Browns: A pearl of a business

It's not so much keeping up with the Joneses as it is keeping up with the Bilkeys.  The family have been retailers in Remuera for 30 years now, first with Bilkey & Co Jewellers, then with Browns clothing store.  They've recently combined the two and relaunched as Browns.

Your family name is Bilkey - where did the name Browns come from?
Lyn:  The shop was originally called Maggie Brown, after my grandmother.  She was a tailor - I guess it ran in the family, as my own mother Yvonne worked here at Browns doing our pearl threading and bookwork until she was 94 years old!
Kirsten:  They were so inspirational.  We come from a long line of hard-working women!

bilkey remuera outside entrance

So it was a given then, Lyn, that you would also be involved in the clothing trade in some way?
Believe it or not, I was actually a dental nurse before opening the shop.

What about the jewellery side of things, do you have jewellers in the family too?
Lyn:  No, but jewellery is my passion.  When I first married I had $1,000 to furnish our house.  I went to an estate sale and came home with a diamond ring instead!  And that's where it all started...

Kirsten, did you grow up knowing you would work in the family business?
Not really.  I went to university and got a BA in Management, then worked part-time in the shops, with it eventually evolving into full-time.  It wasn't a conscious decision - it was more that the 'lifestyle' was a perfect fit.  Having the family support meant I could still attend things at the kids' schools, work never gets boring because there's something different happening every day, and of course the overseas travel - buying trips to America three to four times a year are the icing on the cake!

bilkey remuera kirsten jewellery

Are the buying trips an important part of keeping up with the trends?
Kirsten:  We have a mentor in New York who we met at an international fair; she keeps us up-to-date with retail trends in the US.  But aside from that, and the buying trips, our focus is not so much on trends, age or size, but more about confidence and individuality.  Whether you're a teenager or 80 years-old, our clothing is on-trend, ageless and timeless - it's all about the way you wear it.

What was behind the move to combine the two stores?
Lyn:  The jewellery shop was under-utilised.  We had a lot of unused space, so it made sense to bring everything together.
Kirsten:  Our customers were calling for it too.  Now they'll come in to shop for clothes, then move on to the jewellery section.  We recently opened an Eastridge store also to fulfil customer demand and make our range more accessible to our Eastern Bays' clients.

bilkey remuera shoes

What's it like working with family?
Kirsten:  We don't do 'roles' and the success of the shop is due to it running like a family household - we all work well together and are capable of doing all parts of the business.  It's great we can rely on and support each other.

And do you all hang out together outside of work too?
Lyn:  We quite often do "family stuff" together, but we all have our own separate interests too.  My passion is music - I play the piano and am the only one in the family to play a ukulele!  Bob enjoys his yacht racing.
Kirsten:  And I'm always busy with the kids!

What's the most unusual or exciting piece of jewellery you've made?
Kirsten:  We did handmade, sterling silver, charm-sized replicas of the netball world cup for the Silver Ferns.
Lyn:  We were once commissioned to make cufflinks for the Governor General and had to apply to the Royal Mint for permission and to get the patterns.

bilkey remuera inside

Are there any downsides to being a smaller business?
Kirsten:  It doesn't hold us back!  Most clothing retailers have two "drops" a year - winter clothing and summer clothing.  We have a drop a week!  That means there are new items coming in each week, giving our customers a heap more variety to the norm.  Being smaller also means we can be more ethically conscious.  We are closer to our suppliers than a big corporation might get, so we know that our suppliers (who are often small businesses as well) know their sources.

Kirsten, do you see your kids coming into the family business?
It's a bit early to tell as they're all quite young.  But they enjoy coming into work with me.  It's great that they can see me working, and that they can help out and start learning a work ethic.

Browns & Bilkeys
407 Remuera Road
Ph:  09 524 6453   www.brownsonline.co.nz

Photos by Vanita Andrews and words by Fiona Wilson

bilkey remuera lyn and bob