By and  on April 12, 2010

LONDON — Sidney Burstein, who together with his wife, Joan, founded the Browns group of multibrand designer boutiques here, died April 5 after a long illness. He was 93.

Burstein, whose death was revealed late last week, was known for his keen business sense, foresight and generosity. During his years in retail, he and his wife employed legions of men and women who would become major industry players, including Manolo Blahnik, Paul Smith, Tamara Mellon and Liz Earle.

“He gave me my first break in life and was certainly a great mentor,” said Mellon, founder and president of Jimmy Choo. “I value what I learned from him to this day.”

Philip Green, who knew the Bursteins for decades and once discussed buying Browns, said Burstein was “a one-off, an originator. He and his wife made a wonderful team. He was very into the detail of retail, and how the shops looked and worked.”

Burstein also was famous for his quirky sense of humor. He’d sometimes ask young people on first meeting them whether they smoked — and complimented them heartily when they said no. And he was full of energy. Green said he remembered Burstein playing tennis at age 80.

Browns, marking its 40th anniversary this year, rapidly became a leading light in retail, introducing myriad labels, including Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Sonia Rykiel, Missoni and Calvin Klein to British customers. The store also was the first to carry then newcomers such as John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen.

Burstein was born in England on Feb. 21, 1917, the son of a Russian father and a Polish mother. In 1948, with Joan and his brother, Willie, he started selling underwear and lingerie in a shop called Wilbuer at the Apple Market in Kingston, outside London. They later sold young women’s fashions, in addition to lingerie and loungewear, through a chain of stores on the high street.

When that business collapsed in the mid-Sixties, Burstein, Joan and Willie started a boutique on High Street Kensington in London called Feathers, which was considered a hot destination for fashion lovers. The store, filled with glamorous bamboo fixtures and vintage furniture, employed a young Blahnik to sell Newman jeans.

In 1970, the Bursteins’ son, Simon, was working part-time in a shop on South Molton Street, which Sidney would later purchase and turn into Browns. Over the years, Browns has expanded to include five interconnecting shops on the street and a unit on Sloane Street. The family later opened Labels for Less, Browns Focus, Browns Bride and Browns Shoes. Eight years ago, Burstein launched the company’s Web site.

While Browns always dealt in the rarefied world of designer labels, Burstein was not above rolling up his sleeves when required. In the early Nineties, he took to the streets to protest when the boutique’s landlord unceremoniously doubled the rents. “We’re doing it to make a statement,” Burstein told The Guardian at the time.

Burstein is survived by his wife, Joan; son, Simon, who took over as Browns’ chief executive officer in 2008, and Caroline Burstein, who is creative director of the stores. Funeral services took place in London on Sunday.

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