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The Glory of Tory by Michaela Cordes | 2nd June, 2010 | Personalities

She is beautiful, successful and on top of that a mother of six. Meet the modern wonder woman Tory Burch in her own home.

“I was a tomboy. All I wanted was to be a tennis player.” Tory Burch

Tory Burch is a mother of six, and if you were to ask the internationally renowned lifestyle and fashion impresario to name her most impressive endeavor up until now, her family is surely what she would claim. With 24 namesake stores currently open around the world, and as many planned to open in the coming year, it seems an impossibly incongruous combination. But for her inspiration, we need only look to Tory’s globe-trotting parents who, themselves juggled a chic lifestyle with an expansive, loving family. In the 1950s, no one was more glamorous than Tory’s parents: her mother Reva once dated Steve McQueen and Tory’s father Buddy dated Grace Kelly, but the pair eventually found each other and together they created a domestic laboratory of a home in Philadelphia’s Main Line where family warmth and a passion for chic fashion were the most natural thing. Tory gives them significant credit when explaining the life she has carved out for herself in the adopted city of New York where she arrived after college and spent several years in the fashion and social trenches, soaking up the best of both worlds.

“In my first year of marriage I became a mother of five!” Tory Burc

After starting her family (three boys of her own and three girls she inherited from her husband’s previous marriage) she opened up her first boutique during New York Fashion Week 2004 and sold out her first collection in the course of one day. She’s been breaking fashion and financial records since then and while her website, Toryburch.com, had initially been the only outlet for her fans across the seas, it appears that Tory’s global reach is finally catching up with the demand.

 

GG: Did you imagine yourself becoming a designer when you were growing up? Tory Burch: When I was young, I was a tomboy and completely into sports. I grew up on a farm in Valley Forge with three brothers and I spent my days keeping up with them: climbing trees, playing tennis. Back then I wanted to be a tennis player.

How did a tomboy like you come to work in fashion? I majored in art history while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Not long after graduating I joined Ralph Lauren and I spent seven years there. It was here that I learned about building a brand: first in the public relations department and then in the advertising and marketing departments. Ralph Lauren was a great training ground for me. Vera Wang and I became friends while she was still working at Ralph. Then she went off on her own and launched her bridal collection. A few years later she asked me to join her and run her PR department and advertising. I was there for six years and it was a very creative and exciting time in her company. She was expanding her designs beyond just bridal and developing her role as a designer was a big part of my job.

And then came your family. While I was working for Vera I got married, and on our honeymoon I became pregnant with twins. Chris already had three daughters from his previous marriage so in my first years of marriage I suddenly found myself with five children. So I left Vera, and spent time focused on my family.

Just before launching your own line you were working for LVMH. How did you transition from this to creating your own label? Working for LVMH was great because with my three little boys I couldn’t work fulltime. But even working three days a week, I found that it was becoming too hard to get everything done. So I decided to take time off. Then 9/11 happened. I became addicted to watching CNN during this time and on that channel was this recurring commercial advocating: “Follow your Dream,” “Start a small business.” After eight months of seeing it every day I decided to do it. I began flying to China, meeting with factories, working on logos and branding, developing the store, and deciding where the store should be. [Tory chose Nolita, in downtown New York, not an obvious choice for an uptown girl.] There were about ten very intensive months of working around the clock. We opened during Fashion Week, in February and the first day was very exciting. We invited friends and family, editors, people in the industry, people who could get the word out. In addition to buying us out the first day, there were also so many people pitching in with advice and help. At the end of that first day we brought in over $100,000 and the collection was suddenly “out there.”

Your husband at the time was also your business partner; how did that work? Chris has been very supportive and helps the company think strategically; he was helpful in establishing the sourcing and supply chain for the company and his involvement tends to be more strategic than day-to-day.

Chris encouraged you to launch the company in just one category, like dresses, but you chose to launch with 15 different categories. When people walk into the stores they understand who we are from the perspective of so many products… from handbags and shoes to coats, pants and dresses. Everything is a part of the branding concept, from the design of the store to the candles, the music, the logo. It was a total retail concept.

Isn’t it funny that your husband wanted so much to control your ideas. I experienced something similar myself. Sometimes, strong husbands like the idea of their wives staying at home, focused on being a mom; in many ways it feels like they’re trying to control us through this. But when I found myself in the midst of this type of situation, I also found myself coming up with such amazing creative energy. To hear your story, it seems you experienced something similar. For me it ended up being a very complicated situation at home, so I’m happy that I did start my company. Having something of my own has allowed me to feel much more independent… to feel like I don’t need to stay in a situation unless I want to. I think a lot of women feel the same way: that they’re stuck in circumstances they can’t get out of. It’s good to know that there can be a way out. It just requires determining exactly what that way is, and then taking the first steps to becoming that independent person.

To hear your story, and what you accomplished, it sounds like you were a new kind of Wonder Woman. I just realized that life is short and you have to make the best of every situation. Sometimes you have to take a step back to realize what is important… to decide which things you do, and don’t, need to get upset about. Of course, it is not always easy. I am a very calm person and I think I got this from my father. He died two years ago, which was very hard on me, but he lived to see a lot of our success.

And now you have so much to show for it: a huge family with six wonderful children and a huge, successful business. How large has it grown? We have over 450 employees. Sometimes I can’t believe it… I am shocked. I had never been to design school so I never thought it would be an option for me to be a designer. So much of my company was inspired by my father. He was never an actual designer, but he often designed his own clothing.

