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Exclusive: Tory Burch on life 'perpetually' out of her comfort zone and why big risks pay big dividends

Thursday - 7/24/2014, 11:57am  ET

A woman with a list of names stood by the open door.

“How long will Tory Burch be here?” I asked, while checking in under an awning bearing Burch's signature double-T logo at SouthPark Mall in Charlotte.

“Probably around 20 minutes,” the slim young woman with a chic bun atop her head replied with a smile.

Well, an hour and a half later, the petite fashion powerhouse, donning a summer tweed skirt and jacket and sky-high pumps, was still shaking hands, talking clothes and posing for selfies.

I stayed the whole time just to confirm: Yes, Burch did meet every single woman in the room.

It’s been 10 years since Burch opened her first retail store on Elizabeth Street in New York City, and what started as buzz over medallioned ballet flats and vintage-chic tunics, is now a full-blown roar.

The rookie designer had worked in public relations and marketing for bigtime names such as Ralph Lauren, Harper’s Bazaar magazine, Vera Wang and Narciso Rodriguez. Before taking a three-and-a-half-year break that ultimately led to her launching her own line, Burch was working at Spanish luxury fashion house Loewe, and was approached about being the president of it.

And when she opened her first retail store in 2004, she did it knowing that most designers start with a soft launch. They build up a client base, try to make headlines and then go brick and mortar.

But for Burch it worked. Now a global sensation, she has more than 120 freestanding boutiques and a presence in more than 3,000 department and specialty stores, from London to Hong Kong to the United Arab Emirates.

And in 2009, the designer launched the Tory Burch Foundation, a nonprofit to support the economic empowerment of women. This year, she announced a partnership between the foundation and Bank of America, through which the bank will be giving a total of $10 million in loans to female entrepreneurs.

I spoke with Burch on the phone Wednesday to get a picture of what it was like in the early days of her company — and how she runs it now as a worldwide brand.

Tell me how you felt when you were pregnant with your third son and decided to take time off. What was it like doing that when your career had been full-speed-ahead until then?

It was a very tough decision but a very clear one because I was at a point in my career where I’d been offered the next big step, a very big job, to be president of the company. I was pregnant with my third son and had twin babies at home. I obviously care about being a mom first. But it was hard because my career is very important to me.

So what was it like when you first went home?

It was actually easier than I thought. I really enjoyed that time and I was busier than ever. Moms have a lot to do. And I really had fun, played a lot of tennis and spent time with my family. And with my boys. I did a lot of little classes with them, taking them to the park.

It wasn’t about a specific amount of time I wanted to take off. It was that I really wanted to be there during the infant and baby stages.

I came up with the idea of the company and had been working on it throughout. We worked out of my apartment for the first two years.

You’ve talked about how when you were pitching to investors, many of the men said, “ Never say social responsibility and business in the same sentence” — even though it was important to you. What about other naysayers? What did they tell you?

There was a lot of negativity and people rolling their eyes. And, by the way, it was a risk. I hadn’t been to business school, hadn’t been to design school. It was something I was delving into without the background to do it.

One thing my parents always said was, "If you’re going to do this, you have to thicken your skin and think of negativity as noise."

And when (the investors) said not to mention social responsibility, it was part of my business plan. I knew it was an interesting way of looking at a startup and have it be part of the DNA of the company.

I know that originally, you didn’t call the company Tory Burch. Why is that?

It was “Tory by TRB,” which was a pretty bad name in retrospect. I tried maybe 10 different names, and they were all taken. I didn’t want to put myself out there and use my full name. But I had a good friend who told me, “I don’t know what you’re doing. Everyone is calling you ‘Tory Burch’ anyway.”

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