Tory Burch’s Personal Touch

The designer has built a $3 billion global brand by creating stylish, wearable clothing that always includes a piece of herself.

Tory Burch’s Personal Touch
[Photos: Erik Madigan Heck, Hair: Jessica Gillin, Makeup: Berta Camal, Set Design: Andrea Huelse]

“We’re a little behind,” Tory Burch says. Eighteen hours before her fall/winter 2014 show, as Soul II Soul thumps from the speakers in the designer’s Manhattan showroom, seamstresses rush around, lips pursed around straight pins. Design assistants reach up models’ skirts, tugging and adjusting. Knitters are still making socks.


Amid a forest of models–tall human junipers rising from the room’s grassy green ­carpeting–it’s easy to lose sight of Burch. Even in her chunky, high-heeled boots, the top of her head reaches only to the typical model’s shoulders. Between fittings, Burch wanders alone to a corner. She’s a tad pigeon-toed; her body curves inward over her omnipresent BlackBerry. One boot planted on the carpet, the other tapping to the music, she sways her shoulders just slightly.

This is what passes for Tory Burch’s happy dance. In 2014, her company will post more than $1 billion in revenue just 10 years after its public debut. Nobody in recent memory has built a fashion-and-lifestyle business as quickly as she has. Her empire has 141 stores in 50 countries, e-commerce in seven languages, and a full slate of new projects. This summer, she launched a line of activity-­monitoring devices for Fitbit, making hers the first major fashion house to venture into wearable technology. This fall, her first book, a coffee-table volume called Tory Burch in Color, will be published. Her line of watches, produced with Fossil, and her first collection of dinnerware will hit stores before Christmas. Within the next year, she plans to unveil a sportswear collection, plus her first products for men.

Burch’s business mixes Michael Kors and Martha Stewart–affordable luxury plus aspirational lifestyle–plus a globally inspired, buoyant point of view that’s uniquely hers. Now valued at more than $3 billion, Tory Burch has been the subject of much IPO chatter; Kors had a high-profile IPO almost three years ago (its stock priced at $20 per share and is now trading at around $91), but her company denies it’s interested in pursuing the same goal. She insists she’s a private person–in multiple senses of the term–with a very public persona. Over the months I spent visiting her at her office and at home, watching her work and meeting her family, I came to see her skills and shortcomings. Reserved and even shy, she’s also drily funny, at times emotional, and always canny. When I ask Burch, a youthful 48, how she marked her company’s 10th anniversary, she says: “I was working. I know it’s 10 years, but it’s not like we’ve done that much.” The understatement is typical Burch–emblematic of her modesty, her shrewdness, and her enormous ambition.


The Tory Burch creation story has become legend: As a mom of three young boys, she left her work in fashion PR (which included stints at Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang) to raise her kids. But she always wanted to start something of her own–and she had a vision: “It was pretty simplistic: I wanted great, classic, easy pieces that didn’t cost a fortune,” she says. “How do we design something beautiful that women all want to wear?” Her privileged upbringing shaped her view. Her eccentric, well-to-do parents (her dad, Buddy Robinson, had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange) brought stories and souvenirs back to their Pennsylvania farmhouse from all over the world. Both led memoir-worthy lives–before they married, Buddy dated Grace Kelly; Reva, a former actress, went out with Steve McQueen.


At age 37, using a tunic she found in a Paris flea market as inspiration, Burch assembled a small team and started her company at the kitchen table in her ­Manhattan apartment, where she still lives. True, it was not your standard table or apartment–the marble slab, about as big as a full-size bed, dominates the kitchen of her 9,000-square-foot Pierre Hotel aerie. Also, Burch had advantages most don’t: an adviser in then-husband Chris Burch, who had founded a successful retail chain called Eagle’s Eye, $2 million of their savings, and additional investments from 120 friends and relatives.

