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.’’
Robert Burke of Robert Burke Associates, the luxury consulting firm, said, “Janet had a sixth sense for luxury.’’ He described Brown’s store as “small, simple and incredibly well-edited.…What stood out was the product and the mix of product, and at the end of the day, she was an incredible salesperson and merchant.’’
Morena Zabeni, owner of a Milan-based showroom called Winwood, said: “We spoke on the phone every other day because she was like a mother, a sister, a friend and a mentor. We met more than 16 years ago when I was working at Jil Sander and when I moved to Marni she took me under her wing.
“Janet was behind Marni’s U.S. success,’’ Zabeni said. “In 1997, the brand was making shredded and fashion-forward furs that not everyone understood. I will always remember a trunk show in her store in those years where, thanks to her ability, we sold 200 million lire worth of furs. It was a big success.
“Once she invited the Castiglionis and myself to dinner at her house in Long Island. It was one of the most unforgettable evenings thanks to the familial atmosphere and her great sense of humor. Janet pushed me to branch out on my own. She said, ‘Come on Morena, it’s time to start making money for yourself,’ and she helped me find clients,’’ including Lambertson Truex, Tomas Maier and Dianora Salviati.
“In 1999, she convinced me to give birth to my daughter in New York so that she could have an American passport. I’ll miss her terribly. It will never be the same without her.’’
Brown spent the three days before her death at a trunk show at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. In recent years, she had taken to staging such events for her New York City customers. This season she invited Neidich, who does work for her family’s Chicago-based jewelry business, to show some pieces. On Thursday night with the event almost over, Neidich suggested they go to dinner. “I told her, ‘You’re exhausted. Your people are terrific. They have everything under control,’’’ she recalled. “But Janet said, ‘No. The captain stays with her first mates.’’’
Brown is survived by her sister, Elaine Edelstein; brother-in-law Marc Edelstein, and a niece and nephew, Melissa and Brandon. A funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday, at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Avenue, at 81st Street, in Manhattan.
— With contributions from Alessandra Ilari, Milan, and David Moin, New York