Sam McKnight, Manolo Blahnik, Mandi Lennard and Browns’ own Holli Rogers recall their fondest memories of the fashion mecca
Browns is a fashion institution. Since throwing open the doors of its South Molton Street store some 50 years ago, the shop has helped launch the careers of some of Britain’s finest fashion talents, including John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen – all of whom it was the first to stock.
Browns was founded by the eagle-eyed Joan Burstein (also known as Mrs B.), who had a knack for spotting fashion’s next big thing and putting their designs front and centre in her shop window. And while Burstein is now in her nineties, hers is a legacy that continues to this day.
Now helmed by Holli Rogers, Browns continues to take chances on emerging designers, stocking their collections from the very outsets of their careers. As the legendary store turns 50, we speak to four people, including Rogers, about their memories of Browns – how its past has shaped their present.
Sam McKnight, hair stylist
“In the late 70s, I had the great pleasure of working at Molton Brown, which was the sister salon to Browns – both were on South Molton Street, then the coolest shopping street on the planet. I remember Bianca Jagger, Margaret Trudeau and Nona Summers would waft into the salon, after shopping for clothes in Browns. It was there I was introduced to this thing called a photoshoot, in particular for Vogue (so it’s all their fault!).
“Caroline Burstein and her husband Michael Collis ran a very cool, all-natural product salon, way ahead of its time, with a macrobiotic restaurant on the third floor. And we all used to spend all our meagre wages on a Friday up at Browns (with 50 per cent discount). I bought my first Armani leather jacket circa 1978 for £100 – a fortune! I wish I still had it. I met so many great people there, like Paul and Pauline Smith, Robert Forrest and the indomitable Mrs B., whose grandson Josef is occasionally on my team at London Fashion Week. The circle of life turns.
“I learnt so much about using my hands at Molton Brown, a skill which has stayed with me to this day, so thank you to what I still fondly remember as my Browns family.”
Manolo Blahnik, fashion designer
“It was Mrs B. who first employed me when I moved to England. I was in charge of Newman Jeans, they had jeans in the most beautiful acid-green denim. Believe it or not, I bought them.
“I would show Mrs B. my portfolio, we had great fun and she encouraged me. We have known each other for a very, very long time and have always supported each other.
“I remember seeing Alaïa, Calvin Klein and Galliano’s collections there for the first time – divine! Browns to me is great taste, talent, individuality and creativity!”
Mandi Lennard, Founder of Mandi’s Basement
“I was at Browns for six years from late 80s to early 90s, and was a buyer of young designers. In fact, I was the first person to buy Vivienne Westwood for a store other than her own. She was still based in Camden back then and Joe, her son, would show me the collections.
“You met everyone at Browns. Nikki Squire, married to the bassist of heavy metal band Yes, with hair down to below her knees, used to come every few months, park her convertible at the back of Shop 24, and I swear she always had her pet wolf with her. Diana Ross was another VIP who used that back door, which was perfect for her penchant for Romeo Gigli, and when Seal won a Brit Award and was shopping on the first floor of the men’s shop, everyone in the building found an excuse to leave what they were doing and have a butcher’s.
“Björk shopped there before she was famous, Kylie came in with Michael Hutchence, and Madonna caused a stir when her entourage came down South Molton Street the wrong way. It was after hours, and she was in Shop 27 trying on Pucci, and came out of the fitting room tossing the fringed hem up so you could see the matching knickers in the same print.
“I had one customer who tried on a Hervé Léger dress back to front, then bought six of them, and I zipped up Cindy Crawford in an Alaïa dress when she was a presenter on MTV’s House of Style. Issy Blow, then Issy Broughton, was such fun. She’d try on clothes in the middle of the shop, never in the changing room, and always had red lipstick on her teeth – she even got me an interview with Vogue’s publisher once when I was fed up.
“Browns was proper old school back then. The training has helped me in so many areas of my life. If a customer walked in you’d ask, ‘Have you been to Browns before?’ and if not, they absolutely loved being taken on a tour of the rabbit warren of departments. It really cut the tension as it was such an intimidating store to visit. Customers were treated so beautifully. You‘d never say you didn’t have something, you’d always fax the brand to check.”
Holli Rogers, CEO of Browns and Chief Brand Officer of Farfetch
“I feel the Browns stands for community, innovation, curation, family, and ultimately joy in fashion. It’s is an institution in London and what I really wanted to do when I took on the role of CEO was to re-establish it as the icon so many people knew it to be and really connect with our community. I didn’t grow up in the UK so when I came on board at Browns, it was really important for me to understand people who grew up with this iconic boutique and what that meant to them and the fabric of the city. I heard so many heartfelt stories, that Browns was the one place they couldn’t wait to window shop in, that they saved all of their money to try and buy their first pair of Armani jeans (it was the 80s), and some amazing anecdotes from fashion students who couldn’t wait to work in the store just so they could be around the luxury clothing and the inspiring Burstein family.
“For this celebration we wanted to encapsulate all of that; all of the memories, love, and excitement that surrounds this incredible institution and recognise the past but also look forward to our future connections and moments of joy that we will most definitely be a part of. That being said, one of my favourite memories has to be in the store with JP, who has worked at Browns for quite some time. Anytime I would walk into men’s at South Molton Street – just to say hi – the next thing I knew he would have a jacket on my shoulders and I would be like, ‘What just happened?! How did this happen? And, it looks incredible.’ It really is the magic of the people that work in our stores, these people make Browns who it is and on such a personal level. But as we move ahead it is also about connecting with clients in whatever way they choose either online or offline, curbside or in our soon-to-open new store. So, here’s to 50 more incredible years of Browns!”
Find out more about how Browns is celebrating its 50th anniversary here.