Her family helped staff her store, at 257 Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, on its debut day in February 2004. When she threw open those orange doors, otherwise proper ladies shed their decorum and their clothes, turning the shop floor into a sartorial scrum/dressing room. “My brothers,” Burch says in her characteristic deadpan, “were thrilled.” So was she–all $100,000 worth of inventory sold that day, including $350 tunics and $190 shirts. Her business was profitable in year two. With that early success came occasionally catty commentary about her social status. In the press, she was frequently identified as a socialite, not an entrepreneur. “I’m a sensitive person. I’ve had to learn to tune out the negativity and not take it to heart, though sometimes you can’t help it,” she says. “Socialite was a compliment 40 years ago, but it’s now a light, vacuous term. And people were saying, ‘It’s a flash in the pan!’ or asking, ‘Is this just a vanity project?’ ”

No, and no: Sales passed $100 million in 2007, $200 million in 2008, and $500 million in 2011. Imran Amed, founder of the website Business of Fashion, has a simple explanation for Burch’s success: “She creates beautiful things.” But Burch also priced those beautiful things like a retail Goldilocks–not too high, not too low. The Reva ballet flat, named for Burch’s mother, was initially priced at $195 per pair. “My God, the shoes!” says fashion critic Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. “Someone who’s accustomed to spending $700 for a pair in the realm of Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo can buy her shoes and feel like she’s getting a bit of a bargain. And then they’re aspirational for someone for whom Nine West is standard–but not so aspirational that it’s out of reach.” Millions of pairs of Revas have been sold, helping to herald the emergence of “affordable luxury.” It may be the most important segment in global fashion today.


Burch’s office, in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, feels like an extension of her Fifth Avenue apartment. One wall of the bright space is covered with pieces of blue-and-white porcelain from her extensive collection. On a table, there’s a copy of The Little Prince, a favorite book. Her three sons gaze from photos all over the room. And behind her desk, there’s a framed note written in crayon by her youngest son and given to her after the Council of Fashion Designers in America named her accessory designer of the year in 2008. Congratulations Mom, it reads. I hope you feel good. I am suprised you one first prize. I am happy you won. I am suprised you won against marc jacobs and michael Kors. I love you mom. By Sawyer.

Burch, who majored in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, often mines the art world for ideas: Picasso’s pottery informed the spring/summer 2015 looks that she’ll show at Fashion Week in September. But her central muses are her parents. Buddy, who died in 2007, “was a dandy,” Burch says as we sit in her office. “He designed most of his own clothes. He was supersharp–he’d ride a tractor wearing a pink shirt and espadrilles.” When Burch chose armor as an inspiration for the fall/winter 2014 collection, it was because Buddy collected it. When she introduced her largest home line to date, just before the 2013 holidays, the collection included several needlepoint pillows because Buddy did needlepoint. And, of course, there are the Revas. (When I ask Reva Robinson what she thinks of the ballet flats, she pauses, then says, “I don’t love flats, but I’m getting used to them.”)

The family influence extends to a key material in all of her products: optimism, which infuses the storytelling that has been her great hallmark. One might even say her most iconic item isn’t shoes or tunics–it’s a relentless sense of the possible, the sunny promise of the good life.


One day I join Burch and two members of her design team for a brainstorm about new handbags. She pushes her colleagues to think about functionality and commercial appeal. She questions whether a proposed toggle closure is practical, encouraging them gently to “think about it more.” When presented with horsehair tassels, she says: “I love that. So pretty. But it’s really expensive, horsehair–so how do we do it? I don’t know if our price point warrants it.” The most telling moment comes toward the end. As she considers a swatch of water-snake skin, she says, “As long as it reads ‘happy.’ ”

Tory Burch stores, too, are designed to be inviting. “You feel like you’re getting a peek inside Tory’s house,” says retail chief Matt Marcotte, whom Burch hired from Apple three years ago. Even the warm orange color that’s present in every boutique echoes the walls of an expansive library in her apartment. Marcotte has instituted several innovations to increase intimacy with shoppers, including software that allows store associates to better track past purchases (and helps hapless husbands buy for their wives); mini fridges stocked with Coronas, soft drinks, and juice boxes; and iPads loaded with Sports Illustrated and Angry Birds. “Whether you’re shopping or you’re waiting,” Marcotte says, “we want you to leave happy.”

Sonja Prokopec, a professor at ESSEC Business School in Paris, says this personal touch has distinguished Tory Burch in the affordable-luxury sector. Other designers use their own names, but few offer so much of their own lives. “A lot of the affordable-luxury brands, I don’t know how strong they are from a marketing standpoint,” Prokopec says. The personal point of view “is what makes Tory Burch really interesting. People can see something unique.”


