Tory Burch didn’t grow up yearning to be a designer; in college she studied art history rather than fashion. She did grow up conscious of the importance of style, seeing it as representative of, and even integral to, one’s personality. That notion came from her parents, the elegant Buddy and Reva Robinson.
The world in which the Robinsons raised their children pulsed with the elegance of the familiar — pretty, preppy, proper. Burch built her business on an aesthetic that distilled and marketed that orientation. She wanted to address a broad audience, offering obvious good taste of the silky Hermès ilk (her father loved the stuff) but without the stratospheric price tag. A standard concept now, it was quietly subversive among the designer set when Burch established her brand in 2004.
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Turns out accessible luxury is but one area in which she was prescient. Other designers who went into business at about the same time were typically younger than Burch, with formal design school training. Often they wanted to launch namesake brands immediately upon graduation. While their aesthetics were often more outré (relatively speaking) and their target markets more luxe-leaning, ironically such designers tended to be more inside-the-box when developing their business plans, invariably opting for the default, time-tested wholesale model. Many of those companies are now challenged in navigating fashion’s new reality.
Burch had worked in public relations for Ralph Lauren, and so had firsthand awareness of the value of vertical retail. She also had a keen sense that the then-percolating digital revolution would utterly transform the way we live, including the way we shop. And oh, yes, she understood the importance of a shoe and a bag. Burch and her cofounder and then-husband Chris Burch launched with a range of clothes and accessories, a physical store on Elizabeth Street in downtown Manhattan and e-commerce, the last an expensive, experimental move perceived as visionary by some watchers and reckless by others. In 2015, a series of stock swaps were said to value the Tory Burch company at $3.5 billion, prior to a buyback last year of the shares of early investor Tresalia Capital. Today, the company has 250 stores with a new Mercer Street outpost upcoming. It does 80 percent of its business in shoes and bags and a whopping 20 percent via its own e-commerce.
That’s not all. From the start, Burch envisioned her business as a means to an end beyond mere bottom-line success. In 2009, well before woke social consciousness enveloped the fashion industry, she quietly formed the Tory Burch Foundation with the goal of empowering women entrepreneurs via management education, mentorships and access to low-interest loans, now in partnership with Bank of America, which recently upped its commitment to the program by $50 million. “I get chills,” Burch said.
Through all of that, in addition to being creative director Burch has been the company’s chief executive officer and, for a brief period, co-ceo with Roger Farah — intense double-duty to say the least. Looking back, she thinks her focus on the business side hindered her development as a designer. Now, Burch can focus all the more intently on that role. In March, well-known industry veteran and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton alum Pierre-Yves Roussel, whom Burch married in November, joined the company as ceo.
“To have a thought partner like that is transformative for me,” Burch said, noting their joint focus on heightening the brand’s global profile and the time she now has to focus more acutely on design. Still, Burch maintains her amped-up creative vigor predates Roussel’s arrival. “I feel,” she mused, “like I’ve come into my own as a designer in the last four years.” To that point, for spring 2020 Burch has taken on what rings of a daunting inspiration: Diana Spencer, otherwise known as Princess Di. In a wide-ranging conversation, Burch discussed where she and her brand have been and what’s next.
WWD: So, the show is around the corner, but it’s not your only new project. Tell me about the new store.
Tory Burch: It’s right next to the Mercer Hotel. We actually bought the building. It’s been a long process. We’ve been working on it for a long time.
WWD: What’s the attraction to SoHo for you?
T.B.: I’ve always been attracted to SoHo; it was just a matter of waiting for the right spot. This space [on Mercer Street] came up a few years ago and we’ve just had some challenges with permits and building and things like that, but we’re finally now working on it. I love the energy down there. I mean, it’s just palpable. I love the restaurants down there. I miss our little Elizabeth Street store; that was just off the beaten path.
WWD: How many stores do you have now?
T.B.: Across the board? Two-fifty.
WWD: How many here in New York?
T.B.: We have four. So we have Madison, Meatpacking District, Hudson Yards and Flatiron, which is Sport. I still believe in [physical] retail. It’s just such a different kind of retail. When you think about 15 years ago, the evolution of where I was then to where we are today is pretty striking.
