By  on March 17, 2007

NEW YORK — Janet Brown, whose tiny namesake store on Long Island developed into a shopping mecca for a wealthy, discreet clientele, died Friday after suffering a heart attack driving to work from her home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., said a friend, Brooke Garber Neidich. Brown was 59.

As the savvy, demonstrative purveyor of refined, ultra-tony merchandise from an unlikely outpost, Brown developed into an industry legend. In an era when the small independent retailer had all but disappeared, she built and maintained a highly successful designer business from a mundane space in Port Washington, N.Y. Her secret was knowing her customer, inspiring her to be adventurous within reason, and never falling prey to senseless trend mongering.

Brown treated her clients like friends, and in fact many became her friends, while engaging in a level of salesmanship that could only be called masterful. It was not unusual for a customer to drop by “just to say hello,’’ only to have lunch ordered for her and leave, several hours later, five figures in the red.

Brown favored European, especially Italian, merchandise. She was fiercely loyal to her resources and aggressive in the hunt for new collections. To that end, she was among the first retailers in the U.S. to support directional collections such as Jil Sander and Marni.

“I’m shocked and saddened and will miss her,’’ Sander said.Brown had a big personality and a clever wit. Commenting on Sander’s return to her house after the designer’s initial falling out with Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli, she raised her arms in the air, waved her hands and called out, “Thank you, Jesus!’’

But when it came to business, she was serious. Her success was rooted as much in how she treated people, both her clients and her staff, as in her brilliant eye for the kind of quiet chic her customers wanted. On buying trips to European designers, Brown’s selections from collections were made with specific clients in mind, based on her intimate knowledge of their lifestyles and their personalities.

Consuelo Castiglioni, who designs Marni and owns the company with her husband Gianni, said, “Everybody at Marni will dearly miss Janet. We have loved Janet from day one. Her unfaltering support and affection over the years toward us and our collection have been very important. Janet was an inspiration and institution for Marni in the U.S.’’

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