Walk down any street in central Hong Kong, New York, London or Shanghai and you’ll spot women of every age wearing print coats, woven sandals or bright ballet flats stamped with the striking TT logo. Quirky, distinctive, classy dressing used to require an intrepid lifestyle and an eye for the unusual, but former PR and marketing director Tory Burch, 47, has made that goal much easier to obtain thanks to her accessible outfits in a range of bright colours and luxurious textures.
She also built an exceptionally successful business along the way. “Something was missing in fashion,” says Burch, with a modest smile. “It took a two-year process to figure out exactly what that was: well-made clothing that’s also affordable. We hit a place in the market that wasn’t being addressed.”
Burch’s perfectly preppy, impossibly youthful blonde looks, coupled with her diminutive size, give the initial impression of a beautiful china doll. However, her extraordinary success (she is the second-youngest self-made female billionaire in the US) seems apt once she starts speaking. Pensive yet approachable, she is happy to discuss every aspect of her business and share her thoughts on fashion, feminism and her family..
As an avid reader, Burch quickly strikes up a conversation on Chinese literature, in fact, offering to send me a copy of a book she recommends. “I was an art-history major and I love all aspects of culture,” she says, smoothing back her highlighted hair. “It helps me to focus my designs and turn them into a collection.”
The billion dollar baby
On our shoot at Sevva in Hong Kong, Burch is initially withdrawn but she soon warms up, admiring her surroundings and flirting for the camera while showing us pictures of her three strapping sons, who she apparently stalks on Facebook. Beneath the sweet exterior, however, there’s a steeliness that has seen Burch through takeover bids and a divorce from husband Chris Burch, who went on to launch C. Wonder, a series of US-based lifestyle stores with a similar aesthetic to the Tory Burch label, but at lower prices. “I went through a very public and difficult situation, which was not fun,” she says, looking me straight in the eye. “That was something we never knew we’d be dealt. When it’s your name, it comes back to you.”
The Tory Burch name is now all-powerful: the brand was valued at over a billion dollars in 2012 and currently has 100 freestanding boutiques, as well as presence in more than 1,000 department and specialty stores worldwide. “In 2004, we had a five-year plan to open three shops in New York,” says Burch with a laugh. “I still can’t believe what we’ve done nine years later. I’m so proud of us all.” Today, Burch has an extensive design team in New York, a city that is at the heart of her label. “It’s incredible for street style and as a place it is so inspirational for me,” she says. “Never in a million years did I think I’d raise my kids there, but I can’t possibly leave now.”
Growing up in Pennysylvania
Burch herself enjoyed a privileged childhood of tennis parties and balls in the Pennsylvania countryside, and her family is no stranger to glitz and glamour: her father was heir to a paper-cup fortune and dated Grace Kelly in his youth, while her mother was once linked to Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. “Everything I do is inspired by my mother, and that’s especially true with this collection—everything from the latticework to the way she dresses,” says Burch, who often visits her childhood home. “She’s also an organic gardener and she passed on her love of it to me.”
Upon leaving home, Burch studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and she spent a term abroad via a cruise from Spain to Japan. The sights, sounds, smells and, most importantly, the colours she encountered encouraged her to write a book of inspiration that later formed the basis for her early designs. “When I arrived in Asia at 19, my eyes were immediately opened to everything,” says Burch. “I had never seen anything like this. It was pretty amazing. I owe a lot to those early encounters.”
Despite that initial surge of creativity, Burch put her design aspirations aside for more than a decade to work in PR and marketing for such illustrious names as Narciso Rodriguez, Vera Wang and Ralph Lauren. Motherhood proved the catalyst for her remarkable career change. “I had three boys under the age of four and I couldn’t manage the workload,” she says. “I quit my job and took four years off as it was impossible to do both successfully.”
Once her children were in pre-school, she started designing brightly coloured clutch bags and ballet flats from her New York apartment and, buoyed by the reaction of her friends, opened a small boutique in the Nolita neighbourhood. “I initially named it Tory by TRB as I wanted to keep my name my own, but as we gained in popularity, everyone started calling it Tory Burch anyway, so I gave in and changed it.”
To read the full story of Tory Burch, get a copy of Malaysia Tatler July 2013 issue, available on newsstands now or click here to purchase the digital version.
Words: Melissa Twigg; Photography: Sean Lee-Davies