As Simon Burstein opens a new store for premium independent The Place London, he talks to Drapers about nurturing young designers, his career in retail and life after Browns.
Simon Burstein’s love of product is evident within just a few minutes of meeting him. Walking Drapers around the new store for his concept boutique, The Place London, he stops to point out clever design features on a jacket from performance label Nilmance and intricate embroidery on a kimono from London Fashion Week designer Alice Archer. This eye for detail is not surprising, given that Burstein comes from fashion retail royalty. His parents, Sidney and Joan Burstein – known in the industry as Mrs B – built pioneering independent Browns into the global luxury fashion destination it is today. The instinct for quality is in the Bursteins’ blood.
The new 2,000 sq ft store for The Place London, which opened this month, is in the heart of London’s West End, five minutes from Oxford Street and next to the red-brick front of landmark hotel Claridge’s. It is the third store for the retailer, which opened a 1,000 sq ft womenswear store on Connaught Street near Marble Arch in 2015 and a dedicated menswear store two doors down the following year.
Womenswear, which features brands including Alice Archer, Belgian designer Sofie D’Hoore and Australian label Zimmermann, sits upstairs in the sleek Brook Street store. Menswear, home to Italian outwear brands Sealup and RVR Lardini, takes the bottom floor. Clean white walls and thick carpets are offset by vintage furniture, including velvet chairs upholstered in deep plum sourced from antiques stores on west London’s Golborne Road.
In retrospective, the sale of Browns to Farfetch was a perfect deal – a perfect deal for Farfetch and a perfect deal for Browns
“I didn’t want the store to be dated, but I wanted it to have the personality I feel a shop ought to have,” Burstein explains, sitting on a moss-green sofa in the men’s section. “It’s about offering something very curated. We don’t have a lot of different brands, but I hope what we do have will appeal. Connaught Street is more of a destination. Not many people know about it, although the momentum is growing, but here we’re right in the middle of the West End, Claridge’s is next door, so we should have a more international customer.”
The Place also has a website, which Burstein says makes up a very small part of the overall business but is growing week on week. He describes the venture as “in its infancy but growing with great potential”. Sales at the womenswear store were up 40% in its second year of trade, says Burstein, although he will not give further details.
Chris Thompson, department supervisor at heritage accessory label Brady Bags, which is sold by the retailer, says: “The Place is a very pleasant location in London. We find the boutique style of the store fits our products perfectly.”
Burstein started The Place London in the autumn of 2015, just months after selling Browns to etailer Farfetch for an undisclosed sum. Selling the beloved family business was a wrench. He admits he was reluctant when the time came to ink the deal, but the level of investment needed in the retailer’s South Molton Street store, as well as “astronomical” rents in the area, meant it was the right decision for both Browns and the Bursteins. Simon and his sister, Caroline, retain positions on the Browns board, and Mrs B is honorary chairman. Sidney Burstein died in 2010.
“In retrospective, it was a perfect deal. A perfect deal for Farfetch and a perfect deal for Browns,” he reflects. “There’s no question that Farfetch is a brilliant concept and it’s global. It has invested in Browns and everything that José [Neves, Farfetch founder and chief executive] promised me, like opening Browns East [the first new Browns store in 20 years, which opened in Shoreditch last year], he’s delivered. He said to me: ‘I’m not a venture capitalist’ and that was the difference. José promised to continue building the business. Now it is in another chapter, and so am I.”
This new chapter includes following in his mother’s footsteps when it comes to nurturing new designers. Mrs B, who was awarded the Drapers Independents Awards Lifetime Achievement accolade last year, famously bought John Galliano’s entire graduate collection. The Place stocks fewer and smaller, emerging brands, rather than the big luxury names Browns sells. Mother and son are clearly close – Mrs B is due to visit The Place for the first time shortly after Drapers’ visit, before taking Burstein for dinner at Claridge’s – and he has inherited her passion for supporting the industry’s talent.
The Place was born, in part, as a way of showcasing the work of Alice Archer. Burstein discovered the womenswear designer, known for blending craftsmanship and technology, while still at Browns.
“I discovered Alice at the Best of Britannia [British-made trade show in London] three years ago. I came across a pair of Victorian-inspired boots with lace by shoemaker Caroline Groves, and she said that she was working with a student she had found called Alice Archer, who had just been hired by Dries Van Noten. I left my card and said to ask Alice to get in touch.”
Archer duly did so the following year, and brought her portfolio to Browns to show Burstein.
“It was just ‘wow’,” he recalls. “I asked Alice what she wanted to do, and she said she wanted to make her collection. We launched [a capsule collection] in Browns and it did fantastically, even though nobody had heard of Alice and the brand was hanging next to labels like Lanvin. When we sold Browns to Farfetch, I could have just gone on holiday, but I was committed to her. When the Connaught Street store came up I thought, ‘Perfect. We’ll do a shop upstairs and studio for Alice [where she is still based] downstairs.’”
I asked Alice [Archer] what she wanted to do, and she said she wanted to make her collection
Archer says: “I was quite young and naive when I first met Simon, but I knew instinctively it was a good opportunity. He’s had a huge impact on the brand.
“I’m not a businesswoman and he has enabled me to be really creative. To have someone who is really interested in manufacturing has also been a huge support. He’s really interested in special things, is positive and very reactive to work with. He has helped me so much.”
“The diversity and nature of the brands stocked at The Place makes it unique,” says luxury accessories designer Charlotte Simone, which is stocked at Connaught Street and The Place London online. “It is a delight to work with, the team is incredibly helpful.”
Burstein’s enthusiasm for developing brands and craftsmanship also shines through when talking about the Charfleet Book Bindery, a 20,000 sq ft bindery in Canvey Island, Essex, which he bought the day after he sold Browns. It produces stationery for heritage diary and leather goods brands Leathersmith of London, which is stocked by The Place and has also expanded into menswear, as well as luxury notebooks for department store Liberty and Dunhill.
“The company was going to close down,” he explains. “I recognised the skills of the people and my interest in stationery – I was the distributor for Filofax in France in the early 90’s – meant I thought it was worth trying to save.”
Retail has been a part of Burstein’s life since childhood. When he was growing up, his parents ran separates retailer Neatawear throughout the 1950s, later opening premium womenswear independent Feathers on Kensington High Street in the mid-1960s.
It was Burstein who first brought Browns to his parent’s attention, while studying at bilingual Kensington school Lycée Français. There was no uniform at the school, so students express themselved through their dress. Girls wore kilts and Shetland sweaters, and boys wore Newman velvet jeans.
After doing 10 years with my parents, I needed to get away
“There was a trend for these velvet jeans,” Burstein recalls. “I was 16 or 17 and trying to figure out how to make some money. My friend suggested we go to Paris, bring these jeans over and sell them.”
However, Burstein’s plans to import the style were dashed when Browns beat him to it.
“I remember opening The Sunday Times and I couldn’t believe it. I was reading about this store called Browns that sold these jeans. That’s why I applied for a Saturday job there and I said to my parents, ‘You have to see this store – it’s genius.’”
Burstein worked alongside his parents for 10 years after the family bought Browns from founder Sir William Piggott Brown in 1970. He led the launch of a Browns men’s store in 1976, also on South Molton Street. A move to Paris – he is fluent in French – followed.
“After doing 10 years with my parents, I needed to get away. My father, with whom I had quite a conflictual relationship, said, ‘Go and do your own thing.’ We had also opened a Browns menswear store in Paris [in 1982], which had run into financial difficulties and I was tasked with sorting it out, which I did.”
Sonia Rykiel had total trust in me and I ran that business as if it was my own
Burstein opted to stay in Paris, where he met his wife Nathalie, daughter of French designer Sonia Rykiel (they divorced in 2007). He was toying with a move back to the UK when his mother-in-law noticed his itchy feet and offered him a role in her business.
“I was fortunate enough to step into another family business and really build an international brand,” he says. “That’s where I had a real learning curve. It was fun – Sonia Rykiel in the 1980s was a phenomenal success. Working next to a designer like that was amazing, and I knew how to build that business without weakening her handwriting. Sonia had total trust in me and I ran that business as if it was my own.”
He spent 20 years as the vice-president of Sonia Rykiel, returning to the UK and to Browns in 2008, after his father fell ill and needed help. The retailer was successful, but the financial crisis meant running Browns was no easy feat.
“London is a tough market. It was 2008, there was the recession and there were building works all around the South Molton Street store. Sometimes I’d go to work and think, ‘This just isn’t possible.’ But we did survive. I like to think I’m not a bad businessman and we kept things tight. When I look back at what I’m happy about in my career, it’s the fact we didn’t make people redundant during that time. I said to the staff you won’t be getting a pay rise, but I will keep your jobs and that’s what I did.”
Looking back at his time in retail Burstein concludes: “I’ve been lucky. I surrounded myself with good people throughout my career and that’s been key.”