ON TOP OF THE WORLD
With her lifestyle brand thriving and having recently expanded to Australia, designer Tory Burch is determined to help other women realise their entrepreneurial potential. By Zara Wong.
Designer Tory Burch is determined to help other women realise their entrepreneurial potential.
The backstage scene of Tory Burch’s runway shows are uncommonly well organised compared to what the rest of fashion week looks like. Journalists wait patiently in line for their turn to speak to the designer, and two years ago when it was my turn, I commented on how her personal style imbued her brand’s entire collection from clothes to accessories and homewares.
“I don’t know why everyone says that. I’m like: ‘What does it mean?’” she responded with a laugh, genuinely perplexed. Warm and approachable, her hair and skin were gleaming and golden, and the outfit she wore imprinted upon me that very Tory Burch combination of colour, print and preppy polish with an edge.
Two years later we’re on the phone speaking about her launch in Australia. She has personally called me twice for this interview – the first time, apologetically to reschedule due to a last-minute clash. While re-scheduling is a common occurrence, it is usually tasked to assistants and public relations teams to manage. A person of Burch’s standing has never actually jumped on the phone and taken out their diary to sort it out themselves. It’s this kind of personal touch that Burch puts into her work and her designs that sets her and her label apart.
I mention our last conversation: “We’ve been talking about opening in Australia for so long. I was probably talking about Australia back then!” she says with a laugh, in reference to a Sydney store in Westfield Sydney’s Bondi Junction that opened in August along with five David Jones concession stores across the country, and a Melbourne store that will open by the end of the year. “I feel like I know Australia better than I actually do. My Australian friends are so sophisticated, with fantastic style; they have a bit of an outdoorsy feel to the way they think about how they dress, and I love that.”
From the success of the Tory Burch label, there is something to be said for designing for oneself. “I was personally missing something in the market, and it was a simple idea of [offering] beautiful things that didn’t cost a fortune,” says Burch.
Knitted jumpers and printed tunics hover around the $500 mark and handbags are mostly under $1,000, bringing a touch of Burch’s class to the masses. Wearing Tory Burch – the insignia on buttons and the famed Reva flats, and the David Hicks-inspired prints – is shorthand for everyday-appropriate luxury. It’s also a way to buy into Burch’s own life, from her Daniel Romualdez-designed homes (he also does all her stores), filled up to the hilt with D. Porthault linens and beautifully unique souvenirs sourced from around the world. Tory Burch is a true lifestyle brand.
Her designs draw on her American patrician background and add a touch of sportiness – and often reference well-heeled friends like Lee Radziwill (for autumn/ winter ’18/’19), and her equally well-heeled parents, Buddy and Reva Robinson. The late Buddy had once dated Grace Kelly and favoured Hermès scarves as pocket squares and as lining to his suits, while Reva, as a young actress and prior to her marriage, had dated Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. Reva is also the namesake of her famous flats – those that defined the in crowd during the early seasons of TV series Gossip Girl.
But Burch is the first to admit that she was new to the world of design and business, having previously forged a career in public relations and having worked at Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Loewe. “I learnt on the job. I had never been a designer, I had never been a CEO, and I was very good at surrounding myself with talented people.”
The label launched in 2004 as a retail concept with 12 categories, from shoes to knits to dresses and swimsuits. “I had a different vision, and it wasn’t a vision that everyone thought was the right vision,” says Burch. Some told her that no-one would ever buy online. “So now to have an online business that is pretty substantial at over 20 per cent of our business, is exciting.” Of skills she has learnt during her career one is to not have “no” in her vocabulary nor in her company’s culture. “I’ve always tried to come from things in a positive way,” she states. The other is tenacity, which perhaps came in use when she went with a friend to Kodiak Island in Alaska to work in a salmon cannery after a dare from her brothers. “They bet that I would be back in a week, and we ended up sticking it out for about six.”
She has only recently become accustomed to calling herself ambitious, after her friend, Jane Rosenthal, who co-organised the first Tribeca Film Festival, called her up after Burch’s first major article in the New York Times. “She said: ‘Nice article but you shied away from the word ambition’, and it really stayed with me,” she remembers. “When the journalist asked me if I was ambitious, I actually thought it was quite rude. I realised I was buying into that perception that it’s a negative trait for women to have,” she says.
The turning point in the business, which has gone down in fashion history, was when Oprah Winfrey selected her tunic as one of her favourite items within the first year of the label’s birth. “It’s hard to define just how much it helped out the company. Being picked by her was a complete surprise and it transported our company into
“I was personally missing something in the market, and it was a simple idea of [offering] beautiful things that didn’t cost a fortune”
a different place. When I went on her show, it was, of course, the first time I was on TV, and she said: ‘Don’t be nervous, it’s only 30 million viewers,’” she says, still laughing at the memory. Now, with no Oprah show, emerging companies don’t have their TV moment. “It really is a different time,” says Burch, noting that when she started they had a limited budget so eschewed expensive advertisements in favour of PR, marketing and social media. “But today, that is already so crowded. You really have to have a unique voice and say something different.”
Interestingly, Burch’s business actually sprang from a desire to establish a foundation to help women. That idea is today manifested as the Tory Burch Foundation, which started in 2009, five years after her label launched. The foundation mentors and provides micro financing to female entrepreneurs and has a campaign entitled Embrace Ambition, a nod to her prior demurring. Burch is clear that the foundation stands on its own and is not to be perceived as marketing for her label in any way. “I think a business with purpose is very important today, and that wasn’t the case 14 years ago. People must have thought I was a little out there to tie the two together,” she says. “But my mother would say: ‘Think of negativity as noise and believe in your gut and instinct.’ I’m a little embarrassed in a way, because when I went to raise money I said I wanted to build a global lifestyle brand so that I could start a foundation. Had I known what that meant, I probably would have never said that!”
Fashion with a purpose, fuelled by Burch’s ambition – a word that she definitely does not shy away from now. “Yes, I am very ambitious,” she says laughing. “And I am proud to say that, and I’m also proud to help other women own their ambition as well.”