WWD: When the whole brouhaha happened surrounding Stephen Ross [ceo of Related Cos., the developer of Hudson Yards] and his fund-raiser for Donald Trump, did you think, “oh god, why are we in Hudson Yards?”
T.B.: That wasn’t on my mind. It was disappointing, just that it all happened in general. But you know where I stand on that. Some people pulled out of Hudson Yards and…
WWD: And showing at The Shed.
T.B.: I mean, listen, as much as I have my own opinions on what is going on, I also respect that other people have other opinions. I don’t necessarily agree with them but…
WWD: Let’s talk about this collection.
T.B.: The whole show is based on Diana Spencer, not necessarily Diana as a style icon, but as being fearless and a humanitarian, and what she stood for. I have always been fascinated with her. So we started with English roses and gardens, and then I found these antique handkerchiefs that were so beautiful down at a place in Brooklyn and we took that as a starting point [for fabrics and a significant design element].
WWD: Diana is a big inspiration.
T.B.: Taking on a big subject like Diana Spencer is risky. We had to tread lightly; we didn’t want to be too literal. We start with a subject and then it iterates in many different ways. I wanted to play with proportion and technique and fabrics and color.
Strong women inspire me, there is no question. I’ve always admired Diana from a humanitarian standpoint. And her fearlessness. She was a private person but had to obviously face enormous challenges having a public persona and protecting her children. There were a lot of things that I just looked up to.
WWD: How do you translate that into the collection?
T.B.: Delicately. When I think about today versus where I’ve been, I am constantly obsessed with evolution; I’ve had to be over 15 years. A lot of designers stay somewhere for five or 10 years and then they go to a brand and then they reinvent themselves, but I’m here.
I’ve had to have different hats. And whether it was the founder or the shareholder or the ceo or the designer, what’s exciting now is I’m wearing more the creative hat. I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that because I ran the business. Now I am focused on product and brand. And I’ve never been more energized.
WWD: So there is a very clear division of labor now between you and your new ceo.
T.B.: There definitely is. And it has given me the ability to really focus on the creativity. When I first started this company, I started designing with things that I wanted. Certainly now it has had to evolve because if I were still doing that, I wouldn’t be relevant. So now I design things that yes, I want, but also things that I wouldn’t necessarily wear, but I still love for different customers because our customers are so diverse.
WWD: That’s an interesting point. When did you realize it?
T.B.: I feel like I’ve come into my own as a designer in the last four years. Even though I loved what we did before, I now have the ability to focus, and with all the things I’ve learned over the years, apply that. And surrounding myself with amazing people — the interplay that we have is a very important part of our design process.
But the pivotal point? I don’t know if there was that moment. But I have always instinctively known that I needed to evolve and was always interested in evolution and reinvention. I feel that’s something that has kept our company relevant, because if we were just designing for me and what I loved, that would not be interesting in today’s world.
WWD: The way you’re looking at the collections now, are you less pragmatic and maybe more willing to be flamboyant?
T.B.: I’m actually more pragmatic and injecting that flamboyance as well, because I think that’s what women want today. They want special pieces from us. We can sell at higher price points, but I really want to home in on where we’ve always been, too, and surprise and delight our customer at our essential price points as well. The things that we’re known for — we want to just constantly evolve that and do that better.
We have a younger customer. I don’t like to look at it in age groups because I feel like that’s not so modern anymore, but we definitely have college age and 20s, we have obviously some teens, but 30 to 45 is the heart of it. But really it’s ageless. Being a woman designing for women is really interesting.
When I think of competition, I think everyone is our competition. People have a certain amount of money to spend, whether it’s luxury or contemporary, it doesn’t really matter.
WWD: And among the extreme few with limitless funds, not all sink a fortune into their closets.
T.B.: I don’t think it’s a modern way of dressing. I can tell you the people I know are not interested in spending these crazy high prices anymore; it’s a shift in fashion. It’s great for a special thing or once in a while, but they’re interested in doing things. And certainly when you talk about Millennials that’s the case. But even people who aren’t Millennials, the excess is becoming [too much]. .
WWD: Every woman is only going to buy so much, and how you speak to her is so important. She has so many choices.
