MICHAEL BROWNSTEIN: Bridging A Legacy

In 1940, Benjamin Brownstein began a legacy that has survived four generations. Deep within the shoe department of Brown’s department store, his son, Morton, met a man who inspired change the landscape of the Canadian shoe business. Dress to Kill had the pleasure of meeting morton’s son, Michael, the current Brownstein at the head of the company, and chat with him about what it’s really like to be in his shoes.

By Belinda Anidjar

Literally. The first thing I noticed when the president of Browns, Michael Brownstein, descended the state-of-the-art stairs inside Browns’ spectacular two-year-old building was his pair of textured black rep-tile dress shoes. “They’re Cesare Paciotti,” he tells me,proudly. “I think they’re the most stylish, fashionable,best quality shoes for men in the world.”

With a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University, it may come as a surprise that Brownstein spent three years as a professional skier in Europe before diving into the family business. At the time, he would meet his father in Milan and Bologna during the shoe fairs and spend three or four days learning the tricks of the trade. In addition to passing on his business knowledge, Morton Brownstein left his son with a key philosophy. “The thing I learned most about my father was to treat people with respect,” he tells me.“Everybody loved my father. He built our business on personal relationships.”

That philosophy may have been the secret ingredient to Browns’ unremitting success. In addition to Brownstein’s children (who are the fourth generation of his family to join the business), his employees, some of whom have been there for 20-30 years, are like family to him. He tells me, “When I go to the stores and see a young kid on the floor, and a salesman that I’ve known for 25 years comes up to me and says, 'Michael, I want you to meet my son,' that’s nice. That means that the people that worked with us are happy, they respect us,and they want their children to work with us. That’s a great compliment.”

Another family value at the core of their business model is the importance of charity. Every year, 10% of Browns’ profits go to organizations throughout Can-ada. In 2015, for their 75 year silver anniversary, the company developed silver bags for $5 each, with all proceeds going to children’s hospitals across Canada.“We’ve sold over 100,000 bags. It’s over half a million dollars, and we’re going to raise probably a million dollars once we’re through with it,” explains Brownstein, with indisputable confidence.

With three or four stores opening across the country every year, Browns continues to expand and its legacy is destined to surpass everyone’s expectations, if it hasn’t already.

Browns is Canada’s destination for the best high fashion shoes, such as Giuseppe Zanotti, DSquared, and Rick Owens. How do you choose which brands to acquire?

Michael Brownstein: [The buyers] are on the Internet all the time. They’re on Facebook and Twitter, reading magazines, watching the right shows on television. A big factor is celebrities. We have these Rihanna shoes that just came out. We had lineups in our store to buy our shoes because it was Rihanna. Years ago, it was mostly dictated by European designers like Bruno Magli and Ferragamo. I would say in the last five-six years, it’s really been dominated by celebrities.

Aside from the major brands, your private labels(Browns, Browns Couture, B2, Mimosa, Intensi, Luca Del Forte, and The Wishbone Collection) have also been highly successful. Your B2 line even has its own home in shopping centres across the country. What inspired you to open the B2 stores 15 years ago?

Our Browns stores tended to be a little bit on the sophisticated side. They were a little intimidating for younger people to visit.So we said, maybe it’s a good idea to open a separate store with a much more relaxed, younger feeling, with music, younger people and a younger décor. In Carrefour Laval, there’s a big Browns store and we opened a B2 on the other side of the mall. A centre like CL is huge, so the average customer that goes to CL should come to Browns, but it’s very rare that he’s going to walk around the whole centre. As the centres expanded, we really tried to do that. To have both.

How do you ensure the success of your brick & mortar stores in light of the e-commerce boom?

We’re into this program called omni-channel. Omni-channel means the process of making it as easy as possible for the customer to buy from your company. If we have any-thing that he wants, anywhere at Browns in any city,we have to be able to give it to him as fast as possible.We’re going to probably have kiosks for customers with touch screens so the salesman can show him on the Internet. That’s the new way of selling in the store,but at least he tries it on.

Let’s talk shoes. What are the three shoes every man should own?

First, a pair of cool sneakers. Then they should have a cool pair of dress shoes, something a little dressier to wear with a suit. They should probably have some kind of bootie, either a lace-up boot or a Wellington to wear with jeans, especially in the wintertime.

As our resident shoe expert, can you predict any upcoming shoe trends?

Men’s is getting very “athleisure.”We’re selling a lot of Puma and Adidas. We also sell a lot of Luca Del Forte and Intensi that have an athletic feel, with big rubber soles, a lot of technical materials like neoprene, elastic, and rubber bands. That’s the big trend right now.

Are there major differences when it comes to selling to men versus selling to women?

Men take bigger sizes.That’s the difference! [laughs] Our men’s business has exploded in the last few years because men are becoming way more fashion conscious than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Kids nowadays are into sneakers or fashion shoes much more than they were. Even lawyers and accountants, in general, conservative people,are starting to wear rubber soles to work. It’s not so stiff anymore. It’s much more cool [shoes], with different materials or textures.

Many Canadian retailers are suffering, faced with the tsunami of competition from abroad, but Browns continues to thrive. What’s your secret?

Our kind of customer is not so much the customer that buys a pair of shoes because the ones he has are no good any-more. He’s buying them because it’s making him feel good and he wants to look good. It’s an experience to wear these new shoes and he’s happy to do it. We call it “shoppertainment.” The customer is shopping and wants to be entertained at the same time, so we make sure that the stores are entertaining, and that’s by the atmosphere of the stores, by the service, and by the selection.

I was in the store with the vice president of Dolce & Gabbana two years ago, on St. Catherine Street. There are people trying on D&G shoes and [somebody else]is trying on Converse right beside them. He says to me,“We really don’t have these kinds of stores in Europe.In Europe, it’s all small boutiques that specialize in one kind.” So I said to him, “Fabrizio, you’re a fashion guy?You wear D&G shoes when you work? Do you have a pair of Converse?” He says to me, “Yeah.” It’s the same customer. Why couldn’t I sell the same customer D&G and Converse? They’re both cool, happening shoes. I said to him, “What do you like best about the store?”He looks around and he says to me, “You know what I like best? The energy.” And it’s true. When you go into St. Catherine, there’s an energy. It’s impressive. It’s fun.It’s happening.

And finally, if we opened your closet, what shoes would we find?

A lot [laughs]. Not as much as my wife’s,that’s for sure! In my closet, you’d find lots of [Cesare] Paciotti shoes. You’d find Adidas and Puma. You’d find our own private Luca Del Forte, Intensi. Those are mostly the shoes I wear.

Photographer César Ochoa

Grooming Ewa Bilinska