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Fashion's grande dame: honouring the legendary Mrs B

After six decades of independent retailing, Joan Burstein the legendary Mrs B  is recognised throughout the industry as a retailer, fashion buyer and talent-spotter supreme, making her a fitting winner of the Drapers Independents Awards Lifetime Achievement accolade.

“There is only one Mrs B,” says Belgian-born Paris Fashion Week designer Dries Van Noten. “I have always been in awe of the exactitude and flair of her eye and taste. The UK is indebted to her vision through her nurturing the careers of so many of us designers. She has been the beacon of our craft.”

This is the reputation that precedes Mrs B, as those in the fashion industry affectionately call Joan Burstein. She is the visionary retailer who has built a long career on her ability to spot talent. From Missoni to Sonia Rykiel, Alber Elbaz and John Galliano, she has introduced generations of new and international designers to the UK through Browns, the London-based independent retailer that she and her beloved husband, Sidney Burstein, bought in 1970, built into a designer fashion destination, and sold to Farfetch for an undisclosed amount in 2015.

Today, 91-year-old Mrs B is honorary chairman of Browns, which allows her still to “express an opinion” on how it is being run. And opinions are something she has in abundance, as I soon learn.

Browns

Browns started with one shop on South Molton Street and grew into four units

It is pouring with rain as I arrive at Mrs B’s airy, plant-filled home in north London. She lives in the penthouse flat of what is an otherwise an unassuming block, but which offers spectacular views over leafy Hampstead Heath. As I take off my wet shoes at the door, I’m handed a pair of white slippers by her home help (a couple who have worked for Mrs B for more than a decade).

After a warm greeting, Mrs B ushers me through to the living room, where a dainty china teapot and sandwiches with their crusts cut off await us.

Immediately, I can see the nickname suits her – she is friendly, and has a matriarchal air that commands respect. Her voice is soft and her eyes glisten, but she is no pushover. She almost cancels our interview because of the rain, on the grounds that we can’t do the photoshoot on her terrace, as planned. Her memory is sharp, she is quick to laugh, and she is endearingly modest about her ability to spot talent.

Early adopter

Born in north London in 1926, Mrs B’s interest in fashion was piqued at a young age. After school she would visit her aunts, who were court dressmakers, at their workroom and salon in Camden.

“I would sit on the cutting table and look through their magazines,” she recalls.

But it was not until after she met her husband Sidney, at a friend’s party in 1944 that she began working in retail. At the time, Mrs B was apprenticed to a pharmacist in King’s Cross – it was her parents’ way of keeping her from the factory work that was the fate of many young women whose schools did not evacuate pupils during the war. Sidney had a stall in Ridley Road Market, east London, selling hosiery and underwear.

We paid all our debts and just had to get on. One can start again, with determination

Once the couple married in 1946, Sidney partnered with his brother, William, to acquire a shop in the Apple Market in Kingston upon Thames. Sidney did the buying – still mostly hosiery and underwear – William was the accountant and Mrs B worked on the shop floor.

“I enjoyed it, because it was meeting people and I’ve always enjoyed that,” she explains.

They opened another shop in Maidenhead, and then an underwear supplier invested in the business, allowing them to open in the West End of London, on Wardour Street. At that point they changed the retailer’s name to Neatawear, and began selling separates – jumpers, shirts, blouses, skirts and trousers – as well as underwear. Mrs B began to help with the buying.

“With Neatawear, we really made a statement,” says Mrs B. “In those days [the 1950s], separates were the fashion.”

More investment followed, and they opened large shops across England, including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, plus two in London’s Oxford Street, one in Brompton Road and one in Regent Street, borrowing heavily from the banks. The business appeared several times in what was then called The Drapers Record, as it expanded at a pace.

Going under

But, as Mrs B puts it, they “overstretched” themselves. And then, in 1958, a financial crisis hit the UK and it plunged into recession.

“The banks wanted their money back, naturally, and we didn’t have it. So we went into receivership.”

