Tory leader

Tory Burch’s jour­ney from a Penn­syl­va­nia farm to the pin­na­cle of the fash­ion world is like the plot of a block­buster novel. But there’s a se­ri­ous side to all the glam­our, as Bethan Holt dis­cov­ers

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

From farm girl to fash­ion bil­lion­aire, tory Burch is shar­ing her astro­nom­i­cal suc­cess – spend­ing mil­lions to sup­port and em­power other women. Bethan Holt meets her

THE LAST PLACE you would ex­pect to find Tory Burch is in a vet­eri­nary anatomy lec­ture hall in Ger­many. After all, she is the im­pec­ca­bly poised fash­ion de­signer who has made a bil­lion-dol­lar for­tune from her abil­ity to sell her vi­sion of a sleek but bo­hemian lifestyle to women around the world. If you as­pire to the style of a mod­ern Jac­que­line Kennedy or Marisa Beren­son, Burch is your gal.

She is on a fly­ing visit to Ber­lin in her ca­pac­ity as lux­ury e-com­merce site Mytheresa’s lat­est Mytheresa Woman. Cho­sen for their com­bi­na­tion of style and sub­stance, past hon­orees have in­cluded Liv Tyler and Vic­to­ria Beck­ham. Nat­u­rally, there will later be an op­u­lent din­ner, but for now Burch is of­fer­ing her busi­ness in­sights and ad­vice to a packed room of stu­dents from Hum­boldt Univer­sity. ‘I’m so fas­ci­nated by the younger gen­er­a­tion and how en­gaged they are and it al­ways gives me hope,’ she of­fers by way of ex­pla­na­tion for the talk’s place on her sched­ule.

Over the years, Burch has care­fully nur­tured her own leg­end. As she speaks to her au­di­ence, she de­scribes her­self as a one-time ‘farm girl’ and thanks ‘y’all’ for com­ing. She ex­plains how most of her best friends are the peo­ple she met at high school and col­lege and how her par­ents al­ways taught her that ‘you should treat a cab driver the same as the Queen of Eng­land’. So far, so re­lat­able. But Burch’s tale is full of twists and turns unique to the su­per-rich and su­per-am­bi­tious.

Ear­lier in the day, I find her perched on the edge of a ro­coco sofa in the grand lobby of one of Ber­lin’s

plush ho­tels, the Ad­lon. She is wear­ing a geo-printed silk skirt, a Ci­ty­boy-blue ruf­fled shirt and a nipped­waist to­bacco blazer. A hint of wit winks through via a pair of dan­gly sil­ver fork-and-spade ear­rings. At 51, she has a glow­ing, line-free, bronzed com­plex­ion, honey-blonde hair and a fig­ure honed by a life­time of ten­nis and run­ning. ‘I’m not wor­ried about age­ing,’ she shrugs.

One also can­not help but no­tice the gob­stop­per clus­ter of di­a­monds on her left hand – the vin­tage en­gage­ment ring given to her by fi­ancé Pierre-yves Rous­sel, the chair­man and CEO of lux­ury fash­ion group LVMH, on whom Burch first set eyes dur­ing a busi­ness meet­ing. They now jug­gle the chaos of a blended nine-child fam­ily (he has three sons, she has three sons and three step­daugh­ters), liv­ing mostly be­tween New York, The Hamp­tons, An­tigua and Paris.

Tory Burch is the woman who launched a ladies-who-lunch look for a gen­er­a­tion that is more likely to drink a green juice on the hoof be­tween gym classes and work. ‘My la­bel is about women who are in­ter­est­ing, in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous, stylish, busy and do­ing things,’ she ex­plains. ‘I mean, one of the prob­lems I wanted to solve for women was to make things that were ef­fort­less and chic.’

Her spring/sum­mer col­lec­tion was in­spired by the late Bri­tish in­te­rior de­signer David Hicks’s bold flour­ishes and so­phis­ti­cated eye for de­tail, while au­tumn/win­ter took Jackie Kennedy’s sis­ter Lee Radzi­will as its muse. In both cases, Burch’s mind-bog­gling so­cial con­nec­tions gave her a sin­gu­lar view­point; she bor­rowed some of Hicks’s old scrap­books from his son Ash­ley, who is a friend, while Radzi­will is also an ac­quain­tance, so Tory was able to take in­spi­ra­tion from con­ver­sa­tions with her, as well as the par­tic­u­lar shade of pink of her sofa.

Tory Robin­son grew up on a farm in Val­ley Forge, Penn­syl­va­nia with her brothers Robert and James, as well as Leonard, the son of the fam­ily’s house­keeper An­gela, as play­mates. She de­scribes an idyl­lic child­hood spent climb­ing trees and run­ning wild on the fam­ily’s 30 acres of land. Her par­ents, Buddy (a wealthy in­vestor) and Reva (a for­mer ac­tor), had style. ‘I al­ways think my dad should have been a de­signer be­cause he had the most amaz­ing de­tails with his cloth- ing – the cuff of a shirt or his din­ner jack­ets lined with Her­mès scarf silk,’ she re­mem­bers. ‘And my mom too. Less is more in her mind and she al­ways says, “The clothes can’t wear you,” and, “It has to be about the woman.” She al­ways looked great in just a shirt dress and a swept-back, wet pony­tail.’ One of Burch’s sig­na­ture – and best­selling – de­signs is a sim­ple bal­le­rina pump which she named Reva, after her mother.

