Alfie Browns - A Life in the Service of Beauty!
Alfie Browns is one of the most exciting and scintillating personalities in the European fashion world.
From a sheltered existence as the offspring of English aristocracy to the whirl of the London bohème in the 1920s to a role in the dolce vita of Rome to resounding success in the 1960s and 70s garment industry, he seems to have had it all: a biography almost too glamorous to be true, which reads like a gripping novel about the major fast-track events of the twentieth century. Drama and destiny define the very origins of this style icon, who never ceases to reinvent himself, time after time.
Alfie’s mother, Marina, was the daughter of Sir Harold Bosworth, a steel tycoon knighted for his services to the Crown and who also served the wharfs in the north of the kingdom, among them Harland & Wolff, the company that built the Titanic.
Fate would have it that 18-year-old Marina - with her aunt as chaperone, and two maids in tow - left Southampton on none other than this ocean liner on 10 April 1912, with a view to meeting a distant cousin in the USA, whom her parents had taken in their sights as a potential good match.
Marina was the only one of her party to survive the maritime tragedy and arrived thus in New York all on her ownsome.
Before traveling on to her relatives she made the acquaintance of the dashing British cultural attaché, Reginald Browns, to whose care all the British shipwreck survivors had been entrusted. She fell in love on the spot with this sophisticated countryman, only slightly older than she, and telegraphed her parents that the foreseen marriage would unfortunately be unable to take place, since she had now fallen in love with someone else. After Marina’s six-month sojourn in New York and a flurry of transatlantic diplomacy her parents finally agreed to the marriage - after all, their enquiries had revealed the supposedly penniless aesthete to be sole heir to a great-uncle who had made a fortune in Argentina dealing in property and cattle. The wedding the following year in London was the social event of the season and only a few months later the first of the eventual total of four children made his advent in the world: Alfred “Alfie” Browns.
Alfie’s youth was shaped by both a classic elite education in Britain and regular encounters with giants of the European art world, with whom his parents maintained lively relations:
visits to the Paris studios of Marc Chagall and Picasso impressed the growing boy just as much as the evening gatherings at his parents’ home, where celebrities were frequent guests, Noël Coward and the acclaimed actress Gertrude Lawrence among them. Alfie’s father did, however, put a stop to his still under-age son’s attendance at the notorious literary salons of the eccentric Astley Cooper, following rumors connecting Alfie with some of London’s Bright Young Things - or It- Girls, as they were known - namely with the fun-loving Elizabeth Ponsonby and the actress Brenda Dean Paul, the latter reputed to live on nothing but cocktails, salted nuts and kisses.
After attending Heath Mount and St. Cyprian’s then, for two years, the Swiss Rosenberg, Alfie went up to Cambridge in 1928, to study at the renowned St. John’s College.
Only a few years earlier, the later world-famous fashion and high society photographer Cecil Beaton - for whom Alfie and his younger sisters Edith and Venetia would sit model countless times - had likewise entered those hallowed halls. It was Beaton who first introduced Alfie to the glamorous world of fashion but young Browns’ own reputation as one of London’s most eligible bachelors soon went before him: elegant but never eccentric. First and foremost, however, Alfie devoted himself to student life. The virile sportsman was as frequently to be found on the tennis court or cricket ground as in the lecture halls of Cambridge - or, very possibly, on a long trip at the wheel of his beloved cabriolet, a 1929 Bentley Blower. His passion for engines and fast cars led him soon to become a champion in the still young world of racing: in 1934 he won the Brookland’s Grand Prix in a Sunbeam Tiger, in 1935 the San Sebastian Grand Prix in a Napier-Railton.
It was to motor-racing that Alfie Brown owed his first sojourn in Italy, which was later to become like a home from home for him:
in 1938 he took part in the Mille Miglia road race and made a decent showing in an Alfa Spider. The land beyond the Alps and its southern lifestyle immediately cast their spell on him and likewise the raptures of nature there, the grandeur of the historical monuments - and the beauty and elegance of Italian women. One young donna in particular caught his eye: Sophia Cagliari, the only and dearly beloved daughter of a long-established dynasty of wool and silk manufacturers. She personifies “the best qualities of a Perugino Madonna and a Botticelli Venus,” Alfie enthused in a letter to a friend in London.