T.B.: You need your own voice. That’s something I talk a lot about. We need to be who we are. Just because street is a trend doesn’t mean that we should be doing street. I’ve learned to be comfortable with who we are and then take who we are and make it interesting for what’s happening today. So that’s part of the evolution. I found in the past when we went and tried different things that weren’t necessarily us, it’s not meaningful.
WWD: And if there’s something that you think is wonderful but it’s not you, chances are somebody else will do it better.
T.B.: Yes, and they should. What I do find interesting is the idea that streetwear started here, and how the European brands have done it in an interesting way. Sportswear, too, right?
WWD: Yes. Do you think there’s a basic problem for American fashion right now?
T.B.: It’s interesting, In the past, a lot of people in American fashion built a brand and then sold it and that was it, or they stayed in and just did similar things or they opened diffusion lines, which didn’t work. I think what’s interesting is how do you challenge yourself to reinvent but stay true to who you are. But I do believe in American fashion.
WWD: What do you think about Tom Ford’s focus for the CFDA?
T.B.: I’m hopeful. I think it needed to be shaken up. There were so many shows, and I he’s editing that. That will challenge young designers to think differently about something that potentially would put them in debt anyway. [Shows] are so expensive and [many smaller brands] don’t have the business.
WWD: What can be done to support those businesses?
T.B.: I think we all need to build them up the way we build all of these new designers [at the beginning]. And we have to be realistic about who has a business. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. I think having a real business is relevant, and we should be supportive of that as well.
WWD: It’s so hard to get there.
T.B.: It’s so hard. I did a Babson College speech for their graduation, and [the message] was, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. It is excruciating. If you think about all the things that I’ve been through just personally in front of the public while running a business, while raising three boys, while trying to move our business and create. I mean, we have 5,000 employees. I feel a responsibility to them.
WWD: You have had difficult personal matters play out in public view; it must have been gut-wrenching. How were you able to stay focused and not fall apart?
T.B.: I definitely take after my dad, who was always calm. I like to think of it as grace under pressure — I get more focused the more frenetic things get. Sometimes people look to see if I have a pulse.
WWD: Does a creative person, or anyone who launches a brand and becomes the face of that brand run the risk of unwanted loss of privacy, especially in our social-media-driven world?
T.B.: Absolutely. Being a private person and a very protective mom, it has been difficult dealing with issues in a public way. From the beginning, I realized that I had to create boundaries and certain things, like my personal life and family, were off-limits.
WWD: You have a blog and you have what seems like an excellent rapport with your customers. Where do you draw the line?
T.B.: From the beginning, our business has been a lifestyle concept and our customer has always been interested in more than product — everything from travel to music to flowers and table settings. I draw the line when it comes to my friends and family.
WWD: Speaking of family, when did Pierre-Yves start officially?
T.B.: Eight months ago.
WWD: What has he brought to the table?
T.B.: I can’t even describe what he’s brought to the table. I’ve never had a thought partner like Pierre-Yves. I feel like I’m getting a McKinsey report every Monday morning. He feels that we’re an international brand, and we’re going to become a global brand. There’s a difference. He has a much more global perspective.
WWD: We Americans can be very insular.
T.B.: I tried not to be by setting up satellite offices. You can’t run China from here. We learned that lesson, so we hired a president of Asia.
WWD: Based where?
T.B.: In Hong Kong and Shanghai. You need to have a global point of view. We’ve been proud to be an American brand but my reference points are more international. It’s very tough in Hong Kong right now. We’ve seen this before in Hong Kong, but this seems a bit different. I hope it’s not. The world is incredibly tricky, but you deal with the various places of the world that are having trouble at the time. Tariffs bring in a whole new thing.
WWD: How are you feeling that?
T.B.: I think it’s horrendous for American fashion and business in general. It doesn’t make sense at all. It’s already billions and billions of dollars of losses for American fashion.
WWD: Back to your business: You’ve had tremendous success with accessories.
T.B.: Accessories are such an important part of our business. Eighty percent, handbags and footwear.
WWD: Do you feel so incredibly lucky, smart, brilliant to have launched a business that has clicked with bags and shoes?
T.B.: I feel fortunate. I wouldn’t say I feel smart and brilliant. It’s been a long journey. We’ve been working on it for a fair amount of time. Yes, I feel it’s lucky that that’s the meat of our business.
WWD: Every brand has a comfortable shoe; everybody has a bag that functions. Why did yours take off?
