Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (September 2013)
She may be one of the world’s youngest self-made female billionaires, but for Tory Burch, creative director and CEO of her eponymous fashion label, it has never been just about the money.
By Priyanka Pradhan
Tory Burch was just another New York socialite with a privileged upbringing and a glamorous life when she decided to venture into the luxury fashion retail business. Despite having no formal qualifications in either fashion design or business management, Burch has built a $3.5 billion women’s clothing and accessories business in less than ten years, ultimately surpassing long-established rivals such as Michael Kors and Coach in revenues.
With starting capital of $2 million, Burch established a boutique in New York with the help of her husband at the time, venture capitalist Chris Burch. By leveraging her previous work experience in the PR and marketing departments at fashion houses such as Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Loewe, along with her reputation among New York society’s upper echelons, the designer’s premiere collection sold out on the opening day of her flagship store in 2004.
“People imagine the fashion industry to bevery competitive, but I’ve found the opposite – I have had many great mentors and friends willing to help along the way. This journey is beyond anything I could have imagined, and it’s a journey we’re still on” as a business, she says. “In so many ways I feel like we are just beginning.”
Burch pioneered the concept of “affordable luxury” in 2004, retailing a “preppy-bohemian luxe” style for the masses.
“I love fashion, from Uniqlo to Celine, but at the time I felt there weren’t many options in between,” she says. “I recognized a void in the market for beautiful, well-designed pieces that didn’t cost a fortune. I knew what I was missing from my closet and thought other women might feel the same way, so I began developing the concept, which was embodied by my parents, the most impeccably stylish couple I have ever known. They remain my greatest source of inspiration but, of course, each collection has its own distinct influences; in addition to my parents, my team and I are inspired by art, music, travel and other cultures.”
This is how Burch’s $200 Reva Ballerina shoes, one of the least expensive items found in the luxury category, came to form the backbone of her multi-billion fashion business. Having expanded her retail network to more than 83 stores worldwide, while generating revenues of more than $800 million a year (2012), she has come to challenge large global fashion houses that have been in the business for decades longer.
Burch attributes her success to hard work and perseverance.
“There are no shortcuts – starting a company takes a lot of time, energy and good, old-fashioned hard work. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it if you have a unique idea that you are passionate about,” she says.
Despite coming from a financially secure background, Burch faced challenges common to all entrepreneurs. “Everything that went into building a start-up – raising capital, finding partners, hiring the right team – was a challenge,” she explains. “The two and a half years before our launch were very intense and I worked harder than I ever thought possible.”
One of Burch’s biggest tests came in 2006 with the end of her marriage to her husband and business partner. A messy legal battle followed the divorce, with Chris Burch claiming in court that his wife’s business had hindered the growth of his own fashion retail chain, ‘c.Wonder’. Tory counter-sued, claiming he had created a knockoff brand with mass- market versions of top-selling Tory Burch items. This compelled her ex-husband to resign from the board of directors of Tory Burch and sell his stake in the brand.
Never one to focus on the past, Tory Burch is currently working on her Autumn/Winter 2013- 14 collection. The self-confessed workaholic is creating a “Gustav Klimt and René Lalique-inspired free-spirited and romantic mood”.
Burch says, “We focused on the details: dragonflies and scarabs printed on dresses, as well as wrapped around the heels of shoes; metallic prints and patterns; mixed textures; and subtle volume. It all centers on the idea of 24-hour dressing – special pieces to wear from day to evening.”
Burch has also designed a limited-edition scarf especially for her Abu Dhabi store, opening this year, to woo her target consumers in the region. Burch identifies young aspirational women, collegians and even high school students, as her brand’s main clients. Given this demographic, she says social media remains an important communications tool.
“I tweet and Instagram myself, and our team manages platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Weibo,” she says. “Our social media conversations have to be organic and authentic to who we are.”
Burch is equally invested in her non-profit foundation, which provides grassroots financial support for female-owned start-ups, mainly in the US.
“I wanted to help other women and their families,” she says. Based on our experiences starting a business, I thought we had something to offer aspiring female entrepreneurs. Through research I learned that it was extremely difficult for women to get small business loans in the U.S. But women are a great investment – they pay back their loans at a high rate, and invest earnings back into their communities. I felt loans and mentoring for female entrepreneurs were the best way for our foundation to contribute. We had a mentoring event in Marrakech last year, and we hope to expand all of our programs internationally at some point.”
But despite the hectic traveling schedule, a business empire to run and three children to raise, Tory Burch seems full of energy. She’s looking forward to her fragrance launch and a women’s activewear line in the near future. “I want to be like Wanda Ferragamo and work until I’m 85,” she says.