By  on May 14, 2010

LONDON — After 40 years at the helm of iconic designer boutique chain Browns, Joan Burstein is well aware of the hold that fashion has over the store’s loyal customers. Even, she remembers, in the face of terrorist attacks on London in the Seventies.

“It was our first day of sale [and] there had been an IRA bomb in the area and they’d closed off Oxford Street….We thought, nothing today, it’s going to be just finished,” recalled Burstein, who founded the store with her late husband Sidney Burstein in 1970. “And as we approached, we saw there were queues all the way around [the shop] — how people had got there, I don’t know. And we sighed with relief, saying, “Aren’t people wonderful?’ If they want something, then they go for it.”

In the subsequent four decades, the company has grown to count seven Browns stores — including a dedicated shoe boutique and a bridal unit — all located in central London.

But Browns wasn’t the Bursteins’ first foray into retail — in the Sixties, Joan, Sidney and his brother Willie founded Feathers, a trendy boutique on High Street Kensington. Sidney bought Browns in 1970, after his son Simon had been working at the store, which was then housed in what’s now Browns’ South Molton Street location.

To mark the anniversary, Browns has launched an exhibition called “Browns: 40 Years of Fashion Innovation.” The show, in a gallery space in Soho, spotlights a series of images of 40 of the store’s “ambassadors” — including Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova and Natalia Vodianova — all shot by Paolo Roversi, wearing vintage pieces by labels Browns has championed, such as Ralph Lauren, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

Indeed, Burstein is known for snapping up Galliano’s graduate collection, Les Incroyables, which she showcased in Browns. Some of the items of vintage clothing are also on display at the exhibition, which has been designed by Simon Costin, along with blown-up pages from the accompanying book Browns has produced. The book is dedicated to Sidney Burstein, who died last month and whom Joan Burstein credits with persuading her to run Browns. The retailer also held a dinner and party to fete the exhibition’s opening Wednesday night, attended by supporters such as Oscar de la Renta, Giambattista Valli and Yasmin Le Bon.

The exhibition features many of the designers Burstein has nurtured since they sent out their graduate collections, such as Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan and Mark Fast. Burstein said that when she evaluates a new designer’s work, she’s looking for “always something different, their own thinking, their own thoughts, their own handwriting. And then they have the chance to be showcased in Browns Focus [Browns’ young designers’ store] — the nursery. And once they have their profile recognized there, the world’s their oyster after that.”

Simon Burstein, who now serves as chief executive officer, said the Browns Focus store is something he sees the company being able to export further afield. “I think Browns Focus is a concept we can spin off as a stand-alone store in different towns — I think when business picks up that’s something that we will do,” he said. As another part of Browns’ 40th anniversary celebrations, the boutique set up pop-up shops in boutiques in Berlin, Dubai, Zurich and Geneva to carry a collection of limited edition pieces designers made for the birthday.

Burstein added he would consider opening Browns boutiques in “emerging markets,” too, particularly in Asia.

Joan Burstein said the Browns customer hasn’t changed over the years. “It’s someone who understands Browns, understands quality and, if they want something lovely, don’t go looking through racks of clothing anywhere, [they] come to Browns,” she said. “We edit before we buy.”

Simon Burstein said the retailer has also acquired an international clientele. “Today, London’s a thriving city, Browns is a destination spot and we’re pretty unique — we have a very strong following of both local and also international customers.” The store also runs an e-commerce site, which he described as “an important part of our business.”

As for the store’s next 40 years, Joan Burstein said, “I do hope it will go on as a family, I really do.”

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