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Browns’ Mrs. B On English Matrons, French Schoolgirls, And Young London’s Fashion Victims


Joan Burstein—Mrs. B, as she’s popularly known around London—is an English lady of the old school. Remarking, for example, that the hot water in her house has been out for two weeks, the founder of the venerable Browns boutiques says simply that she remembers the war, and how to boil a kettle. But since founding Browns in 1970, Burstein has taken a much more tender approach with the designers she’s nurtured, among them John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Marios Schwab, and Armani, Rykiel, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein, all of whom she introduced to England. This year, Browns is celebrating its 40th anniversary by launching Browns pop-up shops around the world and introducing the Future Collectable line, which comprises archival and specially designed pieces by notable Browns-stocked designers like Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, and Alexander Wang. (We’ve got a few sneak peeks, below.) Here, Mrs. B talks to about four decades of must-have finds.

What inspired you to open Browns?
Well, there wasn’t anything else around like it, you know. 1970, it was just the beginning of fashion in Britain. There was Yves Saint Laurent, and there was Biba. That’s it. I wanted to attract another customer. And to create a wonderful ambience and a natural feeling of shopping.

Was there a particularly English fashion sensibility you saw going unrepresented?
Oh—nothing like that. The English, we’re quite good at street fashion. But the old-fashioned, upper-class English women, they’re quite conservative. That’s if they bother about what they wear at all. No, they don’t embrace fashion; they have other priorities. School fees, the country house. I don’t judge whether that’s right or wrong, but it’s something you wouldn’t see in America, women with money being careless like that about their clothes. What I wanted to create at Browns—well, how do I say this? At the time, my children were enrolled at the Lycée Français, and there was a uniform, you know; cropped Shetland sweater, kilt, knee socks. And on the top, a Marks & Spencer raincoat tied at the back. Very smart. And I thought, this style, it’s great. That’s the image for Browns. And of course, I found what I was looking for in Paris.

Are there any particular high points, for you, in the history of Browns?
The discovery of the designers. Anytime I’ve found someone and thought—oh, I must have that, we must sell it! That’s exciting. As I said, it happened in Paris first, with people like Sonia Rykiel and Emmanuelle Khanh, and then it happened again in America. We introduced Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass. And later, Calvin and Donna and Ralph. It’s all timing, isn’t it, in fashion? You can be too early or you can be too late. We got to America at just the right time.

How so?
Well, no one was buying American fashion back then. Not internationally. Calvin, for example—he had a name in the States, but when we found him, his business wasn’t even set up for export. We had to train them. Ralph, too. Of course they were quite keen, but the relationship required nurturing. If you want to know what I’m proudest of, it’s that tradition at Browns, of nurturing new talent. And not just by buying. For example, you asked before about English fashion; what we’re really good at, where we really excel, is at producing raw talent. I make a real effort, still, to get out to all the degree shows and so on, because that’s where you find that kind of raw talent, you know. And I believe that when you find it, you help it along.

What would you say is the biggest change in the way people shop for fashion over the past 40 years?
Shoppers have become more and more aware of fashion, that’s the main thing. Now, I’ll tell you one interesting thing I’ve observed in the past year. We’ve been through downturns before, of course. Serious ones. But this downturn, it was the first time I saw people stop shopping, almost totally. Put their wallets away. They were scared out of their wits. And we had a few months that were very worrisome. But you know, it was ridiculous. The media frightened everyone, but you have to remember, people with money, they still have money. Maybe not to buy a new yacht this year, maybe that wouldn’t be prudent, but a dress or a pair of boots? Of course. Of course there’s money for that. What’s really interesting, though, is what happened next. I’d come into the store and it would be empty. But we began to observe that the business on the Web site was picking up dramatically. In other words, what started as people not wanting to shop turned into people not wanting to be seen as shopping. They didn’t want to be on the street with bags. But of course, they still want nice things.

Is there a fashion trend you’ve absolutely despised or refused to buy into?
Anything we buy at Browns, there has to be a longevity to it. That’s a principle for us. It must be a must-have, and it must be able to last. We edit dramatically from designers’ collections for that reason. But anything I’ve despised in particular…? Vulgarity. I think it’s good for the young kids to be fashion victims—I like to see them piling it all on; it shows enthusiasm. But there comes a point, once you’ve been around a while, that you say to yourself: Aha, this is what works.

From the Future Collectables collection:

Ashish’s football jersey dress reads “BROWNS” on the back. Ashish made Caroline Burstein’s wedding dress and Mrs. B’s mother-of-the-bride dress.

Stella McCartney’s tuxedo jacket, originally from the Fall ’09 collection, is one of the designer’s best-selling shapes. The lining of the Future Collectables edition will read Stella McCartney ♥s Browns.

Globe-Trotter’s vanity case is lined with a Marni fabric designed exclusively for Browns by Consuelo Castiglioni.

Photos: Courtesy of Browns



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