Ed Burstell and Bobbi Brown met more than two decades ago when the former was a young cosmetics buyer at Henri Bendel and the latter had just launched a line of lipsticks at Bergdorf Goodman. Back then, they used to meet for breakfast brainstorming sessions. Now, Burstell is the managing director of Liberty Ltd. in London and Brown has achieved global fame as a makeup artist and entrepreneur whose very presence can induce tears of hysteria. Brown and Burstell are still fast friends who relish working closely together, and their shared history clearly pays off. This year, Liberty will break the 1 million pound mark in sales of Brown’s namesake brand.
This story first appeared in the March 21, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Ed Burstell: Bobbi, how do you do what you do and not be a diva? From the start, all you’ve ever given anybody is your best advice.
Bobbi Brown: I think it’s because I’m from Chicago and I come from really good stock and I married really well. My husband wouldn’t stand for any kind of attitude. And I love what I do. I like to break rules and now that I’m part of a big corporation, the only way to be true to who I am is to break all the rules.
E.B.: After all this time, how do you still get up every day and think, “There is going to be something fresh I can do.”
B.B.: My problem isn’t coming up with something new, it’s which of the new ideas to do. But, you know, I’m smart enough to know that pink looks really pretty on women. Brown eye shadow works really well. Greens and purples and yellows, the stuff that magazines like to write about, don’t really look good on people.
E.B.: What is your worst habit?
B.B.: Telling people the truth.
E.B.: The truth hurts!
B.B.: Sometimes, if I’m really busy, I might not deliver it as nicely as I should. I’m working on that.
E.B.: Who are your heroes?
B.B.: In business I have three: Mickey Drexler [of J. Crew], who taught me I could do whatever I feel; Richard Branson [of Virgin] because he believes in caring about people’s experience, and Howard Schultz [of Starbucks] because he made coffee something else.
WWD: Ed, what was the most challenging aspect of transitioning from Bergdorf Goodman to Liberty of London?
E.B.: Bergdorf was a big polished machine. I got to help that machine move along. Liberty was a diamond in the rough. It wasn’t quite a start up, but it was certainly a turnaround situation.
B.B.: A perfect job for a creative guy to say, “What can be done?”
E.B.: I have an accounting degree, believe it or not!
B.B.: I’m really good at math, too, because I was a waitress. I know 20 percent of any number.
WWD: What makes a great retail experience today?
B.B.: For me, it’s when there’s someone who is nonjudgemental and listens to what you want and comes with solutions. That’s unusual. I try to train my people behind the counter to be nice. Look people in the eye and ask them what they’re looking for.
E.B.: From a broader perspective, there is a lot of sameness. A store has a responsibility to have its own DNA, to make the shopping experience different than what may be across the street.
B.B.: Liberty is so amazing because you can tell they are not looking at everybody else. A lot of companies make the mistake of looking at what everyone else is doing, and because someone is successful in something, they try to do the same thing.
E.B.: How many people have knocked you off?
B.B.: Luckily I know when it’s time to move on to the next thing. The important thing is to always be adaptable to what is needed and don’t be afraid to move things when it’s not working. Change.
E.B.: It’s cyclical. When [the makeup artist lines] kicked off, it was a reaction to the big, nameless, faceless companies, and here were people who were brave enough to put their name on the product and stand on the floor and say, “I’m sorry Mrs. Schwartz, but those are your cheekbones.” [Laughs.]
B.B.: Mrs. Schwartz! Do you know how often I talk about Mrs. Schwartz to my team? How are you going to tell her why we have this product? The biggest opportunity for any brand now is the visual and the content, having the right content to inspire and educate people and encourage them to buy.
E.B.: We live in a culture of noise. It’s like a runaway train. You have to clear it all away and just say, “Okay, this is what I do. This is why you should trust me,” and then you deliver on it.
B.B.: Someone told me recently the trend for next year is integrity. [Laughs.] That’s the new trend. I guess I am trendy.
E.B.: I love when they talk about values. I mean, you either have them or you don’t.
WWD: You’re both constantly exposed to newness. What kind of feeling do you get when you know you’re seeing something good?
B.B.: Holy sh-t.
E.B.: It’s electric, hair standing on end. A chill. If you have a store, it’s not finding the next thing, it’s finding the next right thing.
B.B.: What’s the last one you found?
E.B.: A scientist who took rocks and gems, cut them in half, photographed them and then blew the photographs up. We figured out how to take those and put them on scarves. There’s a million different variations and a million different colors. In one year, we did about 250,000 pounds. That gave me a charge!
Bobbi Brown: Makeup artist Bobbi Brown kicked off the indie revolution with a simple idea—lipstick that looked like lips, only better. Since the launch of those 10 lipstick shades almost 20 years ago, Brown’s brand has exploded into a makeup powerhouse. She sold her company to the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. in 1995, but retains creative control as chief creative officer.
Ed Burstell: His degree may be in accounting, but Ed Burstell has proven himself to be one of the most creative retailers on the global scene today. After rising rapidly through the ranks in New York, with stints at Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, Burstell moved to London, where he is currently the managing director of Liberty Ltd.