Almost every story about “Mrs B” — Joan Burstein of London’s store Browns — is apocryphal. My favourite is the night she went to Studio 54 in the Eighties so that she could sidle through the wild dancers and approach a rising fashion designer called Calvin Klein. In a blink of an eye and a flash of her sweet smile, she was promised a deal.
So when the latest great adventure was announced this week that Browns has been acquired by the online retailer Farfetch, I went over to South Molton Street, to number 27, the townhouse Mrs B and her husband Sidney took over 45 years ago. It has now grown into a row of five small interconnecting stores in a car-free shopping street. I told Mrs B that I am probably the only fashion editor left who remembers the little boutique owned by an aristo called Sir William Piggott Brown. (He took off, but left his name).
The first thing Mrs B, 88, told me as we sat in the jewellery area, was that she was off to Cuba next week, to see the country before it lost its retro flavour.
“The buildings! And the music! And the people! I am not interested in the food. I want to meet the people,” she said.
The person she most wants to meet now is José Neves, the CEO and founder of Farfetch (he founded the company in 2008), who phoned her personally as soon as the deal was done. The Burstein family includes Mrs B’s son, Simon, up until now the CEO of Browns, and her daughter, Caroline, who is currently creative director. She will continue to run the independent bridal store and Vera Wang at Browns, but who was, she says, “instrumentally involved” in encouraging the Farfetch deal.
Browns will join a coterie of edgy, independent stores carrying a variety of brands, but will be run as a stand-alone business
“They are buying our DNA — that is what makes it so exciting,” said Caroline, who, like her brother, will be on the board. “I have known José for a few years. I believe we need a bigger platform and this way we have money and a real goodwill.”
Online sales — a crucial part of Browns’ current portfolio — is a far cry from its beginning in 1970 when there was only one dedicated designer shop — Yves Saint Laurent — in the whole of London and scant knowledge of the brands behind the burgeoning international ready-to-wear fashion. Mostly it was not a case of wooing and persuading these designers.
“They were more than happy to be able to sell, they loved what we were doing, we had a few precious people, and brought in depth,” said Mrs B. “They embraced us – I have never had a rejection. Never. But it was all starting then, we were the only people out there really. And those new brands loved the store — it did have a great charm about it.”
Robert Forrest, the creative fashion consultant, worked at Browns in the early days. When he and Mrs B saw Ralph Lauren’s “iconic” Santa Fe collection at New York’s Pierre hotel, Mrs B offered to open a shop for him, but “he was reticent as they had never ‘exported’ before!”
“Then there was Paris, when we first discovered Alaïa, but he was only able to sell the gloves with his famous grommets — so she ordered for herself a couture piece!” said Forrest. “I must say, in general, all designers were ‘charmed’ by her when she wanted to buy for Browns.”
One of the Continental start-ups was Giorgio Armani who, with his partner Sergio Galeotti, was starting to build a menswear business.
“Simon and I discovered him — Simon was doing the men’s, Giorgio Armani did women’s for the very first time and I went with Simon to Milan,” Mrs B said. “It was so wonderful, so simple, such wonderful colours and linens, all un-constructed, all must-haves for that moment. In fact it was just here – in this area – that he had his shop.”
The story did not end so happily, as Armani left after five years to start his own-label retail – a trend that grew into the mono-store areas of today, from London’s Bond Street to Avenue Montaigne in Paris to Madison Avenue in New York.
But for Mrs B, there were always new talents to scout.
John Galliano, in a recent talk with Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue Festival, recalled the moment that changed his life and founded his career in 1984 when his graduation collection from Central Saint Martins, inspired by ‘Les Incroyables’ of the French Revolution, landed up in Browns.
‘‘Thanks to Mrs Burstein from Browns, the day after I graduated, I wheeled my collection up to South Molton Street — she invited me there, and we created a window together, and then my first client was Diana Ross.’’
How did Mrs B develop that fashion eye?
“Suzy, I can’t explain that,” she said. “I can only tell you what I like, and I don’t like, and it really is as black and white as that, there is no in between. If I have to hesitate about something, I know it isn’t right, and as I say, ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’ I think you can use that all through your life, actually.”
And did anyone turn her down or recall an operation?
“Let me think,” said Mrs B. “Yes, it is only one, which we bought at the beginning — Sacai,” said Mrs B, referring to the Japanese brand. “That is the only one. I don’t think anyone else has, truthfully.”
The loss of her husband in 2010 was more than just personal. Sidney was also a businessman who was instrumental in building up Browns. Mrs B thinks that he would have considered the Farfetch deal a fine opportunity. And she has not been short of family support. The marriage of her son, Simon, to Nathalie Rykiel (although they are now divorced) brought together the Sonia Rykiel/Browns dynasties that have produced fashion royalty in the next generation: for example Lola Burstein works in New York for Rykiel.
So is it finally time for Mrs B — elegant in a By Walid coat, a Dries Van Noten dress and jewellery by Kimberly McDonald and her granddaughter, Natasha Collis, and to retire?
“I am still going to come in as much as possible, because my staff are like family,” she said. “I have been asked if I will come in, and I said ‘Of course.’” I am very old-fashioned. I have the sales tickets sent home to me, so I can check them.”