Twenty five years I was taken out to tea in Paris by the most refined woman I had ever met. It was love at first macaroon.
I was the new editor of British ELLE, she was Joan Burstein, the legendary founder of Browns boutique and she thought we should get to know each other. Angelina’s on the rue de Rivoli was the venue. Where else?
What I didn’t tell her, was that I was almost too awestruck to go. Along with Barbara Hulanicki of Biba, Mrs B – as I already knew to call her, everyone did – had shaped my life and helped to turn me into someone fascinated by every aspect of fashion.
As a child in the early 1970s my mother had told me all about Feathers in Kensington High Street, the boutique before Browns, which wasn’t so much a shop as a club for London’s most glamorous young things. I didn’t get to go there, but I loved hearing about it.
Later I became obsessed with Browns, which always seemed to be the stockist for the clothes I most adored in my mother’s copies of Vogue and Harpers & Queen.
I swooned over the things they stocked, committing to memory the designer’s names – Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Missoni – and when I was old enough to go to London on my own, I finally got my chance to go in for a look. Until then I’d only dared gaze at the windows.
My entrée came in 1978 when a friend of my mother’s saw a multi-coloured stripe silk blouse in Vogue she wanted to buy, Browns was the stockist. She heard I was going down ‘to town’ gave me a wodge of cash to get it for her.
In I went, clutching the magazine, only to be told it was out of stock, but through the door as a genuine customer, I went through every room of the rambling interjoining shop spaces like a forensic scientist.
It was like a visit to a museum where I could touch everything, although I didn’t have the bottle to try anything on. I remember it was the Perry Ellis womenswear I particularly wanted to see, a New York designer Mrs Burstein had brought to London and I thought was heaven. I loved his oversized coats and chunky knits.
With Rosita Missoni
A few months later on one of South Molton Street pilgrimages, I saw a sign saying ‘staff wanted’ in the window and walked in to apply for the job. I thought I looked marvellous in my tobacco brown cargo pants and ultra dark brown leather jacket (both by the then ultra hot London label PX) but I didn’t get the gig.
Never mind, my admiration for the store and its brilliant master buyer, who I had read about in magazines, was undiminished, so what a thrill it was, just over ten years later, to meet her and find out that she was one of the most gracious and delightful people you could ever hope to spend time with.
Mrs B with her daughter Caroline Burstein, creative director of Browns
In all the years since then, I’ve had the pleasure to get to know her – and her daughter Caroline – as more than just fellow travellers in the fashion shipping lanes. I’m proud to call them friends. And in that time I have never heard Mrs B utter an irritable word, whinge, or badmouth anyone.
In one of the world’s most self-obsessed and bitchy milieus, that’s really saying something.
Not to say Mrs B is uptight or goodie goodie, she has a great sense of humour and while she may never utter a catty remark herself, she most certainly appreciates wicked wit in others…
Over that time we’ve shared many lovely dinners, she’s squeezed me into fashion shows when an Australian newspaper was not deemed worthy of an invitation, allowed me to come with her when she was buying from Akira Isogawa one season (a masterclass) – and taught me how a lady handles her gloves…
She doesn’t stuff them in her pockets, as I always did, so they come out like a pair of mangled dead rodents, but lays them neatly on the palm of one hand, while also holding a glass with it, leaving the hand other free to greet people and pick up the odd passing canape… This wasn’t a formal lesson, but my goggle-eyed observation one evening in Paris. I’ve attempted to live up to it since.
So with all that lovely shared history, it was such a pleasure last night to go to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to listen to Mrs B, now a CBE, being interviewed by Colin McDowell – looking wonderful in a Dries Van Noten dress with pink feathers embroidered on the front (Mrs B, not Colin, he was in a bespoke suit).
Mrs B with Colin McDowell at the V&A on March 30th, 2015
I already knew about all the amazing fashion names Mrs B brought first to London – Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Azzedine Alaia, Missoni and Rei Kawakubo to mention just a few – and those whose names she made. Most memorably John Galliano, when she bought his entire St Martins degree show and filled the shop’s windows with it.
Every piece sold – ‘I don’t have a single one,’ she said sadly.
But that’s all well documented. What I found really fascinating was hearing how she had started the business with her late husband, Sidney, just after the war.
He’d started out selling hosiery and underwear on a market stall and from there they. working with Sidney’s brother Willy and his wife, built the business up into a chain of thirty five shops called Neataware. They were the first to specialise in the new idea of ‘separates’ – and with their success, she told us, came a lovely lifestyle, with a beautiful house and both her children attending the Lycee school, only to have it all snatched away when the banks suddenly decided to call in their loans.
The shops were all closed, staff laid off, the children taken out of their wonderful school, the house and everything in it, lost.
‘It made me more determined,’ she said, ‘when I felt poor, the humiliation. I could live in one room, if it was lovely, but never anywhere sordid. Someone said to me, “In your position, there isn’t too much choice…” and I decided I never wanted to hear those words again.”
After that they clawed their way back – with some help from her friend Vidal Sassoon (who did her hair – who else in the 1960s?) who let them have the shop space at the front of his Sloane Square salon, which they made a great success of before opening Feathers.
‘I feel very lucky. I’ve always been supported by friends. There’s luck out there, you just have to recognise it.’
When they got the space for Feathers, right next door to the ultra fashionable Antiquarius market, Mrs B had the vision for it ‘not to look like a shop’, with an interior like no other in London – bamboo fittings and clothes in armoirs. Her idea worked and it immediately took off. Like really immediately:
‘We took £5000 on the first day…’
A huge sum in those days. Manolo Blahnik worked there. Darcy Bussell’s mum was the PR… It must have been a blast.
Finding the iconic premises on South Molton Street was another bit of luck, after her son Simon applied for a Saturday job at the shop that was there before. After opening in 1970, it very quickly became a London fashion institution, with people coming from all over the world to shop there.
Although there are some now, she says, who live very close to the shop, but choose to buy from the on line store so they can try it on at home.
‘I never thought people would buy very expensive things online, because you can’t touch it,’ she said. ‘I like to touch the cloth – is it soft? would it be lovely to wear? I was wrong about that, people do buy the most expensive things online but I couldn’t do that. Fashion is very personal to me.
‘I look at my clothes sometimes and think, aren’t you beautiful?’
Something you could also say about their owner. A paragon of deportment and elegance, a true fashion legend and a wonderful friend.