LONDON, United Kingdom — Over the past nine years, designer and businesswoman Tory Burch has steadily cultivated a veritable fashion empire founded on the winning combination of chic and colourful bohemian-prep sportswear at accessible price points that will reportedly generate over $1 billion in sales this year. Now, as the brand approaches its ten year anniversary, Ms Burch, who is both creative director and chief executive of her eponymous fashion company, sat down with BoF founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed for a live interview (full video above), which traced her personal and professional trajectory before an audience of industry professionals and fashion students at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London.
Ms Burch, who embodies that all-American optimism-meets-pragmatism spirit, revealed how, after a stint as a design assistant and years spent working for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar, Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Loewe, she launched her own brand out of her New York apartment. With neither formal business school nor design school training, she dove in headfirst, launching multiple product categories and a standalone retail store, as well as e-commerce, on day one, in what were contrarian and risky moves.
The direct-to-consumer strategy gave her total control over the customer experience, right from the start, and provided a powerful platform for brand storytelling. It was an approach that worked. By the end of its opening day, the original Tory Burch boutique at 257 Elizabeth Street had almost completely sold out of inventory. As for launching with multiple product categories, Burch told Amed, “We did it because we could; we found the factories,” referencing the relationships she formed early on with manufacturers in China.
Recounting the early years of building her business, Burch continued: “In the beginning it was one analyst from Goldman Sachs (who was 25), myself, a friend who was a designer at another company who was helping me sketch, Suki and Cecile — and that was it. It was very bare-bones. But two years later, we had about 14 people working out of our apartment. Our president who came to interview with me at my apartment was president of Michael Kors at the time and she was told that she was going to commit career suicide if she committed to our company, but she's been with us [ever since] and really helped us build the company. It's really about finding star people. And also about knowing what you're good at and what you're not."
A bit of publicity doesn’t hurt either. “The day after we appeared on Oprah, we had close to 8 million hits on our website. We were only ten months old,” said Burch, as she recounted her appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s US television talk show, less than a year after launch.
A fashion star was born.
And, with time, the Tory Burch brand caught on, not only with American women, but also with consumers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “We’re proud to be an American brand, but Tory Burch is about women, globally, who inspire us, not just American women,” Burch told the room. “A lot of our Asian customers actually said our logo was good luck because it was round. We even work with a feng shui master — and have since the beginning. He actually said we have to get the logos off the bottom of our shoes!”
Her journey has not been without its roadblocks, however. In late 2012, a legal dispute arose between Tory Burch and her ex-husband Chris Burch around corporate governance and copyright infringement (he had launched his own brand, C. Wonder, largely modeled after the brand they had founded together). At the time, Chris Burch still owned a sizeable chunk of the Tory Burch stock and the lawsuit effectively prevented her and the company from moving ahead with growth and investment plans. “We just wanted to settle and move on as quickly as possible,” she told Amed.
In recent years the “affordable luxury” category has seen rapid growth. And a recent spate of IPOs by Michael Kors, Vince and Moncler seemed to pave the path for other fashion brands to follow suit. But Ms Burch was quick to dismiss speculation that the Tory Burch brand was preparing to IPO. “I can promise you I have never had that conversation. It’s not something I’m interested in anytime soon,” Ms Burch told Amed. “I’m not saying it’s something my partners aren’t interested in, but for me it’s really not anything that drives me.”
What does drive her is family. “My boys are my priority 100 percent and my team knows that. I take them to school every morning and I’m home by six-thirty most nights. Regardless of what is happening at the office, you have to set those boundaries. I would never be able to be a good CEO or designer if I wasn’t a good mom,” she said.
Despite her packed schedule, Ms. Burch has also found time to give back. In 2009, she established the Tory Burch Foundation, empowering women around the country to strengthen their economic livelihoods through micro-financing, mentoring, and business development, something she touched upon frequently during the talk.
When asked what the biggest challenge facing women entrepreneurs today was, she answered without hesitation: “Sometimes women entrepreneurs are their own challenge, [in terms of] believing in themselves. There is no need to apologise for being ambitious.”
To watch the full video of Imran Amed's live interview with Tory Burch click here.