Less than a decade ago, Tory Burch was an occasional presence on the party pages of W and Vogue and a former publicist for Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang. Today, she is the owner of one of the fashion world’s hottest brands, with stores on numerous continents and a fragrance launch with Estée Lauder just around the corner.
On Friday, she showed up at a breakfast organized by Credit Suisse, where she was interviewed by The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s editor-in-chief, Tina Brown. It was the latest in a series of discussions organized by Credit Suisse and hosted by Brown, honoring women at the top of their game.
Other subjects have included Zaha Hadid, Annie Leibovitz, Sheryl Sandberg, and Diane von Furstenberg, but Burch did not disappoint, discussing everything from how she got her start to where she plans on taking her line now. And she had lots of advice for similarly ambitious women who may not be as far along as she is.
One thing that she sees as essential for any entrepreneurial woman is to get rid of the idea that a first or second job be the ideal job. “Each job I had wasn’t necessarily the perfect job, but I always talk to young women about how you really have to take certain things from each job and learn from that and then move on to something you really want to do.”
For example, she said, “When I worked at Harper’s Bazaar, I went on all the fashion shoots. I really saw how styling worked. Then I went to Ralph Lauren and worked in PR and really learned about branding. I was exposed to every aspect of Ralph’s world whether it was home or women or children ... I worked with Narciso Rodriguez when he was at Loewe and there I think really learned about design, because he’s a master technician.”
Eventually, after a stint at Vera Wang and a few years out of the fashion game, during which Burch took care of her children and her ailing father, she began to go full throttle with the plan to start her own design business. Burch hired a 25-year-old analyst from Goldman Sachs, turned her kitchen into an office, and began working the phones to Hong Kong (where the clothes are manufactured) late at night while her children slept, Over and over, she told potential business partners “If you take a chance on me, I’ll be with you long-term.”
In 2004, Burch opened her first store in Manhattan’s Nolita, which she picked for a number of reasons. “One was the rent,” Burch recalled Friday. “It was very cheap.” Second, it was relatively “under the radar,” at least compared to Soho and Madison Avenue.
Seemingly within seconds, the line became a sensation, as her trademark tunics sold out in droves and Oprah came calling.
More locations followed in places ranging from Los Angeles to Beirut.
By far the greatest challenge, Burch said, is balancing being a working woman with being a mother. (Burch has three children of her own and is heavily involved in the lives of three of her stepchildren from her last marriage.) “As a woman in business, it’s the number one issue I face,” Burch said. “It’s about time management and putting my boys and my stepdaughters first. That said, it’s hard and it’s something I struggle with and talk to women about, because I hope women understand that they can be in the business world and be a mom. It’s just a little more difficult and a matter of figuring it out.”
In Burch’s case, she said that one of the things that has helped her is having her own business. “I think when I was on the corporate ladder, it was very difficult to maintain the hours. It’s a little easier when you’re an entrepreneur. You can make the lacrosse game and the doctor’s appointment and take them to school and be home.”
Still, nothing’s perfect. In recent weeks, a private feud has spilled into public view, as Chris—the ex-husband who’s a part owner in her brand and the co-chairman of her board—has launched his own product line, a line that appears to many to be remarkably similar to the one with his ex-wife’s name.
“Well, he’s not involved day to day; but that said, we as a company want to protect our I.