Be­fore they met, her par­ents had both dated celebri­ties; Buddy stepped out with Grace Kelly, while Reva counted Mar­lon Brando and Steve Mcqueen among her beaux. The cou­ple were ‘free spir­its’ and wel­comed ‘an eclec­tic mix’ of guests to their home as well as tak­ing reg­u­lar ex­tended trips to Europe. ‘It was a lit­tle bit Andy Warhol meets Tom Sawyer,’ Burch laughs. ‘It wasn’t un­til I went to a Quaker school that it was like, wow, my sit­u­a­tion is a bit dif­fer­ent.’

After shak­ing off some of her tomboy­ish ways, she dis­cov­ered a love of fash­ion via her mother’s cou­ture wardrobe. She stud­ied art his­tory at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, then moved to New York to work for the Yu­goslav de­signer Zo­ran, one of Reva’s favourites and ‘the orig­i­nal min­i­mal­ist with hair like Rasputin and a vodka habit which be­gan at 10am each day’.

In New York Burch, who claims to be quite shy, jug­gled a ca­reer work­ing for Harper’s Bazaar, Vera Wang and Ralph Lau­ren with im­mers­ing her­self in the city’s so­cial scene. She dated Matthew Mel­lon, the bank­ing heir who went on to marry Jimmy Choo ex­ec­u­tive Ta­mara, and who died ear­lier this month after a long bat­tle with ad­dic­tion. She also had a short-lived mar­riage to Wil­liam Mack­lowe, son of real-es­tate de­vel­oper Harry Mack­lowe, be­fore even­tu­ally set­tling down in 1996 with Chris Burch, who had made his money at the af­ford­able end of the cloth­ing in­dus­try with a com­pany called Ea­gle’s Eye.

Soon Burch was preg­nant with twin boys, Henry and Ni­cholas. Chris al­ready had three daughters from his first mar­riage – Alexan­dra or ‘Pookie’, El­iz­a­beth and Louisa – so they rapidly be­came a fam­ily of seven, liv­ing in an apart­ment at The Pierre ho­tel over­look­ing Cen­tral Park. By then, Burch was climb­ing the lad­der work­ing in PR and ad­ver­tis­ing at Span­ish fash­ion house Loewe, but when she had a third son, Sawyer, she gave it up.

‘I re­alised I would not be able to do a good job, so I took four years off,’ she says. While jug­gling three kids un­der four, an idea formed for the com­pany she runs now: ‘I knew I wanted to work and I also wanted to help peo­ple and give back.’

‘One of the prob­lems I wanted to solve was to make things that are ef­fort­less and chic’

At first, the Tory Burch USP was her pitch as a real woman de­sign­ing clothes that were more spe­cial than those you’d find on the high street, but not so as­tro­nom­i­cally ex­pen­sive that they were off lim­its. She was a suc­ces­sor to the likes of Diane von Fursten­berg and Donna Karan, but she el­e­vated her de­signs with a feel­ing of grandeur and ex­oti­cism – Ara­bian palace tile prints, coun­try club cover-ups and an op­u­lent logo, which looks a lit­tle like a be­jew­elled cru­ci­fix or aris­to­cratic fam­ily stamp.

Her claims that she couldn’t af­ford de­signer clothes her­self at the time may be a tad over­cooked, but the con­cept, which she worked on with Chris, was a hit: they made $80,000 on the first day her store opened and when Oprah Win­frey told the world in 2005 that Tory Burch was ‘the next big thing’, the web­site got eight mil­lion hits.

In the 14 years since the launch, the fash­ion in­dus­try has trans­formed and the Tory Burch premise of stylish clothes for real life is now the norm, rather than the ex­cep­tion. So where does this leave her? She has launched a sports­wear line, Tory Sport, cre­ated a fra­grance and writ­ten a best­selling book, Tory Burch: In Color. She is also deemed one of the world’s most pow­er­ful fe­male bil­lion­aires by Forbes and is an out­spo­ken voice for women’s em­pow­er­ment, as the head of a foundation that helps fe­male en­trepreneur­s.

What’s it like to be so pow­er­ful? I ask. ‘You’ll have to tell my boys that, they bring you right back down to earth,’ she de­murs. I re­mem­ber see­ing her back­stage at her au­tumn/ win­ter 2018 show at New York Fash­ion Week in Fe­bru­ary. It was a hub­bub of glam­orous chaos with swan­like Burch at its epi­cen­tre, but as soon as she spot­ted Sawyer, now 16, she clicked into mother mode, telling him to hurry up and get to school.

The Tory Burch Foundation was part of the plan from the very be­gin­ning, a busi­ness strat­egy that con­founded many of the in­vestors and ad­vis­ers she ap­proached at the start. ‘I was told never to say “busi­ness” and “so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity” in the same sen­tence then, so it was al­most like “char­ity work”,’ she re­mem­bers, giv­ing her­self a faux pa­tro­n­is­ing pat on the back. She is adamant that the char­i­ta­ble arm helps her to turn a profit now, at­tract­ing great em­ploy­ees and so­cially con­scious cus­tomers.

She was re­cently a key­note speaker at a con­fer­ence about the fu­ture of busi­ness be­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. After­wards, she called the man who had given her the ad­vice not to com­bine the two. ‘Of course, he wrote us a cheque,’ she says wryly. ‘I told him I’d be back next year, too.’ While she doesn’t ‘do pol­i­tics’, she does feel pas­sion­ate about ‘hu­man­ity… I’m proud that some peo­ple have not given us a cheque.’ (Could she be al­lud­ing to Trump?)

To date, the foundation has given $36 mil­lion in low-in­ter­est busi­ness loans in part­ner­ship with Bank of Amer­ica, 170 women have com­pleted busi­ness-ed­u­ca­tion cour­ses and 200,000 have had ac­cess to on­line tools. Burch speaks pas­sion­ately about how hav­ing a baby can push many women un­der the poverty line, and her ad­mi­ra­tion for those with the de­ter­mi­na­tion to do two or three jobs as they try to launch their ideas. Next, she’d like to take the foundation in­ter­na­tional.

Many may have dis­missed Burch as a so­cialite with a pet project, but her idea was crys­tal clear and agenda-chang­ing from the be­gin­ning. ‘I al­ways wanted to build a global lifestyle brand so I could start a foundation for women in busi­ness. When I hear my­self say­ing it now, in ret­ro­spect, it’s a bit em­bar­rass­ing.’

Em­bar­rass­ing? ‘Yes, I had no idea what it re­ally would en­tail to grow a glob­alised style brand and a foundation with­out any busi­ness train­ing in what it meant to run a com­pany and to be a CEO, let alone a de­signer, so I re­ally had to learn on the job.’

An­other word Burch isn’t afraid to use is ‘am­bi­tious’. ‘It re­ally started 13 years ago when there was an ar­ti­cle in The New York Times and a friend of mine read it and said, “A good ar­ti­cle, but you shied away from the word ‘am­bi­tion’.” She was some­one I re­ally ad­mired in busi­ness and ever since then I wanted to change that hurt­ful stereo­type. I thought, “Why am I shy­ing away? Why am I not proud to be am­bi­tious? Why is it OK for a man to be am­bi­tious?”’

She has re­cruited friends such as Gwyneth Pal­trow, Ju­lianne Moore and Reese Wither­spoon to sup­port the foundation’s Em­brace Am­bi­tion cam­paign. Last week she hosted a sum­mit – Em­brace Am­bi­tion 2.0 – where the focus was on am­bi­tion, stereo­type and bias. ‘One thing that’s dif­fer­ent is that we’re in­clud­ing men in the con­ver­sa­tion, be­cause we can talk to women all day and they’ll agree with us, but if we don’t get men in on this topic, things will not move for­ward. It should be a given, equal pay shouldn’t be a favour.’

Tory and Chris sep­a­rated in 2006, but he re­tained a 28 per cent stake in the com­pany, and a place on the board. How­ever, re­la­tions be­tween them turned ugly in 2011, when he be­gan C.won­der, a cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories brand that seemed to take its cues from Tory’s retro-chic sig­na­ture. A long le­gal bat­tle en­sued, un­til even­tu­ally Chris closed the la­bel, sold his stake in Tory Burch and en­dured mil­lions of dol­lars in losses.

Al­though she won’t speak di­rectly about the split and busi­ness wran­glings, Burch does make some pointed com­ments about orig­i­nal­ity. ‘I would never want us to do any­thing ref­er­en­tial,’ she says. ‘I don’t want any­thing to slip through the cracks, we need to push to be cre­ative on our terms – I’m a per­fec­tion­ist.’

Later, at the din­ner Mytheresa hosts in Burch’s hon­our at Ber­lin’s his­toric, shab­bily el­e­gant Clärchens Ball­room, she and Rous­sel chat with ac­tors Michelle Dock­ery and Vanessa Kirby. It was in a meet­ing with LVMH, in 2012, to dis­cuss a pos­si­ble sale, that the cou­ple met. In the end, she took in­vest­ment from BDT Part­ners and Gen­eral At­lantic. She has re­sisted go­ing pub­lic and the most re­cent es­ti­mates put the com­pany’s value at $3.5 bil­lion. Even­tu­ally the pair’s busi­ness re­la­tion­ship be­came ro­man­tic.

‘We’ve al­ways kept things pretty sep­a­rate, but he’s the most bril­liant per­son I’ve ever met, so it is won­der­ful to hear his take on things,’ she says. They plan to marry soon. No doubt it will be the most metic­u­lously planned and taste­fully dec­o­rated so­ci­ety wed­ding of the year.

‘I had no idea what it meant to be a CEO, let alone a de­signer, so I had to learn on the job’

Above Burch with The Crown ac­tor Vanessa Kirby at the Mytheresa fash­ion din­ner ear­lier this month

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.