By  on September 11, 2007

For 24 years, the late Janet Brown catered to the ultrachic and wealthy women of Nassau County on Long Island and beyond with her namesake designer boutique in a nondescript building on Carlton Avenue in sleepy Port Washington, N.Y. Brown was among the first American retailers to champion designers such as Jil Sander, Azzedine Alaïa, Miuccia Prada and Marni.

But now her influential boutique is on the brink of closing — and faces competition from a store across the street being opened by a former employee. The potential demise of Brown's store is an illustration of how a talented individual can build a successful business — even in a town of only 15,000 people — that can rapidly deteriorate if that person dies with no adequate plan for succession.

Since Brown's death in March from a heart attack, her 1,000-square-foot store has been overseen by her sister, Elaine Edelstein, an accountant from Philadelphia. However, sources said Edelstein alienated the intensely loyal staff, which had worked together for years, and several of them left. Now Randi Newman, Brown's longtime right-hand woman and top saleswoman who resigned July 2, is going into business directly across the street with a new store called Julienne. The store is being financed by one of Brown's customers, Julieann Orso, with buying assistance from Susan Stone, owner of Savannah, a high-end store in Santa Monica, Calif.

In a telephone interview, Edelstein said it's been a rough few months, and determining the future of her sister's store has been difficult. She was faced with such options as continuing with the current staff, selling the store or closing it down.

"There's nothing definitive," said Edelstein. "Everything's great and ongoing." She said she didn't know whether the store's buyers were purchasing spring lines.

Brown, whose success came even as there was a general decline in the number of independent retailers in the U.S., had a talent for recognizing the potential of European designers and introduced them to her savvy clientele. She frequently bought collections with specific customers in mind, cultivating a rapport with both the vendors and her customers.

For better or worse, Brown was a "one-man show," who really didn't groom a team of buyers to succeed her. Nor did she have children whom she could train to take over the business, as other family-owned businesses have successfully done, such as Richards/Mitchells and Hirshleifer's."Just the way the composition of the business was, it did not allow for succession," said Edelstein. "How do you pass that on? Janet's abilities were very broad. She was a genius."

Edelstein said she contemplated continuing with the current staff, but realized "Janet's expertise and her savoir faire [couldn't] be duplicated by anybody." She said she might have considered selling the store to someone to carry on the Janet Brown name, "but without her being there, it was very hard for me. She was that good, and it was very difficult."

"When Janet died, I believe the store died," continued Edelstein. "Although it continues to do wonderful business, and the [fall] merchandise [that Brown ordered] continues to come in, nothing has happened to put an end date on it."

She said the store's lease doesn't have an expiration date, and she's able to keep it going as long as she wants.

However, a few sources said much of the merchandise appears to be on sale, and traffic's been very spotty the past few months. Employees are waiting for Edelstein to pull the plug.

Edelstein said she has tried to pay the vendors in as normal a fashion as possible. "Janet was very prompt in paying her vendors. I want to honor Janet and keep it professional," she said.

In early August, Edelstein sent a fax to several vendors canceling some fall orders, which some vendors took as an indication that the store would be closing. Edelstein confirmed that she did cancel orders going forward, but was honoring the orders that had been placed by Brown earlier in the year. "I have a loyalty to the customers who are used to being outfitted for every season. Orders are still coming in. The ones further out, for October-November, I don't know," said Edelstein.

At one point, she considered having Newman take over the store, but said: "I couldn't crystal ball whether a seller could be a buyer. That was Janet's expertise. I couldn't evaluate that, and it would have been a big financial risk. Janet had such a wonderful relationship with the vendors. The European vendors were Janet's bread and butter. No way can you rubber stamp Janet Brown."Brown, who was known for her refined taste level, ran the business side, too.

"She was amazing. It was such a combination of genius and talent," said Edelstein. "Janet had the innate ability to do this since she was very young. She was a scientist and an artist who came to this business. She was great. Her mind was going all the time. It was really the death of an owner and the death of a business.

"I decided to let it go the way it was. The golden goose was Janet's last purchase in Europe," said Edelstein.

Andrew Jassin, managing director of the Jassin O'Rourke Group, a consulting firm here, said it's important for independent stores to have succession plans in place.

