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.
Before opening Browns in 1970, the Bursteins owned and ran a designer boutique called Feathers in Kensington. Manolo Blahnik was one of the early employees, and the store stocked French labels, including Daniel Hechter and Norbert Nel.
From a fashion perspective, London in 1970 was a polarized place, and a lot of stylish women still relied on their dressmakers. The one big stand-alone designer store was Yves Saint Laurent. Harrods catered to the country squire set, while Selfridges was considered inexpensive. Small, independent stores such as Biba were often for young, ultratrendy types, while Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McClaren’s store, Sex, which opened in 1971, had an altogether different crowd in mind.
Burstein wanted to do something new with Browns and go after stylish 18- to 30-year-olds. “I didn’t even envision a designer boutique,” she said. “I just wanted to buy what I saw and absolutely loved. That’s the pleasure of having your own business, really.”
Missoni – one of the first Italian ready-to-wear labels – was her core collection, and she quickly added to the mix Walter Albini for Callaghan and Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé.
“When the Missoni deliveries would arrive, customers would line up and would literally be grabbing from the boxes. It was such an exciting time, there was such a hunger for new fashion,” she said.
Rosita Missoni remembered being “discovered” by Browns in 1970. “It was actually Joan’s son, Simon, who saw our 1970 winter collection in Florence and bought us,” Rosita Missoni said. “We were so happy, and in the years that followed, we’ve watched the store become a point of reference for the entire industry.”
Early customers at Browns included Julie Christie, Linda McCartney and Claire Bloom. “Linda was fabulous,” Burstein said. “She’d buy all of the Albini T-shirts. I remember she said she gave them to her daughter.”
And Smith said, “Browns was an absolute fashion oasis in those days.”
As the business grew – sales in 2004 were 10 million pounds, or $17.2 million at current exchange – Browns continued to carry designers exclusively in London. Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein were some of the names on Burstein’s books, and she helped open the first Ralph Lauren store on London’s Bond Street. Galliano, whom she still carries, calls her his fairy godmother.
“She came to my graduation show, she bought the whole collection and gave me the window, and it just happened that the first client was Diana Ross,” he said. “She also invited me to work at the store, so that I could meet the clients and get a better understanding of how the business works. And she still has that unfaltering eye for future talent.”
Burstein has had a few mantras that always have stood her in good stead. The first is to edit, and to know the woman Browns wants to dress. “I could have made a lot more money, I’m sure, if I’d diversified, and bought lots of other collections,” she said. “But I didn’t. I didn’t want to spoil it for those who really wanted Browns. We had a standard, an image and a style, so we were very selective. We’re still very selective. Everything has to have a sense of beauty to me, and quality.”
The second is “when in doubt, cut it out … If I have any doubts in my head about something, I won’t buy it. It could be a mistake, but I don’t buy it,” she said, adding the third mantra is no minimums. “I just say, ‘Sorry, but minimums mean markdowns.'” Her biggest mistake has been buying too much. “I was always overbuying because I loved it so much, and thought everybody else would love it,” she said. “But it was never a real problem. It would always sell.”
Her favorites include a mixed bag of young designers and small labels. “First, I love Balenciaga,” she said. “It was so different, suddenly so different, and it was a statement, an independent statement, and I like that.
“Then, Lanvin. I love what Alber [Elbaz] does. He’s different. He makes sophisticated clothes look unsophisticated,” she said, adding that she adores his tailored clothing. “I don’t like anything too strict. It’s got to have a lightness to it, and that’s where Lanvin excels.”
She also lists small knitwear designers Kathryn Spence, Diane De Clerq and Lainey Keogh.
Only rarely has Mrs. B. not been able to stock exactly whom she wants. “I’ll tell you who has disappointed me: [Miuccia] Prada. Enormously. She is superb. She’s the only one who I would really love to have in Browns, and I’m very unhappy that she isn’t there,” Burstein said, discussing for the first time her relationship with the Italian fashion house. (Browns does, however, stock Prada men’s wear.)
“We were the first people to have their handbags. I bought from them in the late Seventies when they were only doing handbags and leather goods. And then when it came to the clothing, I’ve never been able to buy it. Maybe it was because I didn’t buy the first collection,” she said with a shrug. “They originally said it was because we were too near their store, but I can’t see that. I’m bitterly disappointed.”
As for ones to watch, Burstein named Aleksandar Stanic and Fiona Sinha, who design under the name Sinha-Stanic. Burstein also pointed to the roster of designers at Browns Focus, which is across the street from Browns and showcases younger, edgier fashion and denim.
First timers at Browns Focus this past fall and winter included Acne Jeans, Christine Lehr, Le Mont St. Michel, Sanchita, Serfontaine and Taavo. There were also other labels, such as Veronique Branquinho, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Dries Van Noten, Hussein Chalayan, Boudicca and Future Classics.
Burstein said one of her greatest satisfactions is the team she’s built. “I’ve had my fashion director with me for 34 years and our senior buyer has been with us for 15 years. I think it’s this team of wonderful people – that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy being able to contain our business and being in control. I don’t want to sell it. It’s such an enjoyable business. We’re very lucky. I wouldn’t do it otherwise,” she said.
In addition to her son, Simon, a board member at Browns, Mrs. B.’s daughter, Caroline Collis, runs Browns Brides and is a Browns board member, and her granddaughter, Charlotte Collis, works in Browns’ business unit.
Mrs. B. is devoted to swimming and Pilates, and the Bursteins have a beach house in East Hampton, N.Y., where they spend their summers. She also relishes long walks on Hampstead Heath, near her North London home.
Mrs. B. said she never tires of the hunt for the next great star. “The best part about the business is discovering – and loving. And to be the first; to discover it first.”