Browns: Talking Shop With Dean Cook, Menswear Buying Manager
Dean Cook, the menswear buying manager of Browns, remembers the very first thing he ever bought from the boutique: a pair of Armani jeans. The eagle logo on the back pocket was made from calf’s leather, apparently. This was pre-Emporio, pre-Armani Jeans. A while back, basically. When 50 quid was enough to make a parent gasp.
I remember they were about £50, and I remember showing my parents and they were like, ‘How much?!’” he says, an undisclosed amount of years later. He had read about Browns in a magazine – “Unique, it was a brilliant mag, one of the only ones I remember from back then – I’d love to find a few copies somewhere.” The jeans were purchased and that was that. “I just remember coming in here and thinking, ‘Wow, I found something here.’”
Little did the young Mr Cook know that, a couple of decades later, he would find himself in the exact same place, installed as menswear buying manager in 2015. It’s been a busy first few seasons – the menswear buy has increased fivefold and more than 26 new brands have found their way onto the shop floor. He’s making it a destination again. Safe to say, his tenure has so far been a success.
When I arrive at Browns on South Molton Street, London, the original Mayfair location, Cook is already waiting for me. He’s talking to store staff (fashionable, lots of navy), which is something that Cook likes to do often. Not in a nanny-state, “tell me exactly how much we’re selling” kind of a way. No, it’s more about fascination. What do people love? What’s making them buy? Have the regulars been in? “We talk a hell of a lot,” he tells me later. “It’s important.”
Seeing as he basically shops for a living (that’s what a buyer does, no?), it seems important to describe what Cook is wearing. Because, more than likely, you’ll be wearing it yourself soon. On top, a By Walid jacket – blue, embroidered. The designer, Walid al Damirji, works with antique fabrics, a quick Google tells me later. Underneath is a white Gucci T-shirt. His jeans are also Gucci. Both, it’s fair to say, are on the subtler end of the Alessandro Michele spectrum. Is Cook ever tempted by something a little showier – that full floral suit, perhaps? In pink? He laughs. “No, but I’ve tried it on loads of times.” But it never quite works? “I love Gucci. You know what I think?” A pause. “I think everybody loves a bit of Gucci at the moment. You want to be seen in it because it’s cool.”
Most days, though, you are likely to find Cook in just two designers. “I’m a big fan of Haider Ackermann,” he says. “And Visvim.” They make up the majority of his wardrobe. “I think, Monday to Friday, I am in those two nearly every day – I don’t think I wear anything else.” On weekends, though, he’s partial to a nice bit of Lycra. Nothing dodgy – he’s just really into cycling.
Having 20 years (or so – he’s not keen to go into specifics, but then again, who would?) in fashion under his belt, he has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of what men like to wear. But not in the way of, say, spouting off about Look 24 from an obscure Jean Paul Gaultier collection from 1982, but with an appreciation of design and the business behind it. Fashion, for him, is a trade. He guesses what I’m wearing straight away. “Craig Green, yeah?” I nod. “I knew it.”
We have gone upstairs, above the store, to a rabbit warren of rooms that was once home to the Browns head office. Now, they lie mostly empty – since Farfetch took over the 46-year-old boutique just over a year ago, they have shifted over to the e-tailer’s east London offices in Old Street. People are happy. There’s none of the usual whingeing that comes with change. The offices are bigger. There’s space. Online and store work alongside each other. “It’s a very interactive office,” says Cook.
He didn’t start in buying. Or fashion, even. He was a footballer. Which, by the way, already makes him probably the most masc man in the industry I’ve ever met. He began playing professionally for Cambridge, part of an apprenticeship programme. He remembers the time fondly. “I mean, you imagine – you’re a young kid, going out and playing football all the time. How great is that?” Not being particularly sports inclined, I imagine it gives the same amount of pleasure I would glean from lying flat on the sofa. A lot, basically.
But not long afterwards, he went part- time with the club, met girls, started going on nights out. Teenage-boy stuff. Football passed (though he’s still a fan), and somewhere around that time he shifted to the world of retail. Things moved quickly – having started his career in wholesale at Armani, sales roles at Jasper Conran and Prada followed. He was at Miuccia Prada’s Italian powerhouse when she first launched menswear. It was an exciting time.
“I loved Prada when they first introduced men’s,” he says. “It was amazing. It really was like another world – they’d gone to this minimalistic look that no one had designed before. Big brands back then were Armani, Versace. This was completely different, and it was amazing.”
The same could be said of Jil Sander, where he worked later in international sales under Raf Simons, who was then the creative director of the stripped-down brand. “When I worked there, with Raf and the team – they always said that when you turn a garment inside out, the inside needs to be as good as the outside.”
It was this fascination with clothes, matched with a keen eye for a deal, that led him to be cherry-picked by Holli Rogers, the CEO of Browns, to switch sides of the table from selling to buying. A power trip, surely? Isn’t it nice to have the upper hand? He shakes his head. “It’s not about power. I think it’s something that I always wanted to do. And before I came in here, I was even toying with the idea of maybe doing something on my own, opening my own store or something.”
By all accounts, everyone’s happy. Cook’s energy is part of the reason that, since he started, the men’s buy has increased. That and the fact he has anticipated the increased visibility of menswear, and the range of new spenders that it has ushered in. “I think the audience on men’s is so big now, so wide. I stood in here not so long ago and we had a 15-year-old boy come in and he wanted Off-White, and I stood here and we had a much older guy come in and he’s buying into Rick Owens.”