It sounds like he was a major influence on you. My father was very unconventional, and had his own unique, uncompromising style. He never had a traditional job but he was an inventor and hobbyist. His real love was collecting antiques and paintings. Ironically, my brothers and I all ended being workaholics. My father was a wonderful influence on us. We always saw him at home and he was he kindest man you ever met. He took everyone in, all kinds of people who needed help. He was also very well traveled and well read. That was important to him. Both of my parents loved to travel I used to wait with excited anticipation to see the photos and small treasures they would bring home from destinations like Morroco, Turkey and Greece. Today I love looking through their old photos, seeing my parents in the South of France in the late ’50s.

That’s the feeling I get from your collection… exotic and from another era… like St. Tropez in its heyday. It seems that you inherited your parents’ sense of adventure. In communities like Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it is very unusual for women with your background to be so entrepreneurial. How did your social circle react when you first started your collection? Oh, there was a lot of support. But there might also have been a few raised eyebrows. I didn’t talk a lot about the company until it actually launched. I think some people were surprised when we were suddenly up and running.

You’ve now become a role model for many women – were you aware that this was happening? I like the idea that other women are realizing it’s possible to reinvent yourself, to go back to work and figure out a new life if that’s what they want. I’m very aware of the example I’m setting for my children and it’s great if other people have taken notice. For me, work is an integral part of who I am. I could never ever see myself not working.

That requires a lot of energy. You could easily have sat back and just enjoyed a great lifestyle. What made you want more? I’m very supportive of people who are happy just having a great lifestyle. I don’t judge that. I just feel like, I don’t want to be judged because I have ambition. For many people, that is a hard word to automatically associate with a woman.

You’re so right… and for men, that word is automatically a positive thing. It seems crazy to me… As much as I can, I try to eradicate that stigma. And I think that women have to build up confidence in other women. We just started a foundation that empowers women with mentoring and financing. We set up small loans for women entrepreneurs who are starting businesses. We also help them with networking and help them to find mentors. I’ve been so overwhelmed with the response I’ve had among my friends and colleagues in different fields.

Now that sounds like harnessing female power. I hope so. Over 70 percent of the poverty in the United States is experienced by women and children. We have to change that. Women have wonderful entrepreneurial spirit.

Years from now, when you’re a grandmother and you’re looking back on what you’ve accomplished with your life, this will surely be one of the things you’re most proud of. It is a great feeling to help someone. Not long after you launched your collection, Oprah Winfrey had you as a guest on her show. That, in itself, is a great example of female power and empowering women. Tell us a little about what happened after that show. I attribute a lot of our early success to Oprah. When I first got the call, I thought it was one of my brothers playing a joke: “Oh, Oprah wants you on your show,” and then the person on the phone said “No, no, really.” Being on her show changed our business overnight; the next day we had several million hits on our website.

That is amazing. How did that happen? One of her producers gave her some of our clothing for Christmas. From what I understand, she wore it and loved it. And then she wanted to know, ok, who is this girl. At the time she was putting together a show called “The Next Big Thing” and she picked us for fashion. So we went to Chicago and did a fashion show.

Looking back on that early collection, describe what was fueling your designs. In many ways, the collections, and the company, reflects my childhood. And what a great thing… I mean, I had a really great childhood. But it was a very different childhood than most people would imagine. My parents were always so ready to embrace people. There are crazy stories from my early days… funny ones, and someday there will be a book. My parents showed us a life of eccentricities but also of beauty. For us, the cup was always half full. We always had what we wanted…but not necessarily in a materialistic way. And we were always taught to be appreciative and to love life.

What do your brothers do? My oldest brother, Robert had a company and sold it and now he’s working with me. And that is probably the biggest gift I’ve ever received, having him here with me. He helps to run the company with Brigitte. He is amazing and he’s really changed the dynamic of our entire company. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood, ever. He is completely selfless and the happiest person. My other brother Jamie is fantastic, and so creative; he works in a marketing company. And then my little brother, who is from Argentina, is in banking andworks in Washington.

It sounds like you came from a wonderful family. How has your own childhood influenced the way you now raise your children? I bring a lot of my parents’ love of travel with me into my own family. I take my children everywhere I can. Sometimes I have to travel without them and I’ll keep it very brief and my mom will come up and stay with them. The hardest thing is finding a balance between being a good mother and doing what needs to get done for the company. The only way to do is put the kids’ needs first and everything else comes after that. We just set up certain boundaries that are non-negotiable.

When a friend comes to you and says she would like to start a business and she also has children… what would be your advice? How to do it? You have to understand and address your kids’ needs first. Then you can work. And of course you have to be super organized. It’s like that old adage “The busier you are, the more you can get done.” And I really think that is true. I don’t need much sleep so I can stay up and work right into the night.

Can you describe the woman you are designing for? That is a hard question to answer because while we have a core customer, our demographics seem to be growing on both ends of the age spectrum. We are gaining much younger customers then we’ve ever had, and at the same time, an older customer has discovered us as well. Originally I would say our customer was around 35-40 a working mother, a single woman. But I’ve been watching this younger girl phenomenon unfold, where we now have 15-year-olds who are passionate about our collection. And that is amazing. And then we have the college students. And girls the age of my stepdaughters who are now out of college. Me, my mother. Ultimately, I guess what I love about our collection is that it’s not about one woman, it’s about women. What I love is the interesting way they put it together. We have a downtown client who makes the collection look very hip, very fashion forward. But then we have uptown customers, and the way they put it together makes the clothes looks incredibly different. And I love to see that. I learn so much from my customers’ personal style, and in the end, it’s never about wearing one designer from head-to-toe… it’s about finding your own style and letting our collection be a part of that process.

IssueGG Magazine 03/10
City/CountryNew York/ U.S.
PhotographyMark Seelen
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