundation with any different undertones except yellow. No colours for darker or Black skin tones at all,’ she says. ‘She also wanted bright colours, pastel colours, colours that pop… magentas and blues. And when we first put these colours to them, the factory managers said no, it wasn’t possible. Fortunately, the girls who were working in the laboratory were so excited by the ideas and convinced them that it was going to be possible. So we we able to go ahead.’

Biba make-up launch party

The Biba make-up launch party, with models (including Twiggy) wearing the Dudu Look

(Image credit: © Barbara Hulanicki )

‘From the earliest days of Biba, Barbara wanted to introduce a range of cosmetics so customers could create the complete Biba look,’ says Martin Pel, curator of a new Biba retrospective opening this month (22 March 2024) at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum. ‘It was the first company to create a full range of cosmetics for both Black skin, and men. Within two years of its launch, Biba cosmetics were sold in over 30 countries across three continents.’

The keys to Biba’s success story lies in its ability to speak authentically to its target audience: both aesthetically and fiscally. Any advertising was created in-house and tapped into the zeitgeist, allowing organic growth through word of mouth. As such, prices for products were always kept affordable, without skimping on quality or efficacy. There was even a name coined for the Biba make-up look, the Dudu Look, worn by Twiggy and copied by all. The look referenced stage and screen make-up, the kind worn by Clara Bow in the 1920s: pencil-thin brows, dark lips, dark eyes, huge doll-like lashes. (One can’t help but imagine how many TikTok tutorials for the trend there would be, had the app been around at the time).

Biba make-up launch party

Twiggy attending the Biba make-up launch party

(Image credit: © Barbara Hulanicki )

As Delisia Price says: ‘We weren’t like Mary Quant or Ossie Clark – I loved them, but it was impossible to be able to afford it.’ This meant that the young people it was marketed to could buy into a slice of the Biba world, even if it was through a pair of extravagant false lashes, or lipstick in an unusual shade of green that would cause intentional unease to their parents and the general public. Even launch party events – now commonplace in the world of beauty – were made part of Biba’s repertoire.

‘We had a big party to open the cosmetics line, and all the girls were dressed and made up in Biba make-up and clothes, head-to-toe,’ says Hulanicki, recalling the Kensington tea dance that introduced the make-up line to the world. ‘We all got into this taxi to head over to the venue, and I wish I’d taken a picture of the driver’s face. He looked horrified! He didn’t know what to do with himself.’

Biba make-up launch party invite

The invitation to the Biba make-up launch party

(Image credit: © Barbara Hulanicki )

‘It’s fascinating to watch how the make-up and cosmetics industry is today,’ concludes Hulanicki. ‘I go into the big Sephora in Miami, as I’m friendly with some of the people who work there, and all the young ones are looking at the make-up and skincare. There are now queues of thousands of people when make-up lines launch in department stores.’ But undoubtedly, Biba did it first.

‘The Biba Story: 1964-1975’ is open at the London Fashion & Textile Museum, 22 March – 8 September 2024.

Biba nail polish

Biba nail polishes

(Image credit: Photography by Tessa Hallmann)
Beauty & Grooming Editor at Wallpaper*

Hannah Tindle is Beauty & Grooming Editor at Wallpaper*. With ten years of experience working for media titles and brands across the luxury and culture sectors, she brings a breadth of knowledge to the magazine’s beauty vertical, which closely intersects with fashion, art, design, and technology.