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The Drapers Interview- Feathers takes flight

Family-run luxury independent Feathers is ready for expansion as it soars into its 40th year.

Having survived the “horrific” bombing of Harrods by the IRA in 1983 and four recessions - all while successfully trading just metres from Harrods and Harvey Nichols - designer independent Feathers is still standing strong and has its sights set on expansion.

Next week it will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its 42 Hans Crescent store, in London’s Knightsbridge, but the business itself has even more candles on its cake. It was founded in 1968 at 43 Kensington High Street by Jean and Willie Burstein - brother of Sidney Burstein, who founded luxury boutique Browns a year later with his wife Joan.

At its largest, in the mid-1970s Feathers had four stores across London, but it was subsequently hit by the 1973-75 recession. Stores on Bond Street, Wigmore Street and the original Kensington shop were closed between 1976 and 1977. This left the Knightsbridge store, which at this time was two years old.

The retailer expanded again in 2007 - by this time under the leadership of Willie’s son Peter, who joined the business in 1974 and is the current owner, and his wife Suzanne - with a store in west London’s Westbourne Grove, but as rents and business rates escalated the store closed in 2012.

With Peter and Suzanne’s son Robert joining last year and four decades of retailing now under the family’s belt, the Knightsbridge store is booming. Last year, it turned over £2.8m, and this is projected to rise to £3.1m this year. Sales increased by 10% year on year in 2013, although Feathers could not provide specific sales figures.

Much of this success is down to the Bursteins’ loyalty towards, and passion for, the brands they stock, and their constant desire to find something different. All three venture to trade shows and fashion weeks in Paris, New York and Milan to source brands.

Peter explains Feathers was the first store in London to work with Gianni Versace in 1974 when he was designing for Genny and Complice before he developed his own label, and it has been stocking Moschino for more than 30 years and Rick Owens for around 12 years. It was also the first stockist of Japanese designer Abe Chitose’s label Sacai.

“We met her in the elevator in a New York hotel 10 or 11 years ago,” Peter says. “She had a bag
and didn’t speak any English, but we went down into the lobby and she showed us the garments. They were all one size and white. We bought [almost the entire collection] and have been buying it ever since. If you don’t go looking for things, you don’t find them.” He adds: “That’s the passion in the business.

“Feathers - which stocks up to 90 collections including Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander - focuses on creating its own identity rather than being led by the labels it stocks. This involves mixing collections across the store and on mannequins to create unique looks. Suzanne says this has been even more important as the fashion industry has “become very corporate” with “conglomerate fashion companies”, meaning independents have to work harder to secure their place.

Robert says: “There are so many places to go shopping now and the style of our store gives us our point of difference. The way staff put together a mannequin - tutored by my mum - you won’t find that look merchandised anywhere else in the world. We have people that come in and say: ‘That looks beautiful. I want to buy that entire mannequin.’”

The family’s ability to curate this unique offering has earned them an incredibly loyal customer base - some have shopped there the entire 40 years and are now bringing multiple generations of their family there.

Rita Britton, who launched luxury independent Pollyanna in Barnsley two years prior to Feathers but closed her store earlier this month, attributes Feathers’ success to the fact “they have built up strong relationships with brands and they know who their clientele are - they buy with them in mind”.

Despite literally trading in the shadow of Harrods, Feathers has carved its own niche, Suzanne says: “For me, [it] is like a tiny little department store, only more condensed and focused.” She insists there has “never been an issue” with her neighbour stocking the same lines as “no one buys the same”.

With Harrods acting as a retail magnet by drawing in a truly international footfall and Knightsbridge becoming increasingly popular with London’s Middle Eastern residents, Feathers has adapted to ensure its collections offer something for everyone, with staff speaking nine languages. However, Suzanne says she has continued “buying within my ethos and the DNA of the business. We mustn’t stray from that. It’s proven successful.”

On December 17, 1983, however, this close proximity meant the pair shared a joint horror - a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA that killed six people and injured 90.

“It was a horrific time,” Peter recalls. “I remember seeing a police van drive up and officers get out and they walked right past me. I opened the door [to Feathers] and walked round behind the cash desk and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. The back of the shop had been blown out and the front was completely gone.

“I didn’t really know what had happened. You just feel a weight when you’re hit, and the next minute you’re on the floor. A lady in the shop was screaming that her husband was outside. I told her to wait where she was and I went outside and I swear to this day I don’t know what I saw - I’ve totally blanked it out.”

Following the blast, the store was shut for two months for repairs.

Now, with Robert having joined the business and thereby securing its family-firm status, the Bursteins are keen to get back on the expansion trial and have plans to open more stores “over the next three to four years” in London’s “affluent suburbs”. They would not be drawn on specific locations or numbers.

Online expansion is also key. Robert estimates around 17% of Feathers’ sales are made online - through its own transactional website and
FarFetch.com - and it plans to add a click-and-collect service later this year.

Plans are also afoot to launch a number of collaborations and in-store events. In January, perfumer Angela Flanders created three exclusive fragrances for the shop, and the family is working with London designer Markus Lupfer on a range of T-shirts to commemorate its 40thanniversary, which will go on sale in October. A fashion photography exhibition during London Fashion Week, an illustrator drawing ‘A day in the life of Feathers’ and music events are also planned.

It may now be entering its 40s, but Feathers is preened for expansion.

Readers' comments (1)

  • James Jones

    Great to hear of a family run independent adapting with time and focusing on what they are instead if what they aren't.

    Well done to the Bursteins & their team.

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