Joan Burstein: The empress of South Molton St

Browns is much more than a shop – it's a microcosm of global fashion; it's a launch pad for design talent; it's a concept. Jamie Huckbody meets the great woman behind the phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Every major fashion designer has a boutique in London, and among them are Giorgio Armani, Comme des Garçons, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Krizia, Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, and Jil Sander. But this hasn't always been the case. In the beginning, all these designers started from the same address: Browns, South Molton Street, London W1. The most notorious designer fashion boutique, which takes up half of this chic little street, is responsible for launching many of fashion's most famous careers, and introducing other designers to this neck of the woods. And the visionary behind Browns is Joan Burstein, or Mrs B, as she is affectionately known.

Mrs B is one of the very few in the fashion industry (along with the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes and American Vogue's Anna Wintour) who are beyond reproach, a respected style-maker as influential as the fashion designers whose creations she stocks. No other buyer/store owner/talent spotter has had such a profound effect on the business. After all, as a champion of some of the most creative fashion designers, she is responsible for putting ideas on people's backs, for transporting the catwalk fantasy to sidewalk reality. Her habit of discovering the rare and the beautiful is unprecedented.

"It just happens," says Mrs B, nonchalantly. "People say, 'How can you tell?' It's a feeling. It's a gut instinct." And it's that gut instinct that is a moneymaking, profile-rocketing, big deal seal of approval that can make things happen. It's that gut instinct that makes Mrs B a fashion force to be reckoned with.

Joan Jotner trained as a pharmacist. (I don't know her age because Mrs B is a lady, and you should never ask a lady her age. It's rude.) Her only connections with fashion were through her mother, who was a tailor for an uncle who worked in the rag trade, and two of her aunts who were dressmakers, one of their clients being the grand and Gothic Edith Sitwell. In 1944, Joan met Sidney Burstein, and in 1946 they were married. It was in that same year that the Burstein empire started in London's East End with Sidney's underwear stall in Ridley Road Market, and by the 1950s, the Burstein empire was a string of shops on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Brompton Road, named Neatawear. But then the unthinkable happened. They went bust and lost everything.

"Everything that we have today came about from the loss of that business, which had been hugely successful. And when you get to the bottom, you have to go up." Mrs B stops as her gentle and inquisitive eyes well up, nervously fiddling with the huge amethyst that protrudes from her finger. It's obvious that it's still very painful for her to talk about it. "Browns was born out of survival. I know it sounds trite, but I've always said that I've had a lot of good luck since our business crashed. Yes, I've had very good luck. Things have happened to make Browns possible."

Determined to go on, the Bursteins' next venture was Feathers, a boutique on High Street Kensington, which in the Sixties employed a young man called Manolo Blahnik to sell Newman jeans. "We had some good luck with Feathers. And then our friend Vidal Sassoon had heard we wanted a new shop and he phoned us up and offered us the front of his in Sloane Street. He literally gave it to us on a plate. He knew us and felt for us. The kids, Caroline and Simon [who is married to Sonia Rykiel's daughter, Nathalie], worked there while Sidney and I concentrated on the new South Molton Street shop."

It was in 1970 that the Bursteins purchased 27 South Molton Street from the aristocratic Sir William Piggott-Brown. (That's where the name comes from.) The shop started selling Missoni, Sonia Rykiel, Ossie Clark, and as it gained notoriety so it began to gradually swallow up the street. They bought numbers 25, 23, 26, 24; they bought their own shop on Sloane Street; they opened Ralph Lauren in New Bond Street; and they introduced Browns Menswear and Browns Living.

"We started Browns Living originally in 1989 with Tricia Guild, selling Clarice Cliff pieces, student's pottery, and throws, but there were no customers. Can you imagine, our only customers were Americans? It was heartbreaking when we shut it because it was so lovely. But it's time is now. My daughter runs the new Browns Living shop; she has an eye for different things."

The history of Browns is one of advances and retreats into nearby territory, like some huge organism that keeps on growing, reflecting the stylistic demands of the time. Designers such as Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Missoni, Norma Kamali, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaïa, Donna Karan, Sonia Rykiel and Romeo Gigli have all taken over spaces within the South Molton Street complex. Then, in the 1990s came Byblos, Genny, and, across the street in numbers 38-39, a space for Hamnett, Ozbek, Pucci, and Moschino. The young designers shops were replaced by Browns Own Label, which was replaced by Labels For Less. In 1997, Mrs B opened Browns Focus, the shop that pioneers many of tomorrow's directional talents, and is aimed at a younger clientele. "I need young customers," says Mrs B, who is famous for her enthusiasm for new talent. "The main shop wasn't attracting the younger crowd so we decided to have something very separate. It's being redesigned now and reopens in early January."