Tory Burch has more than 1 million Facebook likes, 125,000 followers on Pinterest, 300,000 on Twitter, and 465,000 on ­Instagram–and every platform extends her persona. The Tory Blog, run by creative director Honor Brodie, a former InStyle editor, might one day feature a musician; the next, entertaining advice; the next, business tips from a mentor in the Tory Burch Foundation, which supports female entrepreneurs. It all reflects how Burch defines herself: as a risk taker who, with a high school friend (the jewelry designer Kara Ross), moved to Alaska for a summer to work in a salmon cannery; who built philanthropy into her business plan when few were doing so; who loves both hip-hop and Donald Judd; who can’t decide whether she’s an extrovert or an introvert. (“She’s a Gemini,” her mom says. “She’s both. It depends on her mood.”)


On Burch’s Instagram feed–which, like Twitter, she updates herself–there’s whimsy: In March, she posed for a silly portrait with a pretzel mask, and for Easter, she posted a cartoon of one part-eaten chocolate bunny talking to another. (“My butt hurts,” says the tailless one, to which the earless other replies, “What??”) There’s heart–she re-Grammed a pic of Malala Yousafzai holding a #bringbackourgirls sign. There’s family, including old pictures of her kids. And there’s stuff she just likes: the cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude, another favorite book, after Gabriel García Márquez died; the Victorian train shed at London’s St Pancras Station; burgundy peonies. In the occasional selfie, her hair isn’t even perfect.

All of this works to create “a reflection of the kind of life one suspects or imagines she lives. She occupies this middle ground between being relatable but not really just like everyone else,” says The Washington Post‘s Givhan. Stanford marketing professor Jennifer Aaker, who has hosted Burch as a guest speaker in her classes, adds that Burch’s rise came amid a decline of faith in faceless institutions: “But people do trust people. When she tweets, blogs, and talks, it’s not just about her clothing. You don’t feel sold to. Women feel connected to her, not necessarily like she’s their friend, but it’s as if they’re a part of her life.”

“I am a private person,” Burch says. Yet she has so infused her business with elements of herself that I wonder how this could be true. One morning, I visit her at home, and after she leaves for a meeting, I chat with her mom in the kitchen. When I ask Burch later about her apparent openness, she says she has boundaries: “I would never allow someone into my bedroom. Or my closet.”


Walking this balance beam between personal and private can be tricky. Early sketches for her flagship Madison Avenue store, which opened in 2011, had too many echoes of her apartment. “I want the stores to be the beginnings of a home. But it was getting to be too similar,” she says. “I am building a business–and it is an extension of me. But there are questions I have to ask, like, ‘How do I shield my family?'”

Sometimes you can’t. After her messy 2008 divorce from Chris Burch, he launched the brand C. Wonder, widely seen as a less-expensive Tory Burch knockoff. He still had a 28% stake in Tory Burch, too, and often called its executives to give instructions that contradicted hers. Then, in 2012, he sued her for breach of contract, setting off a tit-for-tat legal battle accompanied by press coverage that bulldozed through any walls she’d put up. “That was the hardest, most challenging time. I’m not a litigious person,” she says. Her family “had to read things that no one should be reading. It was such a distraction.”


After the suit was settled, Chris Burch sold most of his remaining stake in Tory Burch. Today, the two have a cordial, if sometimes awkward, relationship. One April afternoon, she and I hop in her Audi to be driven to see her 16-year-old twins play in a lacrosse game at school. Shortly after we arrive, her ex shows up. He’s a large man whose voice is as loud as his hot-pink pants and black suede slippers–the right monogrammed in pink with the letters s and m, and i, l, and e on the left. He sits next to her, and they chat for a few minutes about parental things, such as the kids’ sports schedules and their youngest son’s obsession with fish (he can now identify 300 species).

Then he gets up, strolls over to one son’s ­girlfriend, and performs a herky-jerky, embarrassing-dad impersonation of a cheerleader: “Henry and Nick! They’re the ones! Who are going to make us win!”


Burch shakes her head. “I tried to warn him that you were here,” she says. “I don’t think he was listening.” She smiles slightly and turns back to the playing field.

