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
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