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We found out the house used to be a brothel, recalls Barbara Hulanicki

BARBARA HULANICKI was one of the faces of the Swinging Sixties. The iconic designer is best known for founding brand Biba with late husband Stephen Fitz-Simon in 1964 and the shop in Kensington became a well-known hangout for the stars of the ’60s, including Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull. Now living in Miami, Hulanicki is still designing, helping to create the new Paloma collection at online brand made.com.

Where did you buy your first home?

We [with husband Stephen] bought our first home when we took on the second shop in Church Street, Kensington, and the house was in Brunswick Gardens. In those days the area was very shabby, not million-pound houses. I was pregnant, which was why we rushed to settle in, and we got an amazing house. We were quite comfortable — because we were decorating the shops, I was able to use all these wonderful wallpapers of people like Julie Hodgess.

Party girl: Barbara Hulanicki first bought in Kensington (top)

Sounds idyllic — was it as nice as it sounds?

Actually, we discovered after we’d moved in that it had been a brothel and there were forever people at the front door at night. That was how we found out — when someone came to the door one evening!

What did it look like inside?

Terrible. The beds were up against the big windows and weren’t in the dark area, and there was nothing to look at, I can tell you. It was very shabby, but it had all the original interiors and it was great to get something that hadn’t been tampered with. Plus a funny little garden and yard.

How old were you when you bought?

I was just coming up to 30. My mother was horrified I was having a baby at 30 [laughs].

What style did you make it?

Well, in those days it was amazing. You could go down to Brick Lane at three in the morning and get all this amazing Victoriana and great 1930s stuff for a few quid; the huge mirrors we would have in Biba were like, £15. It was great until people got wise to it. Then, we would take a truck down there and get stuff that’s worth a fortune now. It was a field where dealers would come in from all over the country, rain or shine. It was quite tough.

You were a friend to the stars — did you have any crazy parties at home?

Well, it was like a party every day in the shop. The music was 100 per cent on, all the time and we had all these amazing people coming in. The girls were so blasé they wouldn’t even tell you who’d come in. I used to have to go up to them and say: ‘Come on, tell me who’s been in!’ And they’d say: ‘Oh, Barbra Streisand is in the changing room and she’s pregnant and she’s changing with everyone there — she doesn’t want anything private.’And then they’d say, ‘There’s a man there who’s quite famous,’ and I’d say ‘Who the f*** is he?’ and it would be [actor] Marcello Mastroianni. It was terribly funny.

So your home was a sanctuary of calm?

Oh, yes. We never had any music on, ever. Music was such a big part of Biba you’d be terrified if it ever went off in case people stopped buying stuff. So, when we went home we just watched telly.

What advice would you have for someone buying their first home?

No advice whatsoever! It’s a lot of work. We made a huge mistake because we thought we’d build a roof terrace. We had carpenters working at Biba at the time, so we did a deck upstairs. Within two months they had us; they had helicopters coming by and made us take the whole thing down. I didn’t even know it was illegal.

So, check before you build something or add something?

Definitely. There are so many rules now, it’s a nightmare.

How about any tips for doing a home up on a budget?

If you are buying a wreck, like we always did, you have to listen to what’s wrong with it and fix all the horrible things first. The thing is, people always rush to finish the decoration part, because they feel they have to have everything ready. But my philosophy was always to keep it rolling, because once you’ve finished it you might as well move. And enjoy the evolution of it. Think of the rows you can have at home about what to do with it!

You live in Miami now — how does it differ from London?

It’s exactly the same — in fact, worse. It’s a nightmare, it was all decay when I got here, and loads of mini Deco buildings in a real bad state. Now it’s full of two or three million-dollar apartments, so it’s the same old story. You can move really far out of the city, but it’s a bit dangerous.

Do you miss London?

Yes. I miss the sense of humour and all the exhibitions. But definitely not the weather.

What’s the key to style?

I think the thing is never to go with whatever the latest whisper is. Everybody is into the 1950s, then suddenly overnight it’s something else. Be eclectic, don’t get stuck with one look.

Barbara’s Art Deco-inspired range for made.com is out now