happy birthday mrs b!
As the founder of London’s influential store Browns turns 90, we talk shop!
Few whose fashion careers began in the 1950s remain so profoundly relevant to the industry today, but 90-year-old Joan Burstein, aka Mrs B, is the ultimate i-Con of curiosity, progress and modernity. She's risen up from Dalston's Ridley Road Market (where her late husband Sidney sold stockings), run a successful lingerie and ready-to-wear label through the 50s and 60s, opened Kensington boutique Feathers and - the jewel in her crown - founded the South Molton Street store Browns in the 1970s (speaking of crowns, the Queen even honoured Mrs B with a CBE in 2006, for her services to fashion).
At a young age, Mrs B had an international eye, preferring "American fashion books" ("book" being her blissful substitute for the word "magazine"), which offered her glamour and escapism from wartime and post-war Britain. "I never realised it then, but I presume I wanted to get away from the austerity," she muses. This love of global fashion became one of her hallmarks at Browns, where she introduced the likes of Missoni, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Comme des Garçons to the UK market. Later on, she turned her attentions to young British talent, mentoring and providing invaluable window space for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Christopher Kane and Erdem. When Browns was bought by Farfetch last year, Mrs B was made Honorary Chairman and in typical forward-thinking fashion - rather than dwelling on the past - she sees online retail as "quite incredible." i-D meet her in her exquisite home to talk shop.
When you launched Browns, you wanted to create something that didn't exist in Britain at the time.
Very much so. Around the 40s, 50s and 60s there wasn't anything. The 60s was when it started really. Prior to that, one had their clothes made.
You've never been defined by an era and have always kept very contemporary and progressive.
Well of course! That's me, always wanting to seek something more. I've also had the opportunity to travel, to be aware. Seeing new places, new things, new people, how other people wore clothes, what accessories they wore. If I like what someone is wearing, I'll go up and ask them where they got it from. I've found out a lot of secrets that way.
You were one of the first to bring brands like Missoni, Calvin Klein and Armani into the UK. Were there any that you had a particular fondness for, or did you appreciate them all equally?
Yes I did. I like to know the people too. It wasn't just about the clothes - I wanted to know about the person. It's all part of it.
Which designers have flown the most in the store?
In their time, they've all flown. I feel sorry for the designers really, because you are the flavour of the month at one moment and you can be forgotten a couple of years after. Some of our English designers are very lucky, because they've been able to get great backing from people who see that they can continue. Look at Christopher Kane being involved with Kering. It's wonderful.
On paper it seems like you've had a seamless, easy career but there must have been some choppy waters?
There were very choppy waters when designers were lured away from us! But no, Browns has been a joy. I disliked very much paying the landlords when we had higher rents and we would have rather given the staff higher wages!
I hear that you're very black and white with your taste.
If I'm not sure about it, forget it. When in doubt, leave it out! That's what I say to my buyers.
Could you pick out some of your memorable outfits from over the years?
In the early days, my most memorable outfits were by Sonia Rykiel, which would be in wool jersey, mid-calf length skirts, wonderful sweaters and jackets. She created for women, she knew a woman. She was slightly sensual and it was just how it felt on the body. It always felt right.
Do you like being called 'the fairy godmother of fashion'?
Oh isn't it lovely! Who wouldn't like that title? It's a delightful description. I wish I could have been the fairy godmother to a few other designers who didn't make it. I'm not going to name them, but it's a shame.
What other stores in the world do you love?
I used to love Takashimaya in Manhattan. They were the first ones to have a florist as you walked in. A magnificent florist! Which is such a lovely idea. It gave you a marvellous sense of expectation. On every floor there were items that were hand-picked and beautiful.
Are there any young designers who you're particularly excited about at the moment?
They all have their accolades, like Simone Rocha, Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane and Erdem. So I'd like to find one that nobody knows about. That would be nice, but I haven't seen anybody just yet...
Text Stuart Brumfitt
Photography Ben McMahon