LONDON — Browns has always been famous for whetting fashion appetites with the unknown, taking chances on obscure talents such as a young John Galliano or Alexander McQueen, and launching labels such as Missoni, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Comme des Garçons in the U.K.
It has always been a gutsy, independent-minded retailer, and that attitude is thriving under the new management. “We’re going to change the way people consume,” claimed Holli Rogers, the Mayfair store’s chief executive officer, not a hint of doubt in her voice.
Rogers, the former fashion director of Net-a-porter.com and one of the architects of the site’s success, said her latest job is to fuse online and offline luxury shopping so that the sum becomes greater than the parts.
“Right now, online and offline are very separate and for me, that’s the interesting piece: Bringing it all together and making it meaningful and one sphere, rather than two. We’re so small, we can be nimble and agile, and can develop these things together instead of trying to tack them on.”
Another big aim is to keep the retailer’s pioneering legacy alive. “I just want this to be the coolest boutique in the world — I know that’s essentially what Browns was at one point,” said Rogers, a Texas native who arrived at Browns via Neiman Marcus, Chanel ready-to-wear and Net-a-porter.
Rogers defines cool as “unexpected, fun, always having those new, interesting brands — something you’re hopefully not going to discover anywhere else. It’s the point of view you have in terms of the curation, and the technology you integrate into that experience as well.”
Rogers has been at Browns a year, and has brought in a host of new brands and technologies. She’s worked on back-office operations and fine-tuning the mechanics of the business, which was acquired last year by Farfetch, the online luxury marketplace, from the founding Burstein family.
Online and brick-and-mortar need each other to survive — and both need a serious revamp, according to Rogers.
“We’re all human, and we all like to touch and feel and be connected. Offline retail needs to evolve, it needs to be an experience. It’s the way you can have a personality, and the store environment allows you to manifest that in a way you’re never going to get online,” she said.
Online also has some deep-rooted challenges. “You have to know what you’re looking for. Browsing some sites is time-consuming, as navigation hasn’t changed much in many years. I’ve actually made up this term called ‘finger fatigue’ from that constant scroll. That’s where it comes back to us having the knowledge and the curation so customers are not having to do all that.”
The Browns purchase was part of a bigger strategy by Farfetch founder and owner José Neves to create the luxury specialty store of the future, to woo a new generation of shoppers and make the experience easier for the older one.
Farfetch purchased 100 percent of Browns in a cash-and-shares deal, although the terms were not disclosed. At the time, Browns’ annual turnover was 14 million pounds, or $21.3 million.
Neves has said he also wants Browns to serve as the cornerstone of a new business unit called “Store of the Future.” The latter will develop and test new innovations in retail technology and omnichannel at Browns before rolling them out to the 400 boutiques on the Farfetch site.
Although the Browns flagship, a lineup of interconnected shop fronts on South Molton Street in Mayfair, and the store at 160 Sloane Street in Knightsbridge, still look the same, they have already changed dramatically — and big reveals are yet to come.
Brownsfashion.com has been dusted down and has a jauntier tone of voice (a major relaunch will take place later this year) while shop floor assistants have apps that give them visibility on stock.
The retailer now has an off-site warehouse and photo studio and bigger online buying teams building out better merchandise assortments.
As a result, Rogers said the web site now generates 80 percent of the Browns business compared to 30 percent when she arrived, and it is growing in the triple digits.
Thanks to the new warehouse and stock visibility technology, online and offline shoppers can click-and-collect same-day and in-store. Rogers said that if customers want something that’s not currently in the shops, Browns can do a quick turn and secure deliveries within about an hour.
For a small luxury operation like Browns — which is 46 years old this year — the changes are big, and point to what the future could look like for an independent, privately owned multibrand fashion retailer.
Rogers has also spent the past year working on mining Browns’ online customer data, and helping spin it into targeted — but sensitive — marketing. “Everyone gets annoyed with certain algorithms on mass web sites, so the question is how is marketing more nuanced, particularly in the luxury realm? How do you talk to people differently here than you would on Zalando or Amazon?” she asked.
“If you know things the customer has purchased, you can do a lot more suggestive selling, as in ‘I know you bought those silver Balenciaga boots. We have this really toned-down knitwear to go with it, because obviously it’s all about the boots!’ We are all trying to suggest things and push things out to people that make sense to them.”
The youthful, blond Rogers — who’s wearing said Balenciaga boots and a Loewe cat face sweater on this chilly summer’s day in London — has also been working on front-of-house technologies, too.
Among the new brands and technologies she’s brought to the store are Myswear for men’s wear, and Altruis by Vinaya wearable tech jewelry. Myswear (Farfetch works with them, too) specializes in personalizing sneakers.
“It’s giving people the ability to make the decision about what they want, and how they want it to look. It’s part of the process of being a designer — which is actually quite fun,” she said.
Altruis jewelry, meanwhile, allows people to turn on, tune in — and drop out: Rings, bracelets and necklaces connect to an app on a user’s phone and can filter calls and messages, buzzing only when the callers are important or the messages urgent. “Instead of keeping you connected, it lets you be disconnected in a meaningful way,” said Rogers.
There are other changes in the pipeline, including plans to re-tool the Browns logo and packaging, which Rogers said will have “a nod to the past, but still looking forward.”
Those changes will dovetail with the unveiling of the new web site, which Rogers said will have a lighter and more fun tone, with content and layout inspired by social media rather than a magazine. “Everybody has followed a similar format in terms of the layout of their web site, it’s an online magazine — everybody has that — and I don’t want to do that,” she said. “The whole idea is that social media has taken a front-row seat, and we are integrating that into the setup and design of the site, and cleaning it up — because I feel like a lot of them have so much stuff.”
Browns Focus, the space dedicated to emerging talent and more accessibly priced collections, will be folded into the main offer and the South Molton Street store will be refurbished early next year. A third bricks-and-mortar store in East London is part of the strategic plan for Browns, but it is still in the very early stages.
With regard to the changes at Focus, “I got the blessing of the Bursteins at the very beginning. In my mind, if you’ve got great product, you’ve got great product everywhere. There’s so much to explore, and it’s a super interesting store in its higgledy-piggledy way,” she said, referring to the five contiguous townhouses that make up the store near Oxford Street.
Rogers has already beefed up the buying teams for both men’s and women’s wear with an eye to building ranges and assortments and new labels for fall/winter 2016 include Miu Miu, Ganni, Rejina Pyo, Y Project, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Blaze and Sandy Liang.
In the midst of all the newness, however, Rogers is taking pains to preserve the store’s traditions.
Asked if she’d be willing to follow retail doyenne Joan Burstein and take a chance on some young talents — like Burstein did with Galliano, McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Christopher Kane and myriad others — Rogers said most definitely.
“I love her take on fashion and it was incredible that she had the foresight to do that. That’s something I would love to do, too,” she said, adding she spent a lot of time with the Bursteins — Joan, her son Simon and daughter Caroline, who are still involved in retail in London — when she joined the store.
Rogers is also embracing another Browns ethos — ageless style.
Joan Burstein turned 90 earlier this year, and remains a dedicated follower of fashion — from her earlobes (often adorned with fine jewelry made by her Ibiza-based granddaughter Natasha Collis) down to her custom-made Manolo Blahniks (in varying heel heights).
“We want to celebrate the individual,” said Rogers. “Whatever age they are, I don’t care. There are some people with wicked style, and I want to talk to young and old — to people who love fashion.”