The story of how Tory Burch made it big has been told a million times: East Coast society maven marries New York garmento and turns her passion for all things preppy and bohemian into her eponymous brand. What’s more clichéd than that? But look at Tory Burch now and you realise just how many fellow debutantes have tried and failed before – and after – her.
Burch is the only American designer who has managed to build a lifestyle brand in the 21st century (her label was founded in 2004 as a small shop in Nolita). Many other New York designers who came of age at the same time as Burch are nowhere to be found. Barely out of college and with just one or two collections under their belts, they were lauded as geniuses and got a lot of good press while Burch, with her pioneering concept of affordable luxury and with her years of experience working behind the scenes for designers such as Vera Wang and Ralph Lauren, was building an empire, raising the eyebrows and inducing the envy of many naysayers.
Whatever your feelings for Burch and her seemingly idyllic life and unflappable poise, you’ve got to give it to her: she’s paid her dues. Hers wasn’t just a husband-financed vanity project meant to keep a stay-at-home mom busy.
It’s easy to understand why some still can’t come to terms with what she’s accomplished in little over a decade. “How did she do it?” they wonder. And how did she do it while always looking impeccable and with nary a wrong move in her ascent?
Well, for starters, she took her time and learned on the job before making the big leap. She also had her ups and her downs, from the legendary Oprah endorsement to the legal battle with her ex-husband and business partner Chris Burch. Feuds and controversies aside, Burch’s is the ultimate American success story, and even though she may beg to differ, it seems as if it was a smooth ride to the top for the Pennsylvania-born art-history major who is now the reigning queen of a certain boho-chic aesthetic that works as well on the East Coast and Aspen as it does in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
“I still look at it like a work in progress,” says Burch about her label when we meet her a few hours after her spring/summer 2017 show in her beautifully appointed office on Lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. “It’s wonderful that it has had such traction and resonated with people,” she says, “but I still look at things thinking that we have a lot ahead of us and the core is always the product – and that’s what I’m most excited about now. It’s really where we’re going with the product and about the amount of effort we’ve put into putting in place the right team, restructuring the company and becoming more like a technology company.
“Technology has always been a big part – we launched e-commerce 13 years ago – but now we have a chief technology officer so we think of technology and the impact it has on logistics, supply chains, products. For me it’s an evolution, so I wouldn’t just pat ourselves on the back but say, ‘Look where we’ve come and how much we have to do.’ ”
Not many designers utter phrases such as “supply chains” or bother to deal with matters such as logistics, but Burch is not your average fashion creator secluded in an ivory tower. With her, the lines between designer and entrepreneur have always been blurred.
“It’s always been a combination,” she explains. “When the business got bigger, I started hiring more help to run it because I’ve always been strategic and involved in that, but the product is the most important thing. You can be as operationally excellent as anyone, but if you don’t have the right product it doesn’t matter. I want to focus on product and strategy and hire amazing leaders to become operationally excellent, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
While the label may have built its name on those now-ubiquitous Reva flats featuring the company’s logo in gold, it has gradually pulled back from cash-rich categories such as leather goods and shoes, focusing on ready-to-wear in order neither to dilute its image nor to put all its eggs in one basket.
When Burch started her label in 2004 the idea of accessible luxury was completely new, but now the concept she pioneered is everywhere, which means that she and her management team have had to innovate, venturing into other categories such as leisurewear. Tory Sport, launched in 2015, is an example of the label’s expansion plans. For now it’s only available in the US but the designer hopes to roll it out to the rest of the world, including Asia, in the next few years.
“Sport is a very exciting opportunity,” says Burch. “When I started this company I didn’t want sport to be a second brand but a peer of this brand and keep it very separate, so we want to build it slowly and hopefully we’ll expand. The response has been exciting. We’re going to open six stores in the near future and it’s also available online. I truly believe in e-commerce.”
In spite of her success (many now compare her to Oprah, who was partly responsible for making her a household name), Burch is not resting on her laurels. While her polite manners and chic demeanour don’t betray a hint of her relentless drive, she feels that she’s not done yet and that there’s much more to do. She’s aware that business leaders, both men and women, see her as a role model and is always happy to offer precious advice to those who come and seek it.
“I think it was important to get the background and learn from different places, and I think that with millennials that will be a challenge,” observes the designer. “When I spoke at Stanford [University], all the students wanted to be entrepreneurs, but for me, in order to do that, you have to have a passion first and then you become an entrepreneur based on your passion. The point is that you have to get some experience because if you go right into it, it will be challenging.
“It’s great to be eager but also to take your time and learn from different jobs and experiences. Not every job will be the right job but you can take a lot from each position you’ve ever had. You learn what you should do and shouldn’t and I think that this is an element that’s missing from the new generations. Business is tough. People think that there’s this tech dream in Palo Alto but … think of how many fail compared to how many are launched.”
It’s not just her words that have been inspiring young entrepreneurs, however. With the Tory Burch Foundation, which she established only five years into her business, she’s been giving women loans to start their companies. “It was always in the plan,” she says. “From the beginning I wanted to build a global lifestyle brand and start a foundation. Investors would tell me to never say social responsibility and business in the same sentence, and that made me more determined to have that as part of our values and the DNA of our brand, to have a foundation to give back.
“When we were able to launch it in 2009, it was very much ingrained and it was quite early to start a foundation after only five years in business. It took some time to figure out what the mission would be. I knew it would be women and children but eventually I came up with the concept of women entrepreneurs because it was my experience. I felt that I could offer the key lessons that I had learned, but I wanted to be very careful speaking about it because I never wanted it to ever be perceived as marketing.
“We wanted to have impact and scale, and now we do. With our partnership with Bank of America we’ve given out over US$24 million in the last three years to women entrepreneurs in the United States. It’s not a charity but a tool. It’s giving jobs and empowering women to empower themselves and they pay back their loans – and to have a partner like Bank of America is incredible.”
At a time when female leaders such as she are running top companies but matters of gender equality are unfortunately still hot-button issues even in the Western world, Burch is the definition of what a woman can accomplish by staying focused and trying to make it all happen with fortitude and grace. As for her much-talked-about perceived perfection, she’s quick to dismiss her image as a lifestyle guru who can do no wrong.
“I wish that people could see the real me,” Burch says, laughing. “First of all, I have a sense of humour, which doesn’t always translate in social media, so you have to be careful. I’d probably get in trouble a lot; it’s just my sense of humour, how I was raised.
“The whole idea of perfect is so foreign to me. I’m the mother of three boys; there’s nothing perfect about three boys. Having three children and trying to run a business and keeping it all together … I do the best I can and I’m very fortunate. I have a positive outlook and perhaps that’s why the perception …”
She then trails off, looking just picture perfect.