Outside the U.S., Tory Burch has two dozen stores, but a much lower profile–a challenge and an opportunity. Earlier this year, when Burch and some of her team were in Munich to open a shop, one fan nervously approached Suki Wong, the VP of special projects and a member of Burch’s kitchen-table team. Wong’s hair is as black as Burch’s is blond. “Are you Tory Burch?” the fan asked.

Foreign sales have exceeded internal forecasts, rising 40% in Europe and 26% in Asia in the first quarter, and the slate of upcoming store openings suggest strong ambitions: Burch will fly to Shanghai next month to officially open her biggest-ever store. A Milan flagship will open in December, Paris in February. The company’s long-term goal is to generate two-thirds of sales outside the U.S., up from 20% today.


Burch succeeded in the U.S. by giving women something new at an affordable price, and she is seeking to do the same globally. “Do we specifically design for where we’re going?” she asks. “Yes. And we don’t just design things for Chinese women in China. We design things that resonate everywhere–because we have Chinese women shopping all over the world.” Chinese women prefer smaller heels, so she has focused on “creating the perfect pump with the small heel.” Burch has added more outerwear to recent collections, along with ready-to-wear at higher prices. “Anything on the runway sells,” says Lydia Forstmann, who oversees the Asian business. “There is very little price resistance in China.”

Foreign demand is driving Burch’s expansion into men’s products. In Japan, fashion-forward men have been spotted with Tory Burch bags, and, in a few cases, even wearing jeans. In China, shoppers have repeatedly requested men’s leather goods. “Men carry bags, partly because they carry cash,” Forstmann says. “The biggest bill is ¥100 [about $17], so you ­either need a really big wallet or a bag.”

“Men are the largest consumer of luxury goods in China by far,” says designer Jeffrey Uhl, who helped build Coach’s formidable men’s-­accessories business and joined Tory Burch in February. He notes that the one-child policy, coupled with strong cultural bias in favor of sons, has skewed China’s gender ratio: There are now 110 men for every 100 women. “Men have to vie for women. They’re completely peacocks.”


On a bright spring day, several members of Burch’s leadership team gather in her office to discuss how the men’s line should be branded. While women happily buy clothes bearing male designers’ names, conventional wisdom says that men don’t feel the same way about female designers. “Bud Robinson by Tory Burch?” CMO Miki Berardelli (who recently left the company) says. “It’s very long . . . Bud by . . . ?”

A smile plays on Burch’s lips. “Bud Light.”

They laugh about cobranding possibilities and reject Buddy by Tory Burch as “not expensive enough” before someone proposes Robinson by Tory Burch.

“It could lose the ‘Tory Burch’ eventually,” Burch says.

“Mr. Robinson,” communications chief Frances Pennington chimes in.

“Ko-koo-ka-choo!” Javan Bunch, who works on accessories, sings.

“I like Mr. Robinson!” Burch says.

“Or just Robinson,” Honor Brodie says. “It’s a great name.” “Robinson by Tory Burch is strong,” Uhl says. “That’s something I’d spend money on.”

“The ‘by Tory Burch’ could be very small underneath,” Pennington says. “Very small.”

“Nonexistent,” Burch says lightly. “Invisible.”

In May, Burch received her first honorary doctorate, from Babson College, the entrepreneur-focused school near Boston. Her commencement address focused on patience, a virtue that Buddy Robinson emphasized. “We may live in an age of instant messaging, instant gratification, and Instagram,” Burch told the graduates. “There are many things you can do overnight. You can write a decent paper. You can put the finishing touches on a runway show. . . . But there is no such thing as an overnight success. It’s a myth that glosses over what being an entrepreneur is all about.”

Burch benefited from her husband’s expertise at the start. Since then she has had to learn how to run the business and has surprised herself, she says, with how much she has taken to it: “I’ve enjoyed the numbers, though maybe not the minutiae–more the strategy side of things.”

