The buying director of Browns crossed the Atlantic to join the designer indie, where only the best of the best is good enough to keep her ‘global luxury customer’ happy.
If you’re a brand and you have a piece of real estate in Browns, it means we’ve placed a bet on you and we believe in you,” says Ruth Runberg, the buying director of iconic indie Browns. “We have designers who come to us and say ‘Would you take [our product] if we gave it to you on sale or return?’, and I say no because, truthfully, if I really thought we could sell it and I believed in it, I’d just buy it.”
Just over a year into her role as buying director at the premium London indie, American-born Runberg is ruthless about championing the original philosophy that Joan ‘Mrs B’ Burstein and her late husband Sydney founded the retailer on in 1970.
“Now, more than ever, someone has to have a point of view in this industry, and that is what an independent retailer does,” she says. “If you are a brand and you are looking to sell a head-to-toe look that you presented on the runway, or you want a corner in the store designed in your global brand image, then Browns is not the right partner for you. We buy things because we believe they are good and this store, from a buyer’s perspective, is all about editing.”
Runberg believes this is what sets Browns and other independents apart from their competitors on the high street. Drapers met her in Browns’ flagship store on South Molton Street. Dressed in Proenza Schouler, she frequently refers to Mrs B and the philosophy she has instilled in Browns over the past 40 years.
“It’s like Mrs B says over and over: ‘Only the best of the best – if in doubt, leave it out’, and that is exactly what an independent store gives its customers. Independent retailing is about the adjacencies with other brands and showing things to the customer in a way they haven’t seen before.”
Before joining Browns, Runberg worked as director of buying for Capitol – a boutique similar to Browns – based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I’m shocked at how broadly distributed brands are here; that just wouldn’t happen in New York. I think that’s the reason why I see such sameness in the retail landscape here, which I hate, because I’ve got brands that are sold at eight or nine points of distribution in London. That is definitely a difference, but the customer is not any different.”
When she arrived at Browns, Runberg says she spent more than a week on the shop floor, talking to the sales team and getting to know the clientele. “I made lists of customers’ names, where they live, what size they are, what colours they like, where they vacation and whether they go to evening events,” she says. “I needed to know exactly what these top customers’ lifestyles were like.”
The results were, she says, remarkably similar to what the customers wanted when she was at Capitol. “When I talked through who the customer was [at Browns], I could actually say ‘she’s just like Linda from my last store, or this customer is a bit like Kathy’, and I knew her and knew what she wanted, and behind each of these customers are another 30 similar customer profiles.”
According to Runberg, what unites all of these customers is a desire for service and quality. She describes the Browns shopper as a global luxury customer. “It is far less about where she’s from and more about who she is,” she adds.
A buyer needs to have a good gut instinct, she says, because they are making decisions six months in advance. “If you listen to what the customer is saying, then you can predict what they are going to be saying in six months time.”
Browns has a long-standing reputation as a champion of new designers, which is just one of the reasons it was crowned number one in Drapers’ list of the Top 50 Inspiring Independents last year.
“It takes a lot to launch a new brand compared with just selling another dress from an existing designer,” Runberg explains. The Browns buying team is inundated with pitches promoting new collections.
“As a buyer you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves, because a lot of inexperienced designers need a lot of guidance,” says Runberg.
But she insists there’s a balance to be struck between advising a designer and redesigning their collection. “I’ve known a lot of buyers who want to recreate the wheel and redesign the collection, but at Browns we don’t operate that way.
If there are small modifications that might help then we might suggest it, but ultimately it’s the designer’s decision.
“Nurturing those young collections and seeing there is a potential even when the talent is pretty raw is something that – if you are going to be a buyer at Browns – you need to have. The great news, though, is that once we’ve found something, we know how to make sure it sells.”
It’s because of this sort of determination that Browns is credited with being instrumental in the early successes of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. More recently it’s been the first to buy into the new generation of designers, with its more directional Browns Focus store the first to stock knitwear star Mark Fast’s debut autumn 09 collection.
So what is Runberg betting on next? “We saw handicraft starting in spring 11, but I really think it will continue. Before the recession hit, people were wearing studs and rhinestones, and then after it hit, everything was really pared down and people were wearing Phoebe Philo and Céline,” she says.
“Now they’re looking for something more which isn’t just about throwing on a few sequins. It’s more about them being willing to pay more for an item, but they want it to make sense.”
As a consequence, Runberg is looking to back “needlework, threadwork or more crochet – things that weren’t shipped across the world having been made on a mass factory floor”. So if you see a new collection or designer which meets that criteria, chances are they will already be on Runberg’s talent radar.
2011 Buying director, Browns
2006 Director of buying, Capitol in Charlotte, North Carolina, US
2006 Associate buyer of women’s European couture, Saks Fifth Avenue, New York
2003 Various roles in the women’s ready-to-wear buying department, Barney’s New York
2001 Investment banking analyst, Morgan Stanley, New York
How is trading?
The economic downturn has affected everyone, but I think we feel it less at the luxury level. However, it has impacted the things we buy because of the way our customer dresses. There is more focus on very well-made but very luxurious, cool, quiet daywear as opposed to a sequined dress with huge platform shoes and fur. Eveningwear is a category which we’ve had to rethink.
What part of the Browns business is performing particularly well at the moment?
Browns Bridal, which I don’t look after, but is still part of the company, is on fire right now.
What categories or brands are selling well at the moment?
Handbags are doing really well for us at the moment, and that’s a part of the business that we are chasing pretty aggressively. Despite our increases in that area, we are always under-bought at the end of every season.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at London Fashion Week this month?
I’m just looking forward to London Fashion Week; it was a great Fashion Week last season. I’m always excited to see Christopher Kane, as is everybody else. JW Anderson is really coming into his own, which is great to see.
I always love David Koma, but it’s hard to nail down one person in particular. London Fashion Week has an incredible energy and courage to it.