T.B.: I think what we offer at our price point is very exciting, and the customer realizes that. That’s something we’ve worked at very hard. The craftsmanship, I’m super excited about.
WWD: What are your greatest opportunities right now, whether it’s a global market, a category, a philosophy?
T.B.: One thing that I have been so excited about is that the idea of a purpose-led brand is now more relevant than it ever has been. We were talking about purpose 15 years ago at our foundation. We launched our foundation in 2009. For so long, I never talked about it externally because I really wanted impact and scale. We now are changing women’s lives, and I can say that in the most proud way.
WWD: You work primarily with women in business.
T.B.: We support women entrepreneurs in the United States through access to low-interest capital, and through mentoring and education. And then we have a fellowship program through our foundation. We fly 50 entrepreneurs in each year for a week in New York and we do seminars, we introduce some potential investors, we do peer-to-peer mentoring. The whole concept of networking, which men are so great at, is something that women need more of. We’re also creating online communities. More than 15,000 people have written business plans off of our web site.
WWD: How long has the Bank of America partnership been going?
T.B.: That’s been two-and-a-half years, and they’ve just recently committed to another $50 million.
WWD: Congratulations! That’s amazing.
T.B.: I know, I get chills.
WWD: Doing good for whatever reason is great, if there are results. But are you all skeptical of all the brands now getting in on corporate-cause crusades?
T.B.: The cause has to be authentic. Certainly, I’m all for brands having a purpose, I think it’s smart. The thing I didn’t realize at the time [we launched] is that it’s good for the bottom line, if it’s authentic.
WWD: In what way?
T.B.: It’s great for our customer because she loves supporting an issue she cares about. It’s great for our employees. Every single person I interview, it’s one of the reasons they want to work here.
WWD: How does that manifest?
T.B.: The fact that we support women is a big win. And we have the conversation with women and men. I think that’s a really important differentiator. Because if we’re women talking about women’s issues to women, we all agree. So we need men to be part of this problem-solving. The business plan was to build a global lifestyle brand so I could start a foundation — I was laughed at.
WWD: I remember you saying that years ago.
T.B.: I was really laughed at. I called an investor, one of the people who laughed at me, last Christmas. And I said, “I just came from this event” – I think Fortune or Forbes, I don’t remember which one — “and the message was, ‘doing good is good for business.’” He said, “What do you want?” I said, “A check for the foundation, naturally.”
WWD: Did he give it to you?
T.B.: He said, “A onetime check.” I said, “Yes, thank you, I’ll call you next year.” But he was very generous.
WWD: What are your biggest challenges right now?
T.B.: We have so many. I don’t want to downplay how transformative Pierre-Yves coming on board has been for me personally but also for the business and the culture.
WWD: Tell me how.
T.B.: We are so fundamentally aligned in the way we see business. We are both super-fascinated with innovation and technology and the future and taking the company to the next level. To have a thought partner like that is transformative for me. I’ve never had that. And someone I trust.
WWD: What are the challenges?
T.B.: It’s hard to pick the challenge. If you have a company, you have a challenge a minute. I would say the last five years have been an exercise in rethinking the business and setting the company up for the next phase, pulling back in many ways, consolidating warehouses and implementing SAP in systems. But most importantly, working on product. And investing in CRM and data. We didn’t have the best data, and that’s essential as we go forward. I have always been obsessed with technology, so we need to understand what technology means for fashion. From an experience standpoint and stores, from our e-commerce site, which is 20 percent of our business.
WWD: Your own e-commerce is 20 percent?
T.B.: Our own e-commerce. We launched in tandem with the first store, 15 years ago. I was told no one would buy online. It was a good call, I would say. Many people didn’t believe in it, and it was an expense.
WWD: You said working on product. Is that the paring down and elevating the product?
T.B.: Yes. I was always proud of our product, but it has definitely evolved. I’ve surrounded myself with incredible people who cannot be yessing me in any way; they have opinions and have a lot to offer.
WWD: You like opinions.
T.B.: I love opinions. We hire great people and we want to give them autonomy and build them up. We want them to feel like they are appreciated and supported and are able to do their best work.
WWD: But it’s your name on the door, your vision.
T.B.: I’ve evolved. I think I’ve learned to be a designer over the years.
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