To address her relative inexperience, she has recruited help. In 2008 she asked her half-brother, Robert Isen, to become president of corporate development. He’s her chief sounding board–“my rock,” she says, when I join one of their weekly brother-sister breakfast meetings–and a jack-of-all-trades. Guided by him and Brigitte Kleine, Tory Burch’s president since 2005, she has hired widely (her CIO, Mike Giresi, used to work at Campbell Soup and Godiva, while CFO Paul Davies is a veteran of the candy company Mars) and assembled a diverse group of advisers. Her board now includes former Walmart CEO Lee Scott and two famed investors whose firms acquired most of Chris Burch’s stake, Bill Ford of General Atlantic Partners and Byron Trott of BDT Capital.

Last year, she invited Google chairman Eric Schmidt, whom she’d met at a conference and who also became a board member, to counsel her team about the potential perils of scaling. “Because I’ve only been in tech, I’ve never seen what ­nontech businesses have to go through–how hard it is to raise money, how hard it is to grow, how humblingly difficult. And yet she has managed to do it,” Schmidt says. “Sometimes when you’re in these ­businesses, you don’t understand the problems that you’re going to face in scale. Given their growth rate, these problems come fast.” (Burch also sent Schmidt to one of her stores to learn more about shoes. “They tried to explain to me all the differences, but it didn’t work,” he says. “I think I am just not trainable.” Burch’s response: “We still have some time.”)

Womenswear designer Cecile Renna, another member of Burch’s kitchen-table brigade, laments that startup agility has given way to “the logistics of a big machine.” Since 2011, the company has conducted an annual, firmwide anonymous survey. “What comes up every year as a weakness is communication,” says Kleine. “At the beginning, you just had to turn around, yell over your shoulder, and everyone was on the same page.”

Burch’s most daunting task may be in maintaining a welcome, familial culture within her organization as it grows. She has codified her guiding principles into a mission statement called Buddy Values, which include kindness, humility, and humor. Buddy Values are “really about good manners,” Burch says. “I wanted to create a nonbitchy fashion company.”

While staff were unfailingly hospitable at every store I visited, in anonymous reviews on the website Glassdoor, retail employees repeatedly criticized store managers for failing to uphold Buddy Values. Even at headquarters, spend enough time in the waiting area–as I did for several afternoons–and you’ll overhear cattiness and whining from junior staff. An overweight woman who wasn’t dressed stylishly received brusque treatment. Once, when I approached the receptionist with a question, she was on an obviously personal phone call. When she noticed me, she rolled her eyes: “What?” Petty examples, sure, but ones that Burch would surely blanch at.

“I hope our culture will continue to evolve and get better, because not everything’s good,” Burch says. “We still have a lot of work to do.” Establishing a broader “we” will be important. Says Schmidt, “There are always limitations when you have an iconic founder. There’s only one Tory.”

Burch’s success has fed curiosity about whether her company will pursue an IPO. (The sale of her ex-husband’s stake valued the company at $3 billion.) Burch has always denied that she wants to go public, and her brother Robert reiterates that. Public companies “manage for different things and for different reasons,” he says. “We are not planning to have an IPO. I can say unequivocally that we have no plans for that.”

While Burch is too polite to say so, she doesn’t need the money–Forbes last year declared her a billionaire. She declines to comment on whether that’s accurate, though she does own a majority of her company. “I really do feel like we’re just starting out. It’s not about achieving a particular goal,” she says. “I love when women say, ‘I feel happy when I wear your clothes.’ I love the designing. I love this journey.”

It continues to take her to unexpected places; in March President Obama named her an Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. Reva Robinson marvels at her daughter’s transformation–“Tory was very shy when she was little. I would say she was a koala bear,” she says. “She would just wrap her arms around my leg and not let go.” Later, when I tell Burch that her mom described her pride in her daughter as being “as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean,” she beams.

A couple of weeks later, I sit with Burch in her office as she plows through a salad. (She’s careful, but not abstemious: “I want french fries,” she says suddenly. “Will you have some french fries? Yes, you will. Let’s get some french fries.”) I ask what her late father might have made of her success. She sets her bowl on the coffee table. She looks at her lap, her face reddening. When she looks up, her eyes are puddles. “You’re making me cry!” she says.

She blots at her face with a tissue. “You know, I think he would have been surprised.” Then she laughs. “I’m not sure he would have agreed with all my design choices. He always had his opinions. He disliked this one pair of chunky boots that I have,” she says. “But he was always so proud.”


About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.