Next week, Browns is set to unveil a new identity – here’s a refresher on the iconic South Moulton Street fashion institution
For the most part, the fashion industry’s most famous designer success stories came to fruition with support and investment from a handful of influential gatekeepers – most notably press, buyers and high-profile clients. It was back in 1970 that Joan Burstein, affectionately known as Mrs. B, accidentally entered this select fashion elite when she co-founded Browns boutique alongside late husband Sidney Burstein. Renowned for providing a British home for international avant-garde labels and supporting emerging talents, her taste was impeccable and her personal relationships and friendships with designers themselves well-documented. After recently being acquired by etail giant Farfetch, the 90-year-old Mrs B may no longer be on the shop floor, but 46 years after its inception, Browns remains a cornerstone of British fashion. As the legendary boutique gears up to launch its new identity on Monday, take a look back at the milestones that established its cultural significance.
CHANGING LONDON FASHION IN THE 60S AND 70S
It was in the 1960s that the Bursteins first joined forces to establish Neatawear, a high-street fashion chain which opened 35 stores nationally and resulted in huge success. This victory, however, came accompanied by enormous debts which the bank soon demanded they repay. Their business soon fell apart and the couple lost everything.
Determination, however, kept them afloat – Burstein explained in a Vogue interview that Browns was born out of “pure survival… It taught me not to borrow more than you can afford and it taught me who our friends were.” They rebuilt themselves, opening upmarket Kensington boutique Feathers in 1969 and breaking records with their first-day sales of £5000. Just a year later, Browns opened its 27 South Molton Street location and the seeds of an iconic legacy were planted. The only multi-brand boutique of its kind, the store went from strength to strength, soon acquiring shops 27, 26, 25, and 23 on the same street.
STOCKING COMME DES GARCONS AND CALVIN KLEIN
Browns quickly gained an international reputation for stocking designers not usually found in London – their inventory included famed provocateurs such as Comme des Garçons as well as designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, both of whom were new to the British fashion industry. Their reworking of American classics and functional aesthetics instantly struck a chord with the fashion industry and, as their respective profiles rose, so did the cultural importance of Browns boutique, then the only British boutique to stock the designers.
It’s undeniable that Burstein’s eye for talent and determination to track down seminal designers was a key factor in the shop’s success – as the story goes, she was so enamoured with Klein’s work that she flew to America, tracked him down within the fabled confines of New York’s Studio 54 and charmingly negotiated a deal on the spot.
“Whenever Burstein truly fell in love with a designer, she went out of her way to support their career.”
DISCOVERING GALLIANO, CHALAYAN AND MCQUEEN
Whenever Burstein truly fell in love with a designer, she went out of her way to support their career. It was in 1984 that she stumbled upon the graduate collection of a Gibraltar-born designer named John Galliano – the collection, entitled Les Incroyables, was inspired by the French Revolution and provoked such a reaction in Burstein that she purchased the entire collection for resale 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,” he shared at this year’s Vogue festival. This reaction was repeated ten years later, when she bought and subsequently displayed work by a then-unknown designer named Hussein Chalayan, after that, Alexander McQueen, and more recently Christopher Kane. The boutique also brought the likes of Azzedine Alaia and Giorgio Armani to British customers – in short, Burstein’s taste seem to exactly mirror those of the fashion industry at large. Her intrinsic understanding of her buyers makes her a unique and instrumental factor in launching a handful of the industry’s most celebrated careers.
GOING DIGITAL AND LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The rise of the internet has been a testing time for fashion stores. Browns, however, has adapted and weathered the storm and continued to preserve its legacy, last year cementing an acquisition by online retailer Farfetch. But while Brownsfashion.com is booming, the physical store is still intact too, and it’s still in the same townhouse tucked away near Oxford Street. Its survival in a retail climate dominated by e-commerce is not only a symbol of its cultural relevance; it’s a vital business steeped in history which has helped to support and sustain some of the most iconic legacies in modern fashion. New CEO Holli Rogers has led a new mission to help the store become as essential today as it was in the 70s, and as of next week, Browns will undergo a head to toe brand redesign – with everything from its website, logo and storefront set to change. Watch this space.