For a self-described anxiety-ridden, bed-wetting total disaster of a child, J. Christopher Burch has done pretty well.
This story first appeared in the January 9, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The self-deprecating entrepreneur and investor said, “The only skills I really have are creativity and intuition. That intuition has allowed me to kind of link to the consumer.”
C. Wonder is a product of Burch’s approach to retailing. “I look at things through the eyes of a little boy,” said Burch, who is chief executive officer of Burch Creative Capital, adding that it’s all about happiness and color and music, especially the Sixties-era tunes played in stores.
C. Wonder operates 13 stores, including three seasonal pop-ups. There are two units in Manhattan, in SoHo and in The Shops at Columbus Circle at Time Warner Center, and a temporary holiday store in the Flatiron District is being converted to a permanent location.
Burch plans to open 50 to 100 stores next year, 20 to 30 of which will be international in Japan, Germany and Dubai. C. Wonder could ultimately open about 110 stores in the U.S. Worldwide, the brand could have 300 to 350 units, Burch has said.
While C. Wonder has grown rapidly, there have been bumps along the way. “Our first rtw season was deplorable,” Burch said, referring to quality. “Initially, there were a lot of problems. About 50 percent of what we did was a failure and 50 percent was good. My systems looked amazing from the outside, but didn’t work well at all. Our first two stores outside New York City were disastrous locations, so we’re learning a lot about real estate.” On the plus side was packaging, which consists of a bold, stylized “C” logo.
Then there was the headline-grabbing lawsuit Burch filed on Oct. 2 against his ex-wife, Tory, claiming her board was hindering his efforts to sell part of his stake in the company they founded together. Tory Burch countersued, alleging that her former husband used his role as a director at and consultant to her company to develop “copycat” products for C. Wonder. The lawsuit was settled last month, with the terms undisclosed.
Asked if he was happy to have the lawsuit and its attendant publicity behind him, Burch said, “I’ve been getting so much good press. I mean, everybody loves me,” he said of the media. “Who wouldn’t like a 60-year-old guy? They’re going to love me a lot more than a beautiful 32- or 42-year-old woman.” Under his breath, he added, “Well, actually, Tory’s 39.” Burch continued: “Tory’s an amazing woman. We built a great company together. I’ve moved on.”
Burch comes across as outspoken and antic, saying the idea for C. Wonder came to him during a contemplative moment at Costco. “C. Wonder came from my anxiety,” he explained. “When I have a bad day, I go to my favorite store, which is Costco. I eat little samples of the food, as you can tell from my waistline.” Looking out at Costco’s center pad between nibbles, Burch saw the apparel housed in bins and thought, “There needs to be a concept that has a taste level, that’s cool.”
Burch has one simple rule when it comes to retailing. “All we care about is our customer,” he said. “Other speakers talked about how important fashion is and the product. I actually think the [store] environment and voices of the customer are more important. When you have no rules or regulations, you can tell your sales staff, ‘You can do anything you want to make them [customers] happy.’ We train our sales staff to break their own rules. When a customer returns something, we usually give them a pair of $39 earrings. We don’t embrace change, we kind of demand it.”
Value to C. Wonder customers is of prime importance. “Our girl wants the look of a $2,000 handbag for $195. How do we deliver? It goes back to the factory, it goes back to the sourcing.” To Burch, after the customer, the vendor is most important: “If there are any factories here, I love you to death.”
For this reason, Burch and his team made 175 trips to China in the past two years, searching for factories off the beaten path. “Everything’s hidden there.…You find these little jewels with unbelievable pricing,” he said. “We’re at a big disadvantage because we have only 20 stores, so our minimums are a disaster.” With wages rising in China, the key to keeping costs down is “to keep getting closer to the end manufacturer,” Burch said. “We always work on 80 percent margins. We don’t believe in the high-low thing. You have to get the sourcing right to do that.”
In an interview with WWD in October 2011, Burch discussed launching “one retail concept after another” with a string of high-profile ventures that could lead to 1,000 stores nationwide. In November, Burch said he would focus on his first two brands out of the gate, C. Wonder and Monika Chiang.
Monika Chiang has been doing “OK,” Burch said. “It hasn’t caught on. We keep fighting. Monika is the toughest thing because there are too many competitors.” Burch said he always looks for the opportunity to launch a brand, which he calls “the gaping hole in the market. The hole [in footwear] wasn’t gaping enough. It’s unbelievable pricing for the quality. I’m actually begging everyone in this room who owns a store, ‘Please, I’d like to sell some wholesale.’ We’ve sold to a few stores like Intermix. We need a Nordstrom and a Neiman’s to get the brand going. But we’re not giving up.”
Burch has an affinity for physical stores, especially for C. Wonder. “There’s too many malls, obviously,” he said. “It’s very hard to build a brand online without brick-and-mortar. You have to feel and touch. We’re very big online, but I love that experience [in stores].”
He’s breaking his own rule with his newest concept, however: Poppin, an online office supply store that again puts his color theory to use. “Poppin actually is working well right now,” Burch said. “Poppin is a home run.”
Burch has an arsenal of retail concepts up his sleeve, including Electric Love Army. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s a home concept, No. 9 Christopher, that’s close to his heart. “I’ve worked on it for six years,” he said. “We have 600 pieces of furniture designed. Everything’s ready to go, but it’s a difficult, difficult business. That’s my most exciting brand.” He said it may take another six to 10 years before the public gets a glimpse of it.
As for how he picks concepts to launch, Burch has a simple mantra: “I see big gaping holes in the market where people should go,” he said. “I go after big gaping holes.”