The Bursteins, who by this time had two children – Simon and Caroline – lost not only their Neatawear business but also their home, which had been used as a guarantee against their borrowing. They had to pull the children out of their expensive private school, as they could no longer afford the fees.

Almost 50 years later, Mrs B is able to chalk this up to “experience”, but it clearly had a huge impact. The family had to downsize drastically and start again.

“We’d done nothing wrong. We paid all our debts and just had to get on. One can start again, with determination. And we had a lot of luck. You need luck in life – luck and a few good friends,” she says, her voice cracking at the memory.

In the mid-1960s, the Bursteins gathered what money they had and opened a new premium/luxury womenswear boutique called Feathers, on Kensington High Street. It was a success from the start, thanks to Mrs B’s ability to buy in “what everybody wanted at that time”, from Newman jeans to cropped Shetland sweaters, kilts, knee socks and Mary Farrin knitted dresses.

Mr and mrs b

Mrs B married her husband, Sidney, in 1946

Meanwhile, the Bursteins’ 16-year-old, Simon, had decided to get a Saturday job in a shop he had fallen in love with in the West End. He had come across Browns when searching for a Renova suit, and it captured his imagination. Soon after starting, Simon was asked if his father might be interested in buying Browns from its founder, Sir William Pigott-Brown. Although Browns was popular, sales had been in decline for some time. Sidney agreed, and he and Mrs B split from Feathers.

Cult following

After the Bursteins took over, Browns quickly gained a cult following as a destination for luxury fashion. Overseeing the buying, Mrs B would travel abroad and bring back designers people had read about in magazines but did not have access to in the UK, such as Missoni and Sonia Rykiel. She was also a regular at the student graduation shows back home. She built up her reputation for talent spotting, and in 2006 was appointed CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours for her services to the British fashion industry.

Rents are still ridiculous, and that’s why you see so many empty shops, because of the greedy landlords

As Simon puts it: “My mother still has an incredible eye and can pick a winner without having to have data scientists decrypt consumer habits.”

It was at the Central Saint Martins graduate show in 1984 that Mrs B discovered John Galliano. She famously bought his entire graduate collection and put it in the windows of Browns.

“I saw John’s show and was overwhelmed by it, and said, ‘I’ve got to have it,’” she remembers. “It was so different. It was as though this boy had been given fabrics and set free. It didn’t conform at all – there were big shirts you could wear as dresses, fabulous T-shirts. I bought the lot and put it in the windows, and it all went.”

Browns is known for its tight edit of designers’ collections. Mrs B explains that being the proprietor helped: “I was buying for my own business, and I knew I was buying to sell, not to use up a budget. I used to edit tremendously. Designers would say, ‘You have to buy this amount,’ and I’d say, ‘No, if I buy that amount, a large amount will go on Sale and why would you want that?’ I’d say to them, ‘It’s your image I’m protecting, as well as my own.’ I stuck to my guns and nobody ever forced me to buy anything.”

Property empire

Browns started off as a single shop on South Molton Street in the West End. Over the years, the Bursteins took over the leases of four more units on the street and linked them together. They also took on a property on Sloane Street.

“Unfortunately, we owned only one of the properties, because we couldn’t afford to buy them,” says Mrs B. “All the time we had Browns it was difficult, because the rents would keep going up and landlords wouldn’t be responsible for anything that went wrong.

“Rents are still ridiculous, and that’s why you see so many empty shops, because of the greedy landlords.”

When [Farfetch founder] José Neves bought Browns, he sent me some beautiful flowers and said, ‘Thank you for letting me buy your jewel’

Mrs B’s daughter, Caroline, joined Browns as creative director in 1993, and Simon took over as chief executive when Sidney became ill in 2007. Before that, Simon had spent 25 years at the helm of Sonia Rykiel in Paris and was married to Rykiel’s daughter, Nathalie (they divorced in 2007). Sidney, whom Mrs B describes as “the most unconventional, original, free-speaking man I’d ever met”, died in 2010.

Mrs B was still very much involved in the business once Simon took over, despite stepping back from her core buying role. She was always surrounded by good buyers: Francoise Tessier and Robert Forrest worked by her side for decades. Mrs B took more of a back seat in 2005, when Yasmin Sewell was appointed as buying director.

