Thursday, 18 February 2010

London Fashion Week – Celebrating Joan Burstein

London Fashion Week starts today, a good time to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Browns, a long-term destination for fashion followers who can't wait to get to South Molton Street at the beginning of each season to see who and what it is stocking. For years, this small elegant shop has been accepted as that reliable a barometer to what is currently good in fashion. And it all emanates from Joan Burstein, who co-founded the store with her husband Sydney all those years ago and has never looked back. More importantly, she has never made a mistake. That is why, when I worked with foreign buyers in Italy back in the late seventies the first thing they asked - no matter where in the world they were from, was, 'Has Mrs Burstein been in? Is she buying?' and their response to the collection on display was an exact replica of my answers. That is power. Forget all the cliches about Joan Burstein being fashion royalty – what an insult to compare a woman who has worked hard and consistently at perfecting her trade to someone whose position is an accident of birth, bestowed for who, not what you are. And just remember that there has never been such a powerful figure in British fashion as Joan Burstein.

So, another tough bitch fashion maven? Hardly. Just an impeccable nose for talent, be it to employ (Manolo Blahnik sold jeans for her; Richard James had a Saturday job at Browns and Paul Smith sold menswear there) or to promote. Mrs B, as she is affectionately known, brought Georgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Sonia Rykiel to London. She spotted Hussein Chalayan's quality before anybody else and became a fashion legend when she not only bought John Galliano's graduate collection but also had the courage to give it the full window treatment even though he was entirely unknown. Kenzo, Jean Muir, Missoni, Dries van Noten - the list is long and continues to grow today.

But the most marvellous thing about this all-powerful lady is that she is so un-fashion. Softly spoken, glamorous, and beyond gracious, you would expect to find her dispensing tea surrounded by King Charles spaniels in a perfectly proportioned Georgian gem in one of the elegant shires, surrounded by beautiful impeccably mannered grandchildren. Instead, at 83, she is up with the lark like an eager little bird, foraging (discretely) for the latest thing, carrying on her trade quietly and with the greatest aplomb, as she always has. The Missus, as her devoted staff used to call he, is never flustered, doesn't shout, has the punctuality of kings and would never ever say something to damage a career, even if she disliked the aesthetic of a designer. In short, one of a dying breed: a lady.

That is why Joan Burstein is as loved as she is respected. If ever a woman deserved to be made a Dame it is Joan Burstein, not for being a hugely successful shopkeeper, not even for wearing her fashion knowledge so lightly but for being a positive force for good that has enabled London to hold high its head as a fashion retail centre for over forty years.


  1. At last: a genuine and worthy role model in an otherwise celebrity-crazed industry. Thank you for so articulately reminding us of Joan's huge success as a business woman, her contribution to the world of fashion and to our economy. A lovely lady too.

  2. The second article I've read on this venerable lady in the last week. She must be having a publicity moment.

  3. So, how is the fabulous Joan Burstein superior to Colin McDowell, whose Fashion chutzpah and generosity is surely just as legendary. He too is always polite, always the gentleman, and rare damning comments need reading with care to receive their full import.

  4. Such a lovely article, the Mrs is indeed wonderful! She has always been so nice whenever I've met her, and her shop is just fabulous...


  5. Joan is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. Smart, beautiful, unassuming, funny... Someone I am blessed to know. Really.

    Lynda Lippin