Everyone knows Browns, but gaining a true insight in to the family who built one of our finest British institutions is a very special occasion. ACCESS FASHION’s Sabina Emrit attended The Industry’s talk with Creative Director Caroline Burstein, daughter of founder Mrs Burstein, interviewed by Conde Nast’s Dolly Jones. If you’re a designer, new or established, advice from any of the Burstein’s is something you won’t want to ignore.
Browns was founded in 1970 by Joan Burstein and her husband Sidney. What began as one standalone boutique on the ground floor at 27 South Molton Street now spans across the connecting five famous Georgian Townhouses of 23 – 27 South Molton Street. In 1976, 6C Sloane Street was opened. In 1981, Browns launched Calvin Klein exclusively in the UK as well as opening Comme des Garçons first store. In 1982 those exclusives extended to brands including Missoni, Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan. It was in 1993 that Caroline Burstein was appointed Creative Director, the decade that saw more UK launches for designers such as Jil Sander and Dries Van Noten as well as the arrival of Browns Focus at 24 South Molton Street in 1997. Browns Brides opened on Hinde Street in 2004, and just two years later Joan Burstein was given a CBE from The Queen for her services to fashion. Fun fact: Manolo Blahnik was a Brown’s shop assistant before becoming a shoe designer!
Whilst Caroline Burstein refers to her own style as “always a little quirky,” I think the word quirky is highly misplaced. She’s effervescent and striking, a walking embodiment of signature style, individualism and attention to detail – all the things a Browns’ customer seeks. “I’m very off center with my fashion. Only since I’m older it’s been Azzedine Alaïa. I think I was too tomboyish before. But I feel wonderful in an Alaïa. I’ve always been a Dries Van Noten follower. I’d never been a girly girl in my core. I’ve always been a Comme des Garçons fan, right from when we were the first people to buy her collection – and I regret giving that first piece away.” To whom she gave it to, she can’t remember and now keeps all of her pieces.
What are the dynamics of running a family business?
Speaking of her mother, known to many in the industry as simply ‘Mrs B,’ Dolly Jones asked if her journey in to the family business had been an organic one. “That’s a big question. First and foremost, as long as my fabulous mother is pounding the earth, I’ll always be there (she points down), and never here (she points up). And I’m happy to stay in her shadows. I think that’s what pushed me to move in to different directions and open different things. And my journey within Browns has always been very exciting. I was able to create Browns Focus from its inception, and that was partly driven by needing my own space within a family business. I felt that we needed to do something that really was the beginning of street fashion.”
How do decsions get made?
“I think we entertain our staff,” she laughed. “I think we all do a bit of it. It’s part of our DNA. I can’t help doing it. My mother still does it. And Simon as well. We have a buying team. It’s a tradition. In 1970 it was a different time. There were no designers. Designers were not brands – and there was not the concept of brands and fashion as we all take it for granted today. If we found someone who had the talent, that talent would become very quickly known, and if they had a good business side they were really able to grow. We had Giorgio Armani exclusively in Browns for ten years. I think it’s a combination of hard work, having an instinct and being in the right place at the right time. There are also less rules and less red tape. So you could get to the crux of a problem and deal with it because we’re a small family business. Something that my Father drummed in to us was, ‘running your business within your cash flow, and what you can afford to do’. That keeps us working in a very grounded way. These are very basic things that can often be forgotten. Especially in the fashion business when so much of it is smoke and mirrors – where it all looks like glamour.”
How to emulate the Browns brand?
“I went through these questions with my Mum last night. We both said, ‘Don’t ask. Don’t do it!’ And I thought no no no I cant say this to anyone… I think you have to do it in a very different way. One of the hardest things is the rent. You have to be able to pay your staff, suppliers and grow. On the other hand there are different avenues that are open, technologies, websites. I think the human spirit being creative will always be there. I believe in market stalls. There are always places to start in a small way that are possible. I’ve always believed in starting small. Do whatever you do within your means. There is one ingredient we all have to have in whatever we’re doing and that’s PASSION. And that’s one of our strengths as a family. We are all absolutely passionate about Browns. The love and passion for beautifully made things, appreciation of craftsmanship, peoples’ work. The reason I love it so much, whether it’s clothing or an accessory – when you realise what’s gone in to a piece, I’m always bowled over.”
How has the customer changed?
“The customer has changed enornomously. There my mother’s generation – who don’t shop any more at all. Their daughters come and now we’re also seeing the grandchildren, but it’s a tiny core and not enough to sustain the business. So the customer loyalty doesn’t really exist. Our customers come from all over the world and are price driven. If it’s on sale or cheaper somewhere else – they’ll go there. These are challenges. But our speciality is our customer service. It’s what we do. We don’t talk about it – we just do it.”
Mrs B’s advice on buying
“The biggest piece of advice she’s always given me when you’re facing something to buy, ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’ And always being polite and considerate.”
From McQueen to Christopher Kane, they all first appeared at Browns – what’s the feeling of having struck gold?
“It’s love. It’s exciting! It’s passion and something just lights up.”
The most recent designer to pass through the threshold at Browns was also in attendance at the Conde Nast College meeting. In a tale that to a designer is what the glass slipper was to Cinderella, Simon Burstein came across Alice Archer’s embroidery technique on a shoe and connected with her. With some Browns magic and development, Alice Archer for Browns was created, showcasing her first commission, a capsule collection of eight pieces for the store. And this is the stuff Browns, the brand and the family are made of.
Of her own discoveries Carloline cites jewellery designer Marie-Hélène de Taillac as one of her finest finds. For Browns Brides it has been brining Monique Luhullier to Europe and buying Oscar de la Renta’s first bridal collection. Today, it’s Mira Zwillinger – a mother and daughter team now out of Tel Aviv and they’re probably one of our three top designers. Me directing, her talent and her daughter joining her. Things like that are very satisfying.”
The pace of the industry
“I find the pace horrendous. I’m not sure its sustauinable. Its being driven by money. And when things are driven just by making money there’s an imbalance. I see it on a par with everything that’s going on in the world as slightly off tilter. I think it devalues fashion and the art and the craft that goes in to it. If you haven’t seen the film Dior and I go see it, because it really gives us a tatse of these wonderful courtioers that put so much in to their work – that happens throughout the industry. You have your little team. Its’ all about going to work and creating something. And the thought that this piece you’ve created is then discarded after three months… we have emails going out right now (regarding sales) about summer stock, and we’ve hardly had a summer’s day. It is too fast. Manage what you can manage and don’t let it kill you. Make it work for you. I love Alaïa for that. Mr Alaïa doesn’t follow the whole thing. He stays to his timing when he’s ready. I hope more of that culture, and more people will actually start to dot that. We as a small retail shop can’t do that and I wish we could. I think it does a diservcie to all the people that design and make and create. To have things labelled this season or that season, I think it’s wrong.”
The Bursteins know their business and are moving with the times. Their respect for and in helping nurture design talent is unparalleled in the retail sector – and Browns Focus has always been a benchmark for ACCESS FASHION if we’re ever in need of inspiration beyond our desks and gadgets. I will never forget my first visit to Browns Focus as a budding young fashion journalist and stylist – it was a treasure trove in to the future, and the same brands I saw all those years ago, are still being championed by Browns today. Whilst Caroline Burstein acknowledges that they have to embrace the seasons, even if unwillingly putting items on sale, time spent with the esteemed Creative Director has inspired me to believe that a piece purchased from Browns is an investment not for only yourself, but also for fashion.
Words: Sabina Emrit
Images courtesy of Frans Hales at The Industry and Browns.
With thanks to The Industry and Dolly Jones.