“This is so nerve-racking,” Tory Burch said as she waited to deliver her commencement address at Babson College in May. As she stood in a sauna-like dance studio-turned-dressing room that stank of accumulated sweat--it could have used a Tory Burch candle or two--she fiddled with the hair clips holding her mortarboard in place, and she flipped through cards containing her speech. “Did you see the size of that tent?”
A few minutes later, in the tent where the commencement ceremony was held, Burch spoke to the graduates about a virtue that her late father, Buddy Robinson, emphasized: patience. “We may live in an age of instant messaging, instant gratification, and Instagram,” she said. “There are many things you can do overnight. You can write a decent paper. You can put the finishing touches on a runway show. I hear you can even have a pretty good time at Roger’s Pub,” a famed watering hole among Babson undergrads. “But there is no such thing as an overnight success. It’s a myth that glosses over what being an entrepreneur is all about.”
Tory Burch has blossomed into a global lifestyle brand more quickly than any other in the last decade. This year, it will pass $1 billion in revenue for the first time. Burch has built her empire so quickly by shrewdly focusing on going slow, with patience as a surprising, core company value. “We have a long-term vision,” she says. “It’s not as if everything came so easy. It’s been years of successes--and sometimes not.”
Burch has always had big ambitions, but she didn’t have a master plan at the brand’s genesis. “It’s not like I said I wanted to do a lifestyle brand immediately. It was organic. It became that. I just knew I wanted it all to be different from what was on the market. And when I was personally missing things, it wasn’t just one category. It was the ballet flats. It was a caftan. It was a bathing suit. So it became a lifestyle concept. Back then, the term wasn’t being used a lot--or maybe it was, and I didn’t know,” Burch says. “Now I don’t like it, in fact.” (She must not dislike “lifestyle brand” too much; it’s still used on her website.)
Burch mapped out 12 categories that would eventually form the universe of her brand. The company has systematically expanded into them, but even today, several categories remain underdeveloped, including jewelry, swimwear, and home. Burch says she’ll get to them all someday. “I often say it’s like a lab,” she says of her company. “We test.” When she’s prepared to try a new category, she’ll usually tiptoe in with a few products. “That gives us the opportunity to learn,” Tory Burch president Brigitte Kleine explains. “We apply our patient mentality--and then eventually we launch.”
Or sometimes they don’t. Eight years ago, Burch designed onesies and kid-size tunics, testing the childrenswear market. Customers wanted it, she says, “and I like kids!” Her design team quickly learned how much they didn’t know. “We were taking some of our adult styles and scaling them down, and we were having fun,” Kleine says. “But there are a lot of restrictions on kids, because of all the safety regulations. You really need a team that understands everything from the design to the merchandising to the production.” Still, she adds, “we will go back into children’s one day.”
Last fall’s experiment with housewares was more successful. The initial foray included needlepoint cushions (her dad did needlepoint) and a nutcracker (a nod to a Robinson holiday tradition). Save the ice bucket, which didn’t sell as well as hoped, buyers bought. “It’s a tough category. It’s known to be hard to make money,” Kleine says. The team managed their own expectations; compared with shoes or clothes, “you will have a lot of customers looking at it and not as many people buying it.” The experiment was successful enough that, this holiday season, they’ll go bigger, with more needlepoint pillows and a line of china.
Often, patience means declining potentially lucrative opportunities. For instance, “we’ve said no to a lot of stores internationally, especially in China,” says Lydia Forstmann, who oversees the company’s Asian business. “We could have gone for store count, but we’ve waited for the right brand adjacencies, the malls in what we consider the right locations, and the good landlords. Some people have said, ‘You’re late to the market!’ And maybe we have: Sometimes it feels like we’re playing catch-up. But it takes time to build the right relationships.”
That’s true, too, with Burch’s philanthropy, which was always part of her business plan. (Her brother, Robert Isen, recalls Burch saying years ago, “I want to start a company so that we can one day start a foundation.”) She’s candid enough to confess that, at first, she just wanted her work to help somebody; she didn’t know who or where or how. She thought about poor children. She considered--and visited--Haiti. Finally, she settled on what she knew--women entrepreneurs--and their struggles with access to capital, mentoring, and networks.
Since starting the Tory Burch Foundation five years ago, Burch has systematically sought out like-minded partners to amplify the work, including the not-for-profit Accion and Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women initiative. Earlier this year, her foundation announced a joint venture with Bank of America called Elizabeth Street Capital. It will offer education, financing, and networking support to aspiring Tory Burches in various sectors. Most importantly, it will provide scale that Burch’s company couldn’t quickly build on its own.
“Tory was never one to look at the clock,” Hayley Boesky, a close friend who was also one of her college roommates at Penn, says. “It’s always been about the optimal output, not about the time.”
“We’re not in a rush,” Burch told me. “I really do feel like we’re just starting out. It’s not about achieving a particular goal. I love this journey.”
At a recent staff town-hall meeting, she offered context for that. One sign of the company’s success: There’s no longer a space at headquarters large enough for everyone to gather. So she bused everyone to Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. The auditorium had been Tory-fied: Waist-high Chinese-porcelain vases overflowed with branches heavy with white blossoms--from the orange tree, of course.
It’s typically Tory to put a new spin on an old inspiration. Toward the end of the town hall, after thanking everyone for their contributions, she shared her favorite poem, “Ithaka,” by the Greek-Egyptian writer Constantine Cavafy. In “Ithaka,” an unnamed narrator offers perspective to the Homeric warrior Odysseus, as he continues his long, homeward journey.
It seems an appropriate choice: grandly ambitious yet deeply personal. Odysseus, of course, battled unexpected foes and suffered betrayals. But he was also canny. He benefited from a little magic and the occasional divine blessing. History remembers him as a hero. “But do not hurry the voyage/It is better to let it last for long years,” the poem says. “And even to anchor at the isle when you are old, rich with all that you have gained on the way.”