"Not only are there iconic brands that are designers, but there are iconic brands that are retailers," said Jassin, citing such stores as Maxfield and Fred Segal in Los Angeles; Saks Jandel in Washington; Hirshleifer's in Manhasset, N.Y., and Scoop in New York. As manufacturers have developed teams of people in order to run the business in the future, these boutiques need to have a plan of succession, as well. Frequently, they open branches, which forces them to hire more high-level executives to run the business, he said.

"Because of [Janet's] strong personality and how she developed certain European trademarks, she became a linchpin. She never thought about succession," said Jassin.

But she did train a handful of her staff in buying and merchandising techniques. Now Brown's refined, ultrachic aesthetic is being channeled into a new store that will open across the street from her store at 274 Main Street in late October or mid-November. The three women involved in the new store hope to cater to the same affluent customer base that Brown cultivated over 20 years. Stone is spearheading the buying, Orso is financing the store and Newman will run the store and handle all sales.

Julienne will carry merchandise similar to that in which Brown built her reputation — lines such as Jil Sander, Marni, Lanvin, Azzedine Alaïa, Nina Ricci, Bottega Veneta, Prada, Pringle, Missoni, 6267, Etro and Givenchy.Luca Voarino, director of sales and vice president of Marni in the U.S., said he didn't know if Janet Brown was closing or not, but is currently working with Julienne. Marni also has had a long-standing and strong relationship with Stone's Santa Monica store.

"The people who are working with [Newman] are the people who worked with Janet all these years. That's the legacy of Janet Brown. Mrs. Orso was a longtime client," he said. He said he plans to ship the fall-winter Marni line to Julienne. He said that was the last selection that Brown made in March. "That order was given to Julienne," he said.

"There are no ill feelings at our end. We're totally happy with this setup. Janet's business was all about Janet. Her clients loved her and trusted her. I had lunch with her two days before she died. I was at the trunk show in the city, she was cooking the food and bringing it in from Long Island. She was a volcano, an incredible lady. She was a one-man show," said Voarino.

A spokeswoman for Bottega Veneta confirmed it has sold Julienne the resort collection, and said it is no longer selling to Janet Brown.

Christina Oxenberg also has decided to sell Julienne her high-end knitwear collection. She said that Janet Brown didn't cancel her fall collection, but she didn't plan to ship it. "My stuff is all expected [at Brown's store]. I didn't get the fax," she said.

An executive at Jil Sander said, "We are working with Julienne for spring 2008," but declined to comment on Janet Brown's status.

According to Newman, the new store "will have the same mentality [as Janet Brown]. Maybe it'll be a little more feminine; women's needs change. There will be more dresses." She said the store will continue with its tradition of buying special selections for specific customers and offering tremendous customer service. "I've been in contact with all my customers, I've phoned them and have given them an update [on the new store]," said Newman.

"I was Janet's right arm. I was the salesperson of Janet Brown, and I created wonderful rapport with my customers," said Newman, who worked with Brown for 19 years. "I did the buying with her, as well, and Janet taught me everything I know."Newman described the new store [which is actually three small stores that will be combined] "as a little jewel box.

"It will be very simple and elegant. There's a fireplace and beautiful skylights, French doors and a garden in the back," she said.

Newman said she's hired her assistant and the seamstresses from Janet Brown.

Newman explained that Janet Brown "was a destination."

"People would come for lunch and spend the day and enjoy. I want to make sure it's the same — a homey place — and we're giving proper attention to all our customers," she said. The store will dress the woman head-to-toe, and also will carry accessories such as footwear and pantyhose.

As the owner of Savannah, a 700-square-foot designer boutique in Santa Monica, Stone said she often traveled with Brown on buying trips to Europe, and also knew Orso. "After Janet died, Julieann wanted to carry on serving the same clientele that Janet has serviced. I was asked to be part of this project. We had parallel businesses in selections we stocked. I'm doing the buying, and I'm involving Randi," said Stone.

"We want to continue with all the clients Janet had over the years and expand the market, also," said Stone, who's been in the market since July buying for both her own store and Julienne.

"The reason we went across the street is we knew Janet Brown as it existed would not continue without Janet. We wanted an address in the same location. It was just serendipity that a location came up across the street," said Stone. The Janet Brown space would have been too small, she said.

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