A Norwich business with an outstanding reputation in the business world is the menswear fashion shop Philip Browne. A highly creative business stocking leading high-end menswear labels, it owes its success to the outside-the-box-thinking of owner Philip Browne. Kevin Freeman, Senior Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Fashion course, recognises Philip’s shop as a significant thread in the city’s urban fabric: “Unlike most high street shops in the UK, this independent store totally reflects the quirkiness and urban style of its owner. Stocking a wide and eclectic mix of designers and labels – Yohji nestles comfortably with Westwood, Burberry and Belstaff – the shop is also dressed with a fine range of artworks and objects. Framed Westwoods are given wall space alongside Banksy and Damien Hirst whilst the basement hosts an eccentric array of Tonka toys and Beatboxes.”
“This is a business that wears its individuality as badge of honour, making itself popular with a wide range of customers without losing integrity. Philip adapts to market conditions without missing a beat –he’s offering cutting edge fashion right here in the heart of Norwich.”
When Philip Browne opened his clothing shop in Norwich he had no idea what he was doing. That’s what he’d tell you and it’s quite possibly true. During the 1970s and early 80s Philip’s work as a petroleum engineer took him around the world on ‘an 11 year road trip’ through dozens of oil rich and sometimes dangerous countries in the Middle East and Africa, until one day he found himself in Islamabad dreaming of a permanent home and all the domestic trappings of a settled life. He also predicted that failing oil prices and an ongoing financial recession would put him out of a job.
Returning to the UK, Philip was introduced by a friend to the world of fashion. Soon he was hatching plans to become a part of it. Based on this history you can believe it when Philip says he was naïve when he got into business. But Philip is also an outspoken champion of creative enterprise, particularly amongst young people who he wants to inspire about the world of business. So long as you are passionate about what you do, keep realistic expectations and enjoy the journey, anyone can be successful at starting up on their own. Of his own start-up experience, Philip can agree that he was bold:
“I didn’t realise I was bold because I was enjoying myself. The key is naïveté, in my case. Sometimes when you’re armed with too much information that can be detrimental. Once you get going you need all the research you can do, but when you start a business to approach from a naive position means you can come up with simple ideas that are fresh to the market.”
In 1986 Philip opened his shop just off the Norwich Market in the centre of the city, at that time an undesirable area for retail. Philip explains:
“The shop was started from a negative position. I didn’t know if I’d be working the next month. I took some oil-dollars I’d saved and took a third rate site in Norwich where the rent was really low, which is really key to a young business. It leaves room for mistakes. The best ideas come out of the very, very negative starting positions. When you’re backed into a corner that’s when you have to start thinking and sometimes that’s when the best ideas come.”
The fashion industry then as now is exclusive and this put Philip in catch 22. He struggled to sign labels to his shop without evidence of successfully marketing others: 60 61 issue 02 “How do you get the first one? That led me to broaden my horizons. I was going to University end of year Degree Shows and at the same time picking up totally unknown brands. Those unknown brands were Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Catherine Hamnett…the first coup was Gaultier. I went to Paris and told him that I already had Vivienne Westwood, which I had and I hadn’t. I was in discussions, but, no, the Westwood order hadn’t been agreed.”
After securing Gaultier, Philip did sign on with Vivienne Westwood, one of only five or six in the UK. Philip remembers that: “no one wanted Westwood for 15 years. She was so radical. She was so out there. She was laughed at on tv shows. She was a radical punk who has now become an icon of fashion history. At that moment in time no one in the UK wanted to sell her.” To secure the new brands he wanted he had to be seen as a fashion-forward entrepreneur willing to flirt with danger:
“I knew it was something that if I took to another company and I was seen to be selling slightly avant-garde clothing, it would allow me to get into the business. That happened. That led me onto McQueen. That led me on to Helmut Lang. That led me onto John Galliano – in the 80s early90s I picked up all these big names before they were owned by bigger companies.”
Philip’s risk-taking approach paid off, but wasn’t enough to stop him looking for new adventures. He has enhanced the image of labels like Barbour and Belstaff Jackets, by lifting them out of their typical context – rural/county for Barbour and biker for Belstaff Jackets – and putting them in the mix with couture fashion. Radically repositioning these high-quality but distinctly off-trend garments into the fashion world opened up new markets for the companies and triggered a rethink about their market position. Having made strategic and design contributions to the plans of both companies, Philip is now working up plans for Canada Goose. His approach is the product of a mix of personal taste and business acumen:
“I love the extremes of selling Adidas at £20 a T-shirt, and a £2,500 Savile Row suit. The shop still has that eccentric, eclectic mix of a £20 t-shirt that you wear in the gym, with a £1,000 piece that’s a desirable object. Someone said to me once, whoever comes through the door should be your customer. I’ve enacted that, in a simple way, ever since. That’s part of the success – when I reflect back. But that’s how I dressed before I had the shop. I wore overalls working in the jungle or in the desert in the Middle East. And I wore a handmade Savile Row suit when I wasn’t at work. I always had this huge disparity in my life. One minute I could be in a five star hotel like the Dorchester, the next day I’d be sleeping on a straw bed without a roof in a mud hut in the middle of Sudan. I’ve enjoyed that. That’s how the shop was put together.”
A lot has changed for Philip since those early days. For one thing, his shop is now a cornerstone of the city centre’s independent retail district, known as The Lanes. Philip initiated a collective effort by local shop owners to combat the threat of a large shopping centre opening nearby. Eventually this group, now numbering over 300 independent retailers, became an established force in the city. In 2014 The Lanes beat 135 British cities to win the city category of the Great British High Street Awards.
As for the shop, the business has learned a lot of important lessons over the years. Three recessions have made Philip: “hugely knowledgeable.” He even feels he’s benefited from those experiences, because: “when you’re overconfident you get decisions wrong.” His interest and passion for both fashion and business are undiminished:
“I can’t see myself doing anything else. I’ve still got the drive to succeed. The latest journey I’ve embarked on is the website and internet retail, which has turned the industry on its head. I didn’t have the vision that the world would shop online and have everything delivered to their house – and in years to come delivered by drones. I didn’t and it was expensive to get on board late in the game. I’m four years into it and every day is a learning process. Every day.
There are four people in the team dedicated to the website, and every day we learn. The web is yet to prove itself, but we’ve had a hit with the Kanye West collection. We’re one of eight shops in the UK carrying it and we sold out in ten minutes. That’s when the web really does work.”
Philip’s passion for art and design is obvious in the shop, which is lined floor to ceiling with paintings, prints and art objects. Alongside eerily beautiful paintings by his own son are original artworks by Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Banksy, and Philip’s friend and neighbour, Colin Self. The shop is staffed by creative practitioners, too, including NUA alumni. Philip Browne has more than earned his reputation as a business man and as a creative force in Norwich. But he would tell you: “There’s still work to be done. I haven’t finished yet.”
Find out more about Philip Browne: www.philipbrownemenswear.co.uk
Philip Browne and NUA Fashion Lecturer Kevin Freeman
“I was going to University end of year Degree Shows and at the same time picking up totally unknown brands. Those unknown brands were Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Catherine Hamnett…the first coup was Gaultier.”