LONDON - It's teatime and the doyenne of London's fashion retail world, Joan Burstein, was having a glass of pink champagne at Claridge's before the finger sandwiches arrived.
And why not?
Mrs. B., as she's known in the business, has a lot to celebrate. She founded Browns on South Molton Street with her husband, Sydney, 35 years ago, bringing Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Comme des Garçons to the U.K. and buying John Galliano when he was still a student. The family franchise now includes Browns Focus, Browns Bride and Labels for Less, a designer discount store, and her legendary talent for talent spotting shows no signs of fading.
And neither does her frankness.
"Now that woman over there is no customer of Browns," she said, nodding discreetly across the dining room toward a chunky young woman in a Missoni dress that was way too tight. Never one to hold her tongue when it comes to clothing, Burstein's philosophy is, and has always been, to help her customers look beautiful in clothes they will never want to get rid of. Her style icons include the sisters-in-law Sheherezade Goldsmith and Jemima Khan.
Burstein, who was wearing Jil Sander trousers and an open-knit cardigan and carrying an old cream python Fendi mama baguette, said she loves when clients tell her they are still wearing a dress they bought from her in 1970. "I have so many customers who come in to me and tell me they've got the original. I find it wonderful. Giving ultimate pleasure to my customers is what I've had in mind from the beginning."
Sir Paul Smith, who worked for Browns as a men's wear designer and stylist in the early Seventies, said Burstein belonged to one select fashion society. "Mrs. B., Mrs. [Christina] Ong and Joyce Ma were the ones who really understood the market from very early on, and used that knowledge to build successful businesses," he said.
Burstein's eye for fashion already was forming during her childhood. Her mother was a tailor and two of her aunts were dressmakers. "I used to sit in their workroom, on the cutting table, swinging my legs and looking through their books. I think that must have been an influence, but then I always loved clothes," she recalled.
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"It's really hard sometimes. I think I have a reputation for being really tough and aggressive and pushy but I really am a very shy person who wants to be liked, and that's the conflict constantly. There's something that takes hold - I want people to like me, I don't want to be mean - but if I see something that just cries out to be answered, I go for it," says renowned NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell. (📷: @axeldupeux)