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Tory Burch: Rolling the Dice

Tory Burch took risks to build her brand.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD/DNR CEO Summit issue 11/14/2007

Tory Burch took risks to build her brand.

In four years, Tory Burch has gone from mother and high-profile New York socialite to a bona fide entrepreneur — and her rapid rise in the fashion world has many asking just how it all happened. Ask Burch herself and she will make CNN the culprit.

“In 2001, after Sept. 11, I was addicted to watching CNN, and every time I turned it on there was a commercial that kept coming up,” Burch said. “The commercial’s message was basically about following your dream, going for it and taking a risk. It may sound odd, but it truly inspired me to take that risk and really begin strategizing about my concept of our brand.”

Today, she has 10 stores; a wholesale network counting some 400 doors; customers nationwide for her Reva ballet flats, her tunics and other products with the Tory touch — and the attention of the fashion industry. At the WWD/DNR CEO Apparel Summit, the Philadelphia native chronicled her decision to start her own business, her strategy along the way and her hopes for its future.

From the get-go, Burch proposed a complete lifestyle, replete with about 15 categories, including jewelry, ready-to-wear, handbags, shoes, candles, umbrellas and a store on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan.

“We have always made a point about thinking outside of the box and making decisions about the brand,” she said. “Rather than launching through wholesale, the more traditional route, we decided to introduce our concept through our store in downtown New York. We also felt that introducing our line in a retail store would be the only way to ensure the consistency in the image and branding of the company. Spending an incredible amount of time on every detail of the store, whether it was the orange velvet curtains, the brass doorknobs, the comfortable couches, the chandeliers, the lights, the flowers that stood on the table or the music that played, everything was incredibly thought out. I wanted to go away from what was traditionally a store environment, and I wanted it to feel as if you were walking into my living room.”

Burch had been a fan of fashion from a young age, and she credited her parents for instilling her with the passion for clothes.

“I used to always watch my mother, Reva, get dressed at night, and just look incredibly stylish,” Burch recalled. “And my father had his own innate sense of style. He used to design every piece of his clothing and have incredible details, like lining his dinner jackets with Hermès scarves and piping them and all of his shirts with his initials. He was one of my biggest, biggest inspirations.”

Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she moved to New York, and learned about the business of fashion, design and public relations working for Zoran, Harper’s Bazaar, Polo Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Narciso Rodriguez during his Loewe stint.

“At Ralph Lauren I saw firsthand what it was to build a luxury lifestyle brand,” Burch recalled. “At Vera, I saw someone who was known as a bridal designer transform her public image and expand into the world of ready-to-wear. And with Narciso, I saw how he took a leather house and made it into a designer collection business.

“These were important years for me and I absorbed a great deal about the creative process and about building a brand in general,” she added. “Each of these designers was vigilant about protecting their designs and their individual points of view. They were creating timeless, classic pieces that had a level of style and quality that truly set them apart. They were trying to build more than just a collection each season. They truly were building a brand.”

The impetus to create her line did not necessarily come from these valuable experiences, though. Instead, in 2001, Burch concluded that designer price points were rising to such stratospheric heights that there was a niche opening in the market.

“I’ve always been a big fan of designer clothing, but I was tired of spending designer prices,” Burch said. “I believed there was a void to be met in the market that was classic American sportswear that was chic and simple but also well priced. I wanted to give women wearable and stylish clothing that fell somewhere between the contemporary and designer markets. The accessibility was an incredibly important part of our company and that’s something that is a challenge every day and that’s something that my design team and I work hard on.”

Initially, Burch had wanted to relaunch popular Sixties label Jack’s, which was best known for classics like peacoats, shift dresses and sequined dresses, but when negotiations with the owners of Jack’s fell through, she cooked up the concept for her own line. For the style and look of the collection, she carefully studied photographs of her parents vacationing in Morocco, Greece and Turkey in the Sixties and Seventies; David Hicks prints from that era for the home, and the women of that time. “These women, to me, just represented a definitive sense of individual style and they were taking classic looks but giving them their own sensibility,” she said. “I hoped these women would be able to do the same with the collection that I was hoping to offer.”

And then she stumbled across a vintage polyester tunic at a flea market, which was to set the tone for the venture. “From there we developed a full line, whether it was epaulet button-down shirts inspired by my father, classic satin shells, wide- and skinny-leg pants, sequined T-shirts and, of course, ballet flats,” she said. “I just wanted to do great pieces that were seemingly very simple but impossibly hard to find. Having no formal design training, I relied heavily on the years I spent working alongside those incredible designers. I talked to many of my friends, editors and fashion designers for advice and I showed them the book that I’d spent the last year creating.”

Burch quickly turned her apartment into a sample showroom, with swatches and fabric scattered throughout. Convincing her Hong Kong manufacturing partners, she recalled, was not an easy task. “From the factory standpoint it was a huge risk for them to initially go with our concept,” Burch said. “Obviously we couldn’t meet their minimums and it took me endless dinners and endless conversations to really convince them of what we were doing. I was passionate about the concept and luckily they were all, in the end, willing to work with us.”

She also put much emphasis on branding, working with branding experts ModCo to create the logo, packaging, hang tags and shoe boxes. After eight months of developing the line, Burch opened the Elizabeth Street store during fashion week in February 2004, and simultaneously, an e-commerce division. “We invited our friends and people in the fashion industry and I was incredibly scared that no one would show,” she recalled. “But at the end of the day, by six o’clock, we ended up doing about $100,000 in sales and we virtually sold through all of our inventory.” And she caught the eye of Bergdorf Goodman, which ordered her line on the spot, and Oprah Winfrey, whose producers called to propose a segment on her.

“The success was immediate,” she said of starring on Winfrey’s show. “The next day we had 8 million hits on our Web site and it seemed that all of a sudden women across America knew who we were. I have to say a lot of our success is because of that, and I attribute it to Oprah’s support.”

In addition, Burch cited celebrity endorsements of her line as a major contributor to her success.

“We do not advertise, so having the product visible in the press is very important,” she said. “We have been lucky enough to have incredible support from people in this industry. Catherine Zeta-Jones last year wore one of our black sequined dresses, and in two days it was sold out across America. Cameron Diaz was just recently featured in People magazine wearing our Reva ballet flats, and we can’t keep them in stock.”

Burch said it was important to her to maintain complete creative control over her products, even as she sought to expand her assortment through licenses, such as footwear.

“By keeping control over the creative vision and the way the product is sold and promoted, we were able to better protect and control the image of our company,” she said. “Fortunately, [footwear licensee] Vince Camuto’s organization was willing to work with us in this way. And he has been an incredible partner, and we would never be where we are in our footwear business without him.”

As for the future, Burch hopes to explore a fragrance, home collection and eyewear line, though she is keeping her main focus on growing rtw and accessories for the moment. She is also slated to open seven more stores next year: one in Houston, two in Las Vegas and several in both California and Florida.

Asked about whether she had received interest from major conglomerates and how she feels about it, Burch had this to say: “We’ve definitely been talking to a lot of different people, but at this point we’re not ready. But I always like keeping the conversations open and learning about different companies as well.”