Tory Burch, executive chairman and chief creative officer of her namesake brand, and Leandra Medine, founder and chief executive officer of Man Repeller, have more in common than meets the eye.
Both highly successful entrepreneurs with their own businesses, Burch, 53, and Medine, 30, are each mothers of twins (Burch has six children in total); grew up in families with three brothers; work hard at balancing their work and family lives, and have fond memories of shopping at Bloomingdale’s as children.
Those are just a few of the nuggets that emerged Wednesday night in a 35-minute conversation at Bloomingdale’s, where the two discussed style, entrepreneurship and motherhood. Some 250 people attended the event in a specially designated area in the fifth floor shoe department.
“When I was asked to think of a woman entrepreneur [to have the conversation with], Leandra was the first person who came to mind. I love humor and I love women who care about style, but also have more in their lives,” the designer said.
The first topic they discussed was where the names of their respective companies came from. Burch said she originally launched with the name Tory by TRB because everything else she tried was taken. She had that name for a year and a half, but then her friend Kenneth Jay Lane took her out for dinner and said the name was terrible, and she should change it to “Tory Burch.” So Burch changed all the labels and packaging.
Almost 10 years ago, Medine was with a friend downtown and they were talking about the state of Medine’s love life. “I was really disappointed with the quality of relationships, multiple plural, I was in…I was dating an ex-boss, an ex-boyfriend and an ex-Patriot at the same time. I was 20. I was feeling really cool about myself, look at me, and playing the field. It was my real Carrie Bradshaw, ‘Sex in the City,’ coming out moment. It occurred to me that I had been dating every single one for a considerable amount of time, and there was no progression happening. None of them wanted to date me. I went from this feeling of profound empowerment to absolute deflation. And I’m realizing, with my friend, at the dressing room at this store and I’m trying on this acid-wash harem pants, and she said, ‘Of course no one wants to date you, look at what you’re wearing….’”
Medine recalled a “Friends” episode where Joey gives Chandler a gold watch, and says, “It’s the woman repeller.” And I said to my friend, “You’re calling me a man repeller? I’m a man repeller.” We had spoken about the term before, and she said ‘Yeah, you’re a man repeller,’ and in that moment it occurred to me, there was a real empowerment to be had by taking control over the state of your love life, and doing it through a seemingly trivial means, which is actually not trivial at all.”
The conversation then turned to their first memories of shopping at Bloomingdale’s.
Burch said she grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and her mother was very stylish. “It was a big event to take a trip to New York,” she said, recalling visits to Bloomingale’s and FAO Schwarz. “I was probably eight when I first visited Bloomingdale’s. [My mother] was a big partner to Bloomingdale’s. She’s invested a lot here,” said Burch, who recalled her first purchase was probably denim.
Growing up in New York City, Medine recalled going to the kids’ floor on nine. “There were stuffed bears and neon lights…and I recall so desperately wanting a pair of capri pants. I used to see Guess ads on bus stops. And Monkey Wear. Does anybody remember Monkey Wear? But my most recent memory was Forty Carrots, about a couple of hours ago,” she said.
Burch launched her brand 15 years ago, and started selling Bloomingdale’s 13 years ago. “Bloomingdale’s has been an incredible partner. Walking in tonight, it feels like we’re rethinking the whole business,” said Burch, whose handbag shop on the first floor is being remodeled. But the last 15 years have been anything but a cake walk.
“It’s been hard. It’s been super hard,” Burch said. “I have three boys, and raising three children in New York City. I grew up in a farm, so it’s a very different experience. Hopefully being a great mom to my sons, that’s been the most important thing, and building this company.”
After she graduated college, Burch applied for a job at Zoran, a designer whom her sister-in-law knew and her mother wore his clothing. “He said I could have a job if I moved to New York the Monday after I graduated,” Burch said. So she moved into a New York apartment with two friends, and took the job at Zoran. “Working in a white studio, the vodka would start at 10 in the morning. He looked like Rasputin. He basically didn’t like women. He wanted me to cut my hair. He never wanted any makeup on anyone, and wanted me to wear flats every day. He was an incredibly talented designer and he was an innovator. He was one of the original minimalists. He never believed in any kind of hardware,” she said. He dressed women such as Babe Paley and Lauren Hutton.
She then moved to p.r. and marketing roles at Harper’s Bazaar, Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang, and landed at Loewe, which at the time was designed by Narciso Rodriguez. But she became pregnant with her third son and realized she couldn’t do everything and moved back to Philadelphia. “I became a stay-at-home mom for four years,” she said. During that time, she knew she wanted to work and had so many different ideas. “I was so tired hearing myself talk about the ideas, and then none coming to fruition,” she said. “I knew I wanted to start a foundation. That was my business plan. How do you build a company to start a foundation?”
She worked on the concept for a company and her then-husband Christopher Burch, who had a fashion background, helped her raise the money. “We ended up raising the money with 150 investors. Basically, I said to people, ‘Please invest, but be prepared to lose.’ I was so terrified about taking other people’s money. We ended up putting out a wide net.”
Discussing corporate culture, Medine said she’s trying to figure out the perfect balance between comfortable and personable, but still highly professional. “I always keep landing on ‘Be yourself and do what feels right.’ It’s so hard to operation-ize that. But it’s also not as hard as it seems.”
Burch added, “A culture can change in a minute. It’s something you have to work on relentlessly. When you get to be a certain size, it can change like the weather.” Burch said she has 5,000 employees. “Wow, same,” joked Medine. Man Repeller employs 18 people.
In general, Medine said a company changes every five years. She asked Burch if she can crystallize the single most important lesson she’s learned from each of these milestones.
“Every single person I’ve ever spoken with in business, from ceo’s down, said there would be an inflection point at 10 years in business. To be honest, I didn’t really believe it. Literally, at 10 years in business, we hit an inflection point,” Burch said. She explained that when they launched in 2004, everything was crazy and busy, and they had this incredible growth. “Then 2008 happened, and business changed overnight, literally it stopped. We were in New York and had to build after that,” Burch said.
Once they reached 10 years in business, they realized they had to move the company to be ready for the next 10 years. “And we had a lot of work to do. I would say the last four years, it’s been a lot of rethinking what does product mean, less is more, [making] a product with more integrity, consolidating warehousing, putting presidents in regions,” Burch said.
She said her new husband, Pierre-Yves Roussel [former chairman and ceo of LVMH Fashion Group] came on board eight months ago. “Pierre-Yves is the smartest person I’ve ever met and to have him be ceo, I was very happy to give up that title and to really focus on product.”
Balancing work and family life continues to be a challenge for both women. In her own case, Medine said, “It’s 10 hours a day focusing on work, four hours a day focusing on kids, and the rest of the time I’m sleeping pretty much.”
“I worked pretty long hours, but my boys always came first,” Burch said. “I think if I wasn’t a great mom, I wouldn’t be particularly good at anything else. That was my focus. I did juggle. I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at it all the time. My mother was a big participant and helped me a lot,” she said. “I would make doctors’ appointments. I would go to lacrosse games. Part of our culture is how do you have a company that celebrates being a mom? And making it OK to go to a kid’s doctor’s appointment? I expect great work, but we also want a happy person working there.”
As for her own business, Medine said: “Man Repeller is first and foremost a storyteller platform. What I’m most passionate about, and what excites me more than anything else, I’ve always cared more about the story around the brand and the creation of the brand, than the actual product. I always thought in terms of the world a brand allows you access to.”
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