The iconic London indie is celebrating its 40th birthday with a raft of initiatives as its co-founder ‘Mrs B’ ensures her legacy of discovering talent is passed down the generations
For a family that presides over one of the most iconic designer emporiums in the world - the five-store Browns of London - the Bursteins possess all the characteristics of a normal family, notably the affectionate bickering.
“It was forced labour,” jokes Browns chief executive Simon Burstein, on the subject of whether he wanted to join the family business as a 17-year-old boy.
“But we’d lost our [previous] business, so my children had to work on the shopfloor when they were young for us to survive,” says Browns co-founder Joan Burstein - or Mrs B as she is affectionately known by the industry.
Together with her husband Sidney, who passed away earlier this year, and his brother Willie, Mrs B ran a store called Neatawear in Maidenhead, which grew into a women’s young fashion chain. But when the business collapsed in the mid-1960s, Mrs B and Sidney launched a designer indie called Feathers in Kensington, west London, employing a young Manolo Bhlanik as shopfloor assistant. In 1970, they took over their first store on South Molton Street, which was named Browns after previous owner Sir William Piggott-Brown.
“I stuck around for 10 years, but managed to get out for 25,” Simon teases again. In those 25 years, he had risen to vice-president of French designer label Sonia Rykiel, a business he joined in 1982, after leaving Browns.
“And I managed to leave and launch [luxury beauty business] Molton Brown [in 1973],” adds Simon’s sister Caroline Burstein, who is now Brown’s creative director.
But they both came back, Caroline in 1993 and Simon in 1998. As chief executive, 58-year-old Simon is in charge of the day-to-day running of the business, while Caroline, 60, is responsible for special projects, such as launching the Browns footwear store in Mayfair last year. At 84 years old, Mrs B is still very much involved in the buying, attending catwalk shows and showroom appointments. In fact, decisions “always come back to my mother”, says Caroline.
It’s not always easy working for a family business. “Actually, you have to work twice as hard [as a family member],” Caroline explains. “And your parents will always see you as children.” But Charlie Collis, Browns’ website manager and Caroline’s daughter, says there is more distance between herself and the rest of the family. “I’ve always felt more like an employee because there have been more managers above me before you get to a family member,” says Charlie. “I love that Browns is a family business - it’s rare and special.”
Simon, too, agrees that a family business has its strengths, notably that of trust. “Trust can be the heart of a family business, but to make that business grow you need to give people autonomy, to make them accountable,” he says, adding that Browns’ non-family members are also key drivers for the business, notably buying director Erin Mullaney.
The Bursteins - and the rest of the Browns team - have certainly had to pull together this year to promote the indie’s 40th anniversary with a host of initiatives, including an exhibition in London until the end of May, a book and the Future Collectables project, where designers Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane and Nicholas Kirkwood - created exclusive pieces for the retailer.
The family admits that pulling off these initiatives required a lot of effort and that they relied on the goodwill
of the designers involved in Future Collectables. But with its reputation as both a pioneer of young talent (Mrs B bought John Galliano’s entire graduate collection in 1984) and a leader in designer labels, it’s no wonder Browns receives such support from its labels.
“We say to new labels, ‘stay with us for three seasons and I promise you’ll get our support,’” says Mrs B. “We put them in contact with international buyers [that don’t compete directly with Browns], as they are always asking us about our new designers.” But Caroline points out that the personality behind the talent needs to deliver too. “It’s a huge jump for a student to go into business,” she says. “If they don’t have the business acumen, [their collection] won’t go into production.”
Mrs B admits that Browns took “quite a risk” in its decision to wholesale the Beatrice Boyle for Browns Focus collection for spring 10, after the retailer discovered the young illustrator at the London College of Fashion and asked her to create an exclusive line of graphic-printed clothing for spring 09. It marks Browns’ first foray into wholesale and the result is some 150 stockists for Boyle, including Asos - a remarkable feat when you’re just starting out.
So successful was the collaboration with Boyle that Browns also launched the Browns Focus Capsule Collection for autumn 10, in which the buying team scout out new talent from the London fashion colleges and each season give one rising star the chance to design a collection exclusively for Browns Focus, which opened in 1997 to sell younger, edgier brands and is one of five interconnecting stores in Browns’ South Molton Street portfolio, including Labels For Less, a bridal store and Browns Shoes.
Browns Focus was also the birthplace of knitwear designer Mark Fast’s rise to the relative mainstream. The retailer was the first to stock his debut collection in autumn 09 and Fast has been making headlines ever since.
It is precisely because of its risk taking and determination to build exclusive partnerships that Browns has been able to maintain its iconic status for 40 years. For it to work, the retailer has to be on the ball constantly, discovering new talent quicker than that talent can grow.
“It’s about negotiating when we find new talent,” says Caroline. “We ask for exclusivity because if Browns picks up a new designer they have a higher chance of being [stocked] somewhere else.”
Simon says there is “very little loyalty” today among brands. “If [the brands] can sell to five key retailers in a city, then they will.” He adds that there is less margin for error in tough economic times and admits that a balance must be struck between the big brands - “they’re very powerful and it’s where you put your money” - and the emerging designers.
In fact, the Bursteins agree it would be “near impossible” to launch Browns today. “There was no designer label concept in the UK when Browns launched,” says Caroline. “The concept existed in Paris, but here it was about the item, with merchandise split by product categories [not by brands]. Today, with department stores, websites and own-brand stores, it would be near impossible to start from nothing with no backing.”
So how does Browns manage to maintain a relative niche in a crowded market? “We’re not a huge company, so our orders are much smaller and more selective, but do our competitors sell more than us? Not necessarily,” says Caroline. Simon doesn’t quite agree. “We’re very important buyers for these brands,” he says. “We still place big orders. If you want to own a shop, you need to sell more than one size.”
It’s up to Mrs B - ever the peacemaker - to step in and explain: “We have to think about what we’re buying.”
But it’s Charlie who puts it best. “What they’re all trying to say is that it’s our buyers that make Browns what it is - they get there before everyone else,” she says, explaining that Browns’ clever editing process has always been its DNA.
The website, too, has allowed the retailer to flourish. The family argue over whose idea it was, but all agree on its success. “We built it from nothing and it has always been profitable,” says Simon.
It’s somewhat fitting that it is Charlie - the youngest of the Burstein family working for Browns - who oversees the retailer’s online business, what many argue is the future of retailing. “I see her as a leader,” says Mrs B of Charlie. “And it’s important to have youth in the business.”
Caroline adds: “She’s the closest in nature to my father, who saw things very clearly. [Charlie] will have an even bigger legacy than me and Simon.”
But it seems Charlie can handle it. Her face lights up when she talks about her own plans for Browns, which is to take the indie worldwide. “Why not?” she asks, exhibiting the sort of youth Mrs B says is of utmost importance to the business. “There’s only a proportion of people who know us worldwide.”
How does Mrs B feel about her iconic London store going global? “As long as it’s successful, I think it’s fantastic,” she smiles. “As long as I can take a back seat, I am full of confidence in my family.”