“Browns has always been this incredibly revolutionary force that has pushed the boundaries with product from the time we first opened our doors in 1970,” says Holli Rogers, CEO of Browns, one of London’s most iconic department stores, which is this week celebrating its 50th anniversary. The important milestone comes at a time when the store, just like its competitors, is facing monumental change as the fashion and retail industries adjust to advancements in modern life, climate change, a world impacted by a global pandemic and a digital-first future.
“We’ve never been afraid to do things differently,” Rogers tells me, explaining that the success of the store over this transformative half a century has relied on sticking very closely to the brand DNA, which is all about innovative and forward-thinking product.
“Browns is an organisation that truly thrives on being able to be innovative – this goes back to our roots with [founder] Mrs. B introducing brands including Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren to the UK market and continues today with the likes of Conner Ives and Collina Strada.”
Taking risks with the designers it introduces its customers to and with the talent it associates itself with is what sits at the heart of the brand – and is what will continue to make Browns stand out and be relevant, she argues. This legacy is being celebrated in Browns’ birthday campaign, which sees the likes of Zawe Ashton, Skye Edwards, Sienna King and Nick Grimshaw model some of the exclusive anniversary capsule collections (made in partnership with Givenchy, Jil Sander, Manolo Blahnik and more) in a setting taken from the store’s archive, entitled ‘The Height of Fashion’.
“We took a lot of cues from Browns’ archive advertisements which were originally produced in the 1970s and brought them back to life with a modern twist,” Rogers says. “We were able to bring together an incredible cast of talent that form our community – people with both style and substance, from designers to musicians, established talent and next generation – which is exactly what Browns has been renowned for since it launched.”
But of course, this year cannot be all about celebration for the department store. Although it may be revelling in its five decades of success, 2020 has certainly proven a challenging year for any fashion business with stores forced to shut for months on end due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a subsequent dire economic outlook for most countries across the globe. However, although it has not been easy to get through, Rogers explains that the experience so far has reiterated an important message for Browns, which will help to map out its future.
“2020 has come with its unexpected challenges and it’s most certainly a year that we’ll never forget. Our boutiques were closed for over three months but the response from our customers when we re-opened was incredible.
“When it comes to the future of retail, I have always been a huge advocate of physical stores, which is one of the many reasons I joined Browns. The online space is fantastic in the sense that brands have the opportunity to talk to a global audience, 24 hours, seven days a week, however when you get into a store environment you get that human and physical interaction where you can touch and see the product instantly.”
So, although the retail industry is finding itself at this inflection point between physical and digital, Rogers argues that it is not about online replacing physical stores, but about finding a seamless merge between a “fantastic physical experience” with “powerful, yet subtle technology”.
The brand has already lent into this with the launch of Browns East in 2017, an augmented retail environment in the heart of Shoreditch, which was designed to be entirely flexible in order to create the perfect landscape for its ever-evolving needs. From creating pop-ups and art installations to tech experiences, Browns has been able to enhance the physical shopping experience for its customers.
“We’re now seeing the next phase of this and placing a bigger focus on ensuring the online matches up to the physical experience while seamlessly using tech to enhance the customer experience,” Rogers explains.
This will see a refresh of the Browns website, an updated version of the in-store app, an online booking tool for Browns’ online and offline personal-shopping experiences and more from the Residences programme, a series of bespoke and sought-after services you can only find at Browns, which is incorporated into the stores and the website.
“I definitely have noticed over the past few years that online has become quite functional so we are fundamentally looking at ways to ensure we engage the customer in this space in a meaningful way,” she says, adding that another clear focus is sustainability, something which the Browns customer has taken to in a big way.
"Particularly the younger generation of customers is much more consciously minded. They are collectively looking at making more sustainably-led purchasing decisions and they are also looking at holding brands accountable."
Rogers says that her team has been able to learn so much from the past year, not to mention the last 50, and is moving forward with total optimism. A challenging set of circumstances and an uncertain path with retail could be nerve-racking for some in Rogers' position, but for this CEO, it is the reason she is so excited to be working in fashion: “There is opportunity to bring about real change.”
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