Norwich trendsetter is at the height of fashion
To some he is the man who revolutionised fashion in Norfolk but Philip Browne says he just got lucky. EMMA HARROWING talks to Philip as he celebrates 25 years in the retail fashion business.
In 1986 when fashion folk donned Chipie sweatshirts and pairs of Cheviginon jeans, an oil well engineer who had been travelling around the world for 12 years returned to his home town of Great Yarmouth to follow a dream.
It was a dream that led the 32-year-old man to give up a life of travelling throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia to return to Norfolk to set up a men's fashion boutique in Norwich.
That man was Philip Browne, and his boutique of the same name is currently celebrating 25 years of business with new bigger premises on Guildhall Hill.
'I was in Pakistan when I had the dream to open up a boutique in Norwich,' says Philip. 'I have always loved clothes and fashion. Plus I had fallen desperately in love with a nurse called Cathy [who is now Philip's wife of 27 years] and I wanted a Ford Cortina and three children.
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'In those first two years of business I had a ball, it was one big party. Tom Waits, who I had listened to since 1976 created the ambience in the shop and I simply put a few crates of beer out for customers to help themselves to. I soon had a new group of unknown friends eager to drink the beer and spend money on the latest fashion. I didn't take it seriously at the time as I thought that I would do this for a couple of years and then return to travelling the world again.'
The late '80s turned into the '90s and with it new designer collections were introduced into the shop. The boutique became renowned for stocking high-end and sometimes quirky and outrageous catwalk-style garments from now international designers Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gautier and Alexander McQueen. And the music changed to rave and then to Puccini and Elgar. Philip went on to have the car, the wife and the children – albeit two instead of three – and he set root in Norwich. Philip Browne the boutique was here to stay.
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'I began selling Vivienne Westwood in 1988 and I'm one of the oldest stockists of the label today,' says Philip. 'I've never made a quid on that label for the 12 years I have had it in the shop, but I love the designs. From the very beginning when I set up the boutique I wanted to raise the profile of fashion in Norwich and so I began stocking designer pieces that not many people have.'
Buying stock that you know will probably not sell may seem like economic suicide to many independent retailers, but for Philip the chance to stock some of the more outrageous designs normally only seen in London boutiques or on the fashion catwalks was the opportunity to bring the international fashion scene and up-and-coming designers to Norwich.
'You sometimes still hear negative comments about fashion in Norwich – some still see Norwich as the fashion outback. In the late '80s when I started stocking Alexander McQueen many said that Norfolk is not ready for such fashions. This is an old viewpoint. We get more customers coming up from London than ever before, on the Norwich high street there are many new fashion stores opening up and Norfolk has places like Burnham Market which have been dubbed 'Chelsea-on-Sea'. Norfolk has become a fashionable part of the country.'
Philip has always trusted his instincts when it comes to bringing new brands to the shop. This season it was one of a few shops to relaunch Burberry after the label withdrew from the UK market five years ago.
Philip says: 'Risky? Maybe. But it's a fantastic product that sits alongside Westwood, Mackintosh and Child of Jago. Good design has a habit of trickling down to the masses.'
Philip Browne has become synonymous with experimenting with new, up-and-coming designers having sold the first collections from Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang, Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano in the '80s and '90s.
Philip's spontaneity paid off when in 2003 he invested in Lyle and Scott, a label soon to be made famous by indie band Arctic Monkeys and TV series Skins.
'After I bought in the Lyle and Scott brand the Artic Monkeys brought the label to the forefront of fashion. This also happened recently when model Kate Moss was spotted wearing a Barbour jacket [also stocked at Philip Browne] and of course the fashion pack followed suit.'
Labels synonymous with music and fashion have always been stocked in the shop. Italian label Fiorucci was one of Philip's favourite labels in the late '80s and early '90s and was a brand that attracted trend-setters from Andy Warhol to a young Madonna.
To some Philip may seem like a collector of fashion rather than a businessman. A section on the Philip Browne website – The Vault – has an archive collection of vintage Westwood, art by Banksy (which used to be on display in the shop) and Swatch watches. All are for sale.
'To some I may have an unorthodox approach to business,' says Philip. 'My first customer was a 6ft 3in ex-punk with a shaven head and the Union Jack tattooed on his skull. He placed a pair of jeans and three T-shirts on the counter and told me he was taking them but paying for them in two weeks' time. I gave him a slug of whisky and said 'yes' – after all the thought of a head butt is not something I wanted. He returned and paid in full and is now a regular customer!'
In the 'good old days', Philip worked on the premise that if he bought someone a beer, they would by a pair of jeans.
'It was simply all about good old-fashioned service and I haven't forgotten it. The spontaneous atmosphere of the boutique made it electric. Some Saturdays the shop was so full the closed sign would go up and we would drink beer and whisky with our customers. I would organise live bands to play outside the shop and often would cause traffic jams outside the shop or have the police coming round to shut me down.
'However, the till sort of stayed empty, half the clothes were getting nicked and it was time to wise up. How come Mary Portas wasn't available in 1989?'
And so the days of retail rock and roll came to an end for the most part. Vivienne Westwood was joined by many other brands such as Pretty Green, Fred Perry, Barbour and the Steve McQueen collection and the shop moved with the times setting up a website with online shop last year.
'It sounds a little late doesn't it, setting up the web part of the business only last year,' says Philip. 'I sat on the fence for a while as to get the internet side of a business right takes time and investment. It is not a tool that will 'save the retail world' as people still want to come into a shop and feel and try on clothes before they buy or even get that one-to-one interaction that you do not get when shopping online. But a website is good for getting sales outside of the UK –many of our online sales come from Japan.
'My aim is always to create a less hostile environment for high-end fashion. Let people touch the expensive pieces, and it worked, I displayed and sold �1,200 Kilgour suits with Adidas trainers.'
Philip Browne has become one of four shops in the UK to stock the new RRL label from designer Ralph Lauren. The exclusive label will shortly reside in the shop alongside other high-end international brands and more affordable labels such as Adidas.
Just as the fashions changed so too did the shop's premises. First opening at 1 Guildhall Hill the shop expanded into what was a leather shop next door in 1996. In September this year the boutique moved to bigger premises at 3 Guildhall Hill but still retains its relaxed cool vibe.
Philip says: 'Looking back, I've had some amazing times. Unknowingly at times I've unleashed some amazing designers over the years and given little known brands [at the time] such as Diesel a place to blossom. I bought in designs such as McQueen when only a handful of boutiques had invested in it not knowing the future implications.
'One of best moments was buying Westwood in 1988 and buying Richard James in 1989 and having my name mentioned as a stockist in Vogue for the first time.
'Of course I have made loads of mistakes and I have lost money over the years, but thanks to a great team Philip Browne has managed to survive three recessions and several setbacks. I'm just looking forward to bringing more revolutionary fashion to Norwich.'