It's her fashion vision that has catapulted fledgling students into the limelight; and to have a Browns window display is still the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a fashion-design graduate. She was the first to showcase John Galliano's revolutionary Les Incroyables collection and Hussein Chalayan's rusted and decomposed collection that had been buried in the ground. "I have to be open, it's important for Browns to be open, always looking, never narrow-minded, otherwise you'll be stuck in a rut."

Besides being attracted to the unconventional glittering promise of youth, Mrs B has also introduced some serious grown- up talent to these shores. Comme des Garçons and Jil Sander, both of whom have special Browns boutiques all to themselves, have been her biggest introductions to London. "In their own time, they have all been exciting discoveries, but Comme des Garçons was so different. Rei Kawakubo as a woman is very different from anyone I know, very laid back. She's not very communicative, she absorbs everything, it's like she's stripping you. She's very humble and, of course, extremely talented," says Mrs B, who talks slowly and quietly as if she is enjoying the words, feeling the words. "But my biggest seller is still Jil Sander."

In the Jil Sander boutique, chic ladies are flicking through racks of perfectly cut suits and winter coats; and that's the fabulous thing about Browns – it's like a real wardrobe with lots of different designers and influences and fabrics all hanging together, albeit carefully chosen and extremely expensive. "We buy only the pieces that we like. People often ask me, 'Are you shown different collections from everybody else?' No! We edit tremendously. I'm not dressing the world, just the woman who shops at Browns. It's all about quality and individuality. If they like one thing, they like it all – it's a concept."

The future of that concept is set to be as glorious as its past. The shop's website, brownsfashion.com, has been an enormous success and Mrs B talks about such revolutionary technology with a school kid's bravado, not the confused hesitation of her technophobic peers. And then there's the forthcoming spring/summer 2002 season, the round of international fashion shows from which she has just come back. "I was very disappointed with London," she says, with a disdainful, unamused tone. "I liked Roland Mouret, I'm a big fan of what he does, and Carlos Miele because I know it will sell. Oh, and I also liked Eley Kishimoto for its sweetness."

Mrs B is a lot more enthusiastic about her trips to Milan and Paris, citing Junya Watanabe, Marni ("uplifting"), Roberto Cavalli ("such fun"), Dries van Noten, and Adam Jones (John Galliano's ex-knitwear designer) as her favourites for next season. But the post-11 September political and social climate has already had its repercussions. "It has affected business. It's affected our buying for next season; we've ordered less because of the uncertainty. It has been difficult to cut back because there was so much that I liked. If peace comes soon, we can put more orders in. Who knows what will happen? Last year was the best trading year we've ever had."

Despite working in an industry increasingly worried about world events, Mrs B shows no signs of giving up. "I love my work! And when I'm not working I enjoy travelling, especially in Australia and Asia. I love the theatre, I'm determined to go every week. I love gardening. I have a house in the East Hamptons where I go for two months in the summer. It is my escape. I walk the beach, I garden – I'm not social, I'm not a Hamptonite."

This brings me to my last question: how does the lady with the world's fashion designers at her fingertips decide what to wear? "I'm impossible. The night before I go away, I'm running around driving the workroom mad. I like dressing other people but I'm very bad about dressing myself." Of course, she would say that but Mrs B looks beautiful in a toffee-coloured cashmere twinset by Malo and her neck twinkling with tiny gold discs dangling from a Marie-Hélène de Taillac necklace. "Because of my life, I do a lot of travelling so I've got to be comfortable. I love Zoran. Women who wear Zoran wear it with assurance. It's very simple, yet stunning. I go for simplicity. My wardrobe is full of Zoran, Jil Sander trousers, cashmere from Malo. I used to love Jean Muir when she was alive. Sonia Rykiel suits me."

It's now late afternoon, and Mrs B is having her picture taken, sitting on a windowsill covered in Fendi Baguette bags and laughing as I try on a women's Christian Dior jacket. In between shots, she points out her new finds, designers and labels that are set to become tomorrow's names dotted along the most exclusive London addresses. Her husband Sidney makes an appearance and the conversation suddenly switches to the less frivolous topic of morals. "The one thing that I've learnt is always have an ethical standard, it's very important," says Mrs B. "Always be upfront. Don't lie, you'll always get found out. Tell the truth and you'll be OK."

And so this is my opportunity to be upfront: Mrs B, if you ever need a Saturday boy, you know where I am. It would be an honour to work with the Queen B.

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