Her appearance marked the in-person return of “The Atelier With Alina Cho” after more than a year, although many others tuned in via the livestream. Nearly 17 years after starting her signature company, Burch opened up about some of the peaks and valleys of not only her career, but also those brought on by the pandemic. With an estimated $1.5 billion company, the designer referenced the importance of her team, “never being the smartest person in the room and hiring people who are smarter. I want to take ownership of our success and celebrate it. But success is not how I look at things. It’s a journey and it can change overnight. We have all seen that.”
She continued, “Anyone who has a business here knows that something comes everyday — a new challenge or a great thing. You just take it for what it is. But you never pat yourself on the back and think that you are here. [Laughs] I don’t know where here is. For me, it’s just a long journey and a great one. It’s fun. I love doing what I do.”
Early on in the pandemic, Burch lobbied with politicians, pushing for federal aid on behalf of the fashion industry. The designer decided to take action since no one was looking out for the 4 million-plus workers who potentially could lose their jobs. “When you think of people saying, ‘Fashion is a light industry,’ it’s the exact opposite. It is the heart and soul of America, after Wall Street,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that they had a voice. Also, we were lobbying for us, for real estate and our landlords because we are all in an ecosystem. If one group doesn’t do well, we all don’t do well.”
Having been inspired for so long by her stylish parents and their travels, Burch said the pandemic-caused pause made her realize “there’s so much in America to be enamored with.”
As for the current state of consumer spending, Burch said retail is doing really well. “I see and talk to a lot of people and their businesses are doing quite well. That said, it’s a scary time. I always think about the possibility of being in a bubble. You just don’t know. Certainly with the macro environment and all the different things that happen in different countries at any given moment. We have COVID-19 on top of the political and international issues.” she said.
She said she was excited to have one of her runway looks featured in the “In America: A Lexicon of American Fashion” exhibition now on at the Costume Institute not far from a design by Claire McCardell, who inspired her spring line. “Claire McCardell is really why sportswear exists today in the way that it does. She was one of the first people to put a zipper on a dress and pockets. She took a lot of elements from workwear and the way that men dressed and created this freedom for women. I don’t think she really gets the credit that she deserves. That’s why I wanted to highlight her,” said Burch, who has also funded a new fellowship for further research about McCardell.
Eyeing a photo of McCardell’s “Popover” dress, which came with a potholder that fit in the oversize pocket of the dress, Burch quipped, “It’s hard to believe, right?” The dress retailed for $6.95 and 75,000 units were sold in the first season. “What’s interesting about her clothing is that it’s hard to find, because women wore it to shreds. Couture was inspired by her in Europe. People were looking to her. It was never about a price point.
“I just find it interesting that people question the impact that American fashion has had on global fashion. If you think about where sportswear started, certainly with Claire McCardell, street[wear] and all the other things that so many places around the world have take on…” Burch said.
Having happily handed over the chief executive officer title to her husband, Pierre-Yves Roussel, Burch said she has been able to focus more on design and the creative. “For so long, I was so protective of my family and my privacy. I wanted to keep a very separate life. We have a lot of children [nine between the two of them] — modern family,” Burch said. “But over the last four years I’ve let a lot more of myself into the company. [With] Instagram alone, I wanted people to see what was happening during COVID-19, which was not a happy thing. In the beginning, we lost someone who was very dear to me. We had 300 [freestanding] stores shut for three months. It was looking at something that you had spent 16 years building basically crumbling to the ground. There was nothing you could do, aside from the people that you love being sick. That was the worst part,” said Burch, adding that no one knew when or how things would improve. “How do we take care of our employees? How do we keep their health care? There were so many things coming at you.”
In March 2020, Burch and her husband decamped to her Hamptons home and hunkered down, working 18-hour days from her library. “We had just got married. He moved to New York from Paris and COVID-19 happened,” she said.
Business-wise, Burch said the company is performing quite well and is back on track. Chalking that up partially to women wanting to dream and feel great, she said, “I’ve always been intrigued by how do we make women more confident. How do we stand for something that isn’t about a price, or luxury or not. It’s about quality and beauty. I think people are tired of staying in. They want to go out, celebrate and enjoy life.”
Starting a foundation for women was an impetus for creating a lifestyle company. Although Burch created the foundation in 2009, she only spoke of it more publicly five years ago, previously wary that others would perceive it as marketing. Her purpose-driven business plan fell flat with some. Burch said she was “laughed out of the room, particularly by a lot of men,” for having a business plan that set out to change the dynamic for women, Burch said. In fundraising, “I was told very concretely never to say ‘business and social responsibility,’ or as they put it ‘charity work,’ in the same sentence.”
To date, the Tory Burch Foundation has doled out $1.3 million in grants. Through a partnership with Bank of America, the designer has given $65 million in loans to more than 3,500 female entrepreneurs. After Cho noted that 50 percent of entrepreneurs are female and only command 2.3 percent of VC capital, Burch said, “That’s just not smart business. If women were in leadership roles more, we would not have the issues that we have today.”