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

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.”

So you launched to the public with a retail store on Elizabeth Street in New York. What was it like on opening day? Mayhem?

The doors hadn’t arrived. I sent one of my brothers home to get pillows for the couches. I was burning through the night with my stepdaughters to get merchandise in the store, but we had enough time to go home and shower and be back by 10 a.m.

And you sold 75 percent of your merchandise that first day, right?

I think we sold through about that, if not a little more. And we then had to scramble and really go back to the factories.

In the beginning, the factories took a shot on us because, in making such a small amount of each piece, they were really losing money.

So how did you make that pitch to them?

With long six-hour dinners in Asia [laughing]. I would source different factories and meet with the factory owners and say: “If you take a shot on us, we’ll be with you in the long run.”

Let’s talk about Tory Burch as an international brand. How do you translate the fashion lines into something that works each region, from South America to Asia to the Middle East?

There’s always a bit of a learning curve. We enter each market in a respectful way. We go and hire great people from that region who understand the market. We spend a great deal of time learning the market and understanding customs.

In Brazil, the bikinis are much smaller than in the U.S. And in the Middle East, women are much more covered up.

I heard an interview you did once where you talked about what it was like juggling motherhood in the early days of your company. About putting your boys to bed, then getting on the phone. Tell me more about that.

It was exciting but tiring. I was so passionate, particularly as it started to pick up momentum and I could see it come together. It didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t something I was ever complaining about. For me, it was such a gift. I stumbled on my passion. That said, I had three boys under the age of 5, and three teenage stepdaughters. It was a commotion.

It was a lot about getting the children set and getting on the phone with Asia, working with my design team, working on fabrics and the design of the store, working on the concept of the culture, what might be the branding. It was a bit of everything.

You’ve said you’re a naturally shy person. How was it getting used to being the face of this multibillion-dollar company?

I think it’s still a work in progress. I’m always perpetually out of my comfort zone, and there are some things I’ll never get used to. I have clear boundaries on my personal life.

What business lessons did you learn from fashion giants Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang?

With Ralph, I think that was really my training ground. He is very much about branding and I was a copywriter for several years, so I was really immersed in each category.

With Vera, it was taking her being known as more of a bridal designer and moving her into the ready-wear market and also building her presence and name recognition with her product.

When you were in Charlotte for the event, you met with every single woman in the store. Why is that a priority for you?

It’s not something I think about. If people take the time to come out in the middle of the day — which is not something people have the time to do — I’m honored. And I also want to understand who our customer is and what’s resonating. It’s interesting to hear feedback, whether positive or negative.

I’ve heard you say the company is debt-free. Why is that important?

We don’t really talk about finances, just because we’re a private company. But yes, we’ve always been very lean, and that’s how we’ve run the company from Day One. In the beginning, we worked out of my apartment, and then we got one office, which was one room, until we had 30 people. That’s the way I look at business, personally. We do what we need to do now.

I love how you say being “scrappy” is still part of your business plan now. What did scrappiness look like in the early days of your company and what about now?

It looked like a lot of different things. How do you build a brand with not a big budget? We didn’t have a budget for advertising, and we still don’t. We had one ad that ran with Estee Lauder for a fragrance, but other than that, we had to be resourceful, using PR, marketing and social media. That’s a perfect example of how to build a company without a lot of company to do it.

So how was it when you got that first call from Oprah, wanting you to be on her show?

It was in our first year of business, so you can imagine that it was a bit of a shock. I wasn’t sure if it was entirely real. I have three brothers who are really funny, so I thought it was them. I had to miss my spring vacation with my family. (After the show aired), we got 8 million hits over the next week.

How do you feel knowing that you’ve got such powerful, prominent women as Oprah, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge wearing your clothes?

I’m completely honored. The people you mentioned and also just women walking on the street. Women have many options out there, the market is crowded and it’s always a big deal when I see someone wearing it. I’m thrilled.

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