Farfetched idea

However, as passionate as she and her family were  and continue to be  about independent retailing, Browns was dogged by high London rents. By the time Farfetch approached Simon, both he and his mother were ready to hand it over to someone else.

She was unaware of Farfetch before the negotiations began: “I don’t buy online. I knew of only one online [fashion] company, which was Net-a-Porter. But once I learned about them and met José [Neves, founder and CEO of Farfetch], I had every confidence in them. I thought he was an amazing and rather a nice man.

“When he bought Browns, he sent me some beautiful flowers and said, ‘Thank you for letting me buy your jewel,’ and I thought that was really lovely. He understood it meant a lot to me.”

Farfetch is now using Browns to test innovations in omnichannel retail technology, before rolling them out across its network of more than 700 designers and boutiques across 40 countries.

Neves says: “Mrs Burstein has had such a positive impact on the industry, and is both respected and loved in equal measure. Browns has always symbolised the best of the best luxury shopping and retail, and will continue to do so as it evolves and innovates.”

Mrs B became honorary chairman of Browns after the sale to Farfetch completed in May 2015. Simon was replaced as CEO by Holli Rogers, and Caroline now runs independent bridal retailers Browns Brides and Vera Wang at Browns, which were not sold to Farfetch. The siblings both still sit on the Browns board, and the family holds an undisclosed stake.

“Being honorary chairman means I can go to board meetings, but that’s all,” says Mrs B. “I don’t have a say in anything, but I can express an opinion or ask a question. I’m terrible with figures – they don’t mean anything to me unless they go down, and they haven’t. I just keep my fingers crossed that it keeps being good.”

I stuck to my guns and nobody ever forced me to buy anything

After celebrating her 90th birthday last year, Mrs B is taking life easier these days, but she keeps up with the industry and still holds strong views on certain topics, not least the scourge of high rents.

Rexfeatures 5588764ae cropped

Mrs B celebrated her 90th birthday last year with Anna Wintour and son Simon Burstein

She despairs of fast fashion and the proliferation of “throwaway clothing”. When Drapers visits, she is wearing a beautiful, hand-embroidered blouse by Alice Archer, the emerging designer whose studio is based in The Place London, the boutique Simon Burstein set up in 2015 after the sale of Browns – continuing the family tradition of independent retailing.

And Mrs B is positive about the future of the independent fashion retail sector: “There are a few great indies,” she argues. “We’ve got a little one here in Hampstead called Livingstone Studio. It’s run by two women who source well – they have lovely Japanese clothes and they promote young designers.

“And then there’s [fellow London independent] Egg. [Owner] Maureen Doherty is another one who looks for creativity, rather than copies. That’s what a good shop should do.”

Mrs B should know. With more than six decades of independent retailing under her belt and an industry-wide reputation for talent spotting, our Lifetime Achievement winner certainly knows the ingredients of a successful fashion boutique.

Mrs B’s notable discoveries

Mmrg rtw fw17 0364

John Galliano

Mrs B snapped up Galliano’s 1984 French Revolution-inspired graduate collection in its entirety. The designer started his own fashion label, before heading Givenchy and Christian Dior. Now creative director of Maison Margiela (pictured), Galliano has been named British Fashion Council Designer of the Year four times.

 

Klei rtw fw17 0278

Calvin Klein

Browns exclusively launched Calvin Klein in the UK in the mid-1980s, following a chance meeting between Mrs B and the designer at a party at infamous New York nightclub Studio 54. Today, the US brand is ubiquitous in the UK. Founder Klein stepped back to an advisory role in 2003, and today Raf Simons is chief creative officer.

Miss rtw fw17 0037

Miss rtw fw17 0037

Missoni

In the early 1970s, Mrs B met Rosita Missoni and became a fan of the Italian knitwear brand she co-founded with husband Ottavio in 1953. In 1998 Rosita was succeeded as creative director by her daughter, Angela, who continues to produce psychedelic and multi-coloured zigzag patterned knitwear to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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