Entering his third season proper, it’s clear that Cook is keen to get his message across. He talks a lot about surprising the customer, providing an experience that they’ve never had before. It all comes back to that first time in Browns, discovering that pair of Armani jeans. “I came into Browns and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ And that’s what I would like to get to, that’s how I see Browns.”
It’s a project that has taken Cook to the four corners of the globe (almost) – not just shopping from those collections shown in Milan, Paris, London and New York, but also Japan and Korea, or from brands that his team have discovered while trawling the internet. “We travelled a lot,” he tells me. “Brought in a handful of exclusives, and we’re still bringing in exclusives. Stuff nobody else has, for people looking for stuff nobody else has.”
It’s a fitting attitude for a boutique that has long championed new talent. It was founded by Joan Burstein (or, as she’s affectionately known, Mrs B) and her husband in 1970. She had a renowned eye for spotting new talent – Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chayalan and John Galliano. Before that, they were the first stockists in the UK of Calvin Klein, in 1981 – same with Comme des Garçons, Jil Sander, Romeo Gigli, a designer who also happens to be a particular favourite of Cook himself. “Romeo Gigli, I love – it was my favourite brand back then.”
“You come to Browns because you’re always interested in what they’re up to, what they’ve bought into – Browns in our world means so much,” Cook says. “It was one of the first that pioneered all of the brands from around the world.”
So, who are the designers he’s picked up? Well, there’s Nick Fouquet, the Los Angeles-based hat designer to the stars. Prices are high, but people love it. There are Haider Ackermann and Visvim, those personal favourites of Cook. At the time of interviewing, the window has been given over to British label Curieux to celebrate London Collections Men, which was starting that week. “You came to Browns because, yes, you knew that they would be the stockist for Gucci, Dolce, Saint Laurent, the big guys, but then you also came because Browns would have something that nobody else had.”
But what about those big brands? How are they doing? I’m curious, returning to Gucci as an example, whether all that superlative-labelled stuff in mags has actually influenced the way people shop. Is everybody as Gucci-obsessed as we are? Well, Cook tells me, the Gucci buy has increased tenfold since the first season. Which seems fairly decisive. “I think the more fashion-forward people are on to it,” he says. People who want full immersion into Michele’s world, people who follow the shows. “But there’s also 50% of them who are coming in because so-and-so wore it, or they’ve seen it online. Or on social media – it’s incredible, isn’t it?”
It also fits with a growing mood that men are willing to spend more in one go for the pieces they really want. A huge chunk of cash, in fact. Whereas before, Cook and his team were nervous of big-ticket pieces, it’s those very same items that are now drawing people into the store. And selling out. As Sophie Williams, the Browns PR who sits in on our interview, says, “Those pieces that you sometimes have to be a bit daring about are the ones that often do the best.”
Cook agrees: “This spring/summer just gone, we backed some very over-the- top, expensive pieces.” He mentions Saint Laurent as an example. “But I think that was something that really… I think that happened in our industry. It was suddenly, ‘I’ve got to have it.’”
No longer, he says, citing my trainers as an example, are men dressing head-to-toe designer. Let alone in suits. The way men dress is more relaxed. “Look – we’re both in a meeting and we’re both in sneakers. In the early days, we never would have turned up like this, we would have been in a shirt and tie, sweating.” People are now mixing high and low – Adidas sneakers with a £4,000 Saint Laurent jacket.
Fashion is whizzing past at quite a pace, we both agree. It’s part of the reason consumers are so ready to fork out for those one-off pieces. Too fast? Yes, probably. “It’s quick, isn’t it? It’s incredibly quick at the moment – before you know it, the season’s over and you’re moving on to the delivery.” It’s not quite working. “We are getting in coats, I have seen it on the intake report, we are getting in coats, big thick sweaters, and I’ve not even been on my summer holiday with my family.”
But will anything change? “Something’s going to happen,” he says. “But who’s going to do it first? Because it has to be the big guys. Something’s got to happen. I’m talking from an English point of view. Imagine what they must be saying back in Italy. I mean, it’s 40C there now and they are getting in winter coats.”
Nonetheless, it’s a thrilling time to be in men’s fashion. “I think it’s going to be interesting. It’s an exciting time,” Cook says. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced men in such a wide range, spending like they’re spending at the moment on designer brands – I’m not talking high-street brands – the latest brands.”
What’s next? Well, first, buying trips – Paris, Milan, Japan, Korea. A redesigned website is in the pipeline. In fact, the whole of Browns is being rebranded. Even South Molton Street, where we’re sitting, is going to be renovated. How much will he be involved? “I’ll have my twopence.”
He’s relaxed, anyway. Nothing much seems to faze him. He’s happy as long as he’s still cycling at the weekend. That’s his real passion. Even there, though, his job is unavoidable. “It’s funny how fashion even has gotten into cycling – I think Rapha has done an amazing job with that.”
Either way, Cook’s happy. He’s looking forward to another menswear week and the buying season that follows. “I’m really enjoying it at the moment, it’s… you know, I wake up and really look forward to coming into work and doing the job. You can’t really ask for more than that, can you?”
Photograph by Kim Jakobsen To
Taken from Issue 44 of 10 Men, TRIBE PACK QUEST, on newsstands now…