Joan Burstein of Browns

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Joan Burstein
Joan BursteinPhotography by Ben McMahon

Insiders meets the indefatigable Mrs B., fashion's fairy godmother

At Christmas, viewers of the fashion website SHOWstudio were given an unexpected treat in the form of a video message by Joan Burstein, the venerable owner of the legendary shopping institution, Browns in an affectionate homage of the Queen’s annual festive address. “I was very nervous actually, I really had to be talked into it to be honest,” confesses the lady better known as Mrs B. “I’m a great monarchist and a great fan of the Queen. But we had such a lovely response to it.”

Perhaps that’s down to how Burstein is viewed by the industry, as fashion’s own Queen of retail. Trained as a pharmacist, Burstein entered the retail trade with her late husband, Sidney with a clothing line called Neatawear in the 1950s. When Neatawear went bust, it was a decisive moment for her: “At that point we lost everything. So I was 40 at that time, and no way was I going down. I was determined. I wasn’t going to settle for anything other than doing something that I knew I could do. And it was literally a question of starting again.” So in 1970, the Bursteins took over 27 South Molton Street, a townhouse once owned by the aristocrat, Sir William Piggott-Brown, which would eventually expand to a mini-empire comprising six stores, including bridal wear, menswear, and the edgier Browns Focus. Wearing a Dries Van Noten dress, lightly tanned after a holiday in Australia; Burstein certainly looks regal but behind her light blue eyes, there’s a mischievous, twinkling spirit. After all, this is the woman who waltzed up to Calvin Klein at Studio 54 (“never the basement, only the VIP area!”) to convince him to sell at her store. “It’s a different ball game now,” she says almost wistfully, “When you think of LVMH and Kering, they snap up everybody. But you know, the people that I would find would be great, and I’d nurse then and show them.”

"London feels strong right now – there’s such a spontaneity here and I think our cultural mix helps too” — Joan Burstein

She’s being modest of course – Burstein’s antennae for finding and nurturing young design talent is almost unrivalled. She was the first retailer in Europe to stock the emerging American designers (besides Klein, she had Norma Kamali, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren), embraced the defiantly uncommercial work of Rei Kawakubo at Commes des Garçons and would pick and mix from the best European designers (Alaïa, Missoni and Sonia Rykiel being labels she has stocked for over 30 years). But even after all these years, nothing comes close to the thrill she felt watching John Galliano’s 1984 graduation collection which she would buy in its entirety and famously display in the windows at Browns. “The moment I saw it, I just knew. It was really exciting. Here was someone who was doing something that no one else had been doing.” Since then she has gone on to act as a ‘fashion fairy godmother’ to the cream of the British crop from Hussein Chalayan, Gareth Pugh, Erdem and in her Christmas message, gave special mention to Christopher Kane, JW Anderson and Simone Rocha. “Well London feels strong right now – there’s such a spontaneity here and I think our cultural mix helps too.”

Perhaps the enduring success of Browns in the face of brasher multi-brand boutiques and e-tailers comes down to the loyalty she inspires in her employees (her buyer Francoise Tessier only recently retired after 36 years) and the remarkable feat of keeping it a family business with her daughter, Caroline as creative director, son Simon as CEO and granddaughter Charlotte, who heads up the online store. “I rather like the idea of a family business. It’s grounded. And I think that it makes the staff very comfortable. They know we’re always there to talk to. There are no barriers.” You’d think after recently celebrating her 86th birthday, the CBE she was awarded and the milestone of Browns’ 40th anniversary in 2010 (complete with beautiful book of photographs by Paolo Roversi), she’d be ready to hang up her stylish Manolos, but she is off to investigate Lagos Fashion Week for the 2nd time. With a wink, she sums up her indefatigable spirit, “Well I love fashion and how it can make you look and feel. And I’m always aware and looking. It’s a curiosity really. I’m curious about a lot of things. I’d like a little more time to be able to continue.”

Text by Kin Woo