Joan Burstein, who turned 90 last week, opened Browns, the luxury multibrand retailer in 1970 with her late husband, Sidney, and their son, Simon. A fashion retail pioneer, she made her name launching and nurturing designers and labels including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Giorgio Armani, Missoni, Prada and Donna Karan in the U.K.
Last year, Farfetch.com purchased Browns with the aim of building the store’s online business, and using the physical South Molton Street unit as a lab to experiment with online and off-line retail in an increasingly omnichannel world. Mrs. B, whose title is honorary chairman of Browns, talks to WWD about life, retail and the joys of retirement.
What was your philosophy when you started Browns? You had already had a long career in retail, with various other fashion stores in London. How was Browns different?
When I started, we were on our own, we really were. It was a wonderful time. The world was my oyster, and I had the choice pickings. Nobody in London had been buying from Paris, Milan, New York — no way! We were really the only multibrand boutique at that time. A lot of people were still having their clothes made. I was still having my clothes made. Everyone had their own little dressmaker.
Who were your first clients?
I knew what I wanted, and the customer I wanted to cultivate. This was very important as far as my perception of brands was concerned. At Browns, originally, I had a very small clientele made up of young people who were aware of what was happening with fashion on the Continent. I wanted to latch on to that. And it was so exciting. Wonderful, really.
How did you approach your buy?
I could not sell to the world. I’ve always said that. I could never do “ordinary” at Browns. It might seem stupid, but that’s what I’ve always felt — even up to the past few years. I can’t do ordinary. It always had to be quality, and I had to fall in love with it.
You ran the store for 45 years, you also opened the first London outposts for designers such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. You gambled on young fashion students, putting their graduate collections in your windows. What were some of the biggest risks you took?
My God, every season was a risk and I remember lying awake at night before deliveries, before everything arrived, I would think, “Will it go? Won’t it go? Will they like it? Won’t they like it?” And this was continuous, even though I was the one who’d bought everything.
I thought I was going to sell everything because I bought what I thought was right for my customer, right for the time. I loved it and I would be proud to sell it. But as it was coming in, I got so nervous. So when you talk about risk, every season for me was a risk. Even up to quite recently.
How do you feel about the industry’s latest hot topic, the move toward showing in-season fashion?
It dilutes the desire of the person who wants to buy. After seeing something worn everywhere early, the customer will say, “Why did I want that in the first place? Everybody has got it.” Therefore, I think there will be a big separation among the public, with some women always looking for something different.
You spent much of your career on the Browns shop floor. Were your customers particularly eager for see-now, buy-now, wear-now fashion?
Only a small percentage of women want to get it before everybody else. But mostly, she’s not that impatient, she’s waiting for me — or my buyers — to choose something that we know she wants to wear.
Now that you’re retired, how will you be spending this fall show season? And the rest of the year?
I have nothing to do. I’m floating. It’s nice. I’m going to Paris for three days. I’m just going to see one show — Dries [Van Noten]. I do wear a lot of Dries. I love the different fabrics, the simplicity. And yet they’re always different. And then I’m going to see some other little designers and look at the shops, which I don’t usually do. When I was working, I didn’t have the time.
What else are you doing with your newfound freedom?
Enjoying life. I have taken a house in Ibiza in July for all the family. I have two granddaughters living there. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be jolly if all of them could come!” In London, I can start going to the galleries. I’m determined to go to it all. And the theater, I love the theater. All of these pleasures, yes. I look forward to doing them. I’ll find a spa somewhere, too. I love spas. I’ve got lots to look forward to, haven’t I, really? And reading, too. Give me a good book and you can’t talk to me.
Any advice for the still-working classes?
Try and enjoy every day. Every minute has to be enjoyed, and instill that in your children, too, because they wouldn’t understand it, truthfully. And if you’re going to develop habits — develop good ones.