But first Alfie had to bid Sophia farewell and return to London, for his father had decided to send him to Argentina to attend to family business there, which, following his great-uncle’s demise, was urgently in need of an ordering hand: a tall order for a barely 26-year-old young man, torn between the dictates of his heart and of filial duty. Would Sophia follow him to Argentina? Would her parents ever agree to let their only child voyage to the far side of the globe? Yet even as he dithered over his decision, fate came rushing to his aid: while the news that a fatal bovine epidemic had swept the herds and decimated the family fortunes was of course a shock to all the Browns, for Alfie it was a load off his mind. Now nothing stood in the way of his marriage to Sophia and he dashed to Rome, where her parents welcomed him with open arms as the man who would safely steer their business into a rosy future.
Alfie did not disappoint their expectations. In the briefest possible time, and with the loving and capable support of his wife, Sophia, he acquired the know-how necessary to direct the textile company.
Moreover, the work with premium materials and fabrics rekindled Alfie’s passion for fashion. Here he had an opportunity to allow his creativity free rein and was soon able to launch his first collection under the new name, A. Browns & Co. Aided by his old acquaintance in the worlds of art, sport and culture, and thanks also to the Cagliari dynasty’s social network, the new label became a resounding success practically overnight, and was soon as incontestable a sight in the salons of Milan as on the streets of Rome.
The war plunged Italy - and likewise the Browns and their business - into serious crisis, and hard times followed.
Alfie served from 1942 to 1945 in the Royal Army and was one of the most highly decorated men of his age group. He was involved not only in taking Il Duce prisoner but also in taking Berlin. Alfie also was chosen to hand Grand Admiral von Dönitz the fountain pen with which the latter signed Germany’s capitulation. Sophia meanwhile was valiantly manning the home front in Italy, keeping the family business intact and taking loving care of their children. No sooner had the war ended than proverbial Italian optimism assured the country’s social and economic renaissance. The Browns’ line in jaunty, elegant and cheerful prêt-à-porter was eminently suited to this era and the company was able to pick up and perpetuate its pre-war success almost seamlessly.
The rise of Rome as a hotspot of international cinema was yet another stroke of luck.
Here directors such as Visconti and Antonioni revolutionized the language of film, the title of Fellini’s worldwide hit, La Dolce Vita, became a synonym for the Italian way of life, and Rome presided as the global jet-set’s object of longing. Browns & Co. provided the costumes for countless films in this era, and the stars and starlets wore his designs. Silvana Mangano, Lucia Bosé, Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni were regular visitors to the Browns. American producers also sensed new opportunities and flocked to the Cinecittà Studios. Unforgettable, Elizabeth Taylor’s visit to the company during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome, when she had several trunks full of Browns’ dresses, coats, shoes and accessories shipped for her to Los Angeles. The diva maintained cordial links with the Brown label and family all her life long.
Even during the wild 70s and the eccentric 80s, Alfie Browns remained true to his own inimitable style - a perfect combination of premium Italian craft traditions and up-to- date design.
New fashion houses may come and go but Alfie Browns. remains, an enduring synonym for Italian elegance and the bella figura. Only in 1998, at the grand old age of 85, did Alfie Browns decide to retire from the day-to-day business of the company and devote more time to his diverse range of hobbies, in particular to travel in exotic climes, and to water-skiing. Five more happy years were granted him and his beloved wife, Sophia. Then, tragically, she was killed while the couple was on safari together in the Okavanga Delta.
To Alfie’s great regret, neither his daughter Georgina nor his son Otto wishes to follow in his footsteps as company director.
Georgina, an anthropologist and paleontologist educated at Harvard and Oxford, remains committed to tracing the origins of the human species in the remotest corners of the globe. Otto has recently settled in Dubai to pursue a career in real estate, after stints in New York and Las Vegas in hospitality and entertainment. Without a successor, heavy-hearted Alfie had no choice but to close the final chapter in the over four-generations-old saga of the Cagliari-Browns manufacture. He then withdrew to his chalet home in Gstaad, which is open on certain days to the general public so that it too may enjoy his important collection of classic works of Modernism and Arte Povera.
But the fate of Alfie Browns took yet another happy turn in an airport lounge in 2010, when he happened to strike up conversation with two young entrepreneurs, Kian and Markus.
A shared passion for fashion, art and skiing quickly forged a bond of friendship. Inspired by the charisma and ideas of Alfie Browns, Markus and Kian decided a short while later to perpetuate his life’s work by reviving the Alfie Browns label. They successfully transposed the label’s assets to the contemporary world of fashion and won the cooperation of premium Italian production companies, which now manufacture the collection under its direction and to its designs.
Alfie Browns watches over these developments from his retirement summit in splendid Gstaad and maintains close contact with Kian and Markus via Skype and FaceTime.
And whenever he is able to tear himself away from his beloved Swiss mountains and the loipes of the Bernese Oberland, he is a most welcome guest of honor at the three branches of Alfie Browns in sultry Singapore.