Browns is first and foremost a boutique – the likes of which there aren’t many left. It has sat on the northern side of Mayfair’s South Molton St since 1970, when Joan and Sidney Burstein opened the gates to a bevy of now-familial brands such as Missoni, Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel – and later introducing new generations of talent to the British market, from Jil Sander and Calvin Klein to Hussein Chalayan and John Galliano. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Browns launched Comme des Garçons in the UK with a standalone shop.
Of course, in today’s digital-dominated world, the bricks-and-mortar shop is faced with Darwinian demands from what we vulgarly refer to as consumers (when exactly did we stop saying ‘people’?) When Farfetch, the gargantuan third-party e-tailer that unifies over 400 independent boutiques online, bought the family-owned Browns in the summer of last year, it ushered in a new era. After all, Browns is all about the people, from the trustworthy personal shoppers that have been there for decades, to the visionary family that have an unwavering instinct for new talent, and an alumni of buyers that have gone on to redefine modern retail. This isn’t just another e-commerce start up, but a precious landmark of London culture.
Enter Dean Cook, the menswear buying manager who is making Browns a destination for men’s fashion with a capital 'F'. Since joining the company in the summer of last year, Cook has doubled the range and tripled the depth of brands available, from beloved runway blockbusters to obscure Japanese labels. “You can’t just be a store anymore – you have to have a point of view and it has to mean something,” the Essex-born buyer says matter-of-factly. “This building means so much to people. Most can find it with their eyes closed. When I think about when I first came to Browns, I remember the mix of designers. Now there’s no one that was around then that is here today.” Cook is passionate about making the boutique a go-to for menswear, whether it’s Gucci, Saint Laurent, HaiderAckermann or lesser-known labels such as Wtaps, Visvim, Facetasm, Neighbourhood and Sophnet.
Walking around the shop floor, one can’t help but notice the lack of basics in favour of definitively statement pieces, designed for peacockery. Leopard print mohair sits alongside metallic jacquard and tie-dyed cotton holdalls. Jackets are a particular highlight – there’s a James Long painterly number trimmed in pale pink shearling, a claret velvet brocade Saint Laurent jacket finished with gold fringing, and a Dries Van Noten bomber embroidered with badges nodding to ornate military regalia. “That’s the way our business is going,” explains Cook. “We’ve been delivered some really great runway pieces and they’ll go straight away – and I’m talking about high winter pieces in the middle of summer. Our customer loves it.” As well as ready-to-wear, he has curated a high-low mix of footwear options that now reach a staggering 200.
To the delight of his parents, Cook’s career began as a professional footballer – but he gave it up in pursuit of the fashion business. He could pass for David Beckham’s cooler, cleverer older brother – today he’s dressed in Haider Ackermann drop-crotch track pants and a tailored blazer. “As soon as I could walk, my parents gave me a football and that was my natural instinct. That was all I ever wanted to do and all I ever did, but it got to a point where I decided it wasn’t for me.” With a passion for clothes (he fondly reminisces about the first thing he bought at Browns – a pair of Armani jeans for £50) Cook began where all good fashion buyers do: the shop floor. “It’s a good learning curve and you really understand clothes – the fit; the fabrication; the brands.” It is clear that the bricks-and-mortar boutique is where his heart resides – despite a major rebranding of the website in the works. “Online is great, it’s available 24 hours, and it’s always nice to come home to a beautiful box with something inside, but there’s nothing like walking out of a shop with something new. The boys on the shop floor here really know what they’re talking about. It’s always ‘try this, let me show you that’ and it might be something that you wouldn’t have gravitated towards. I should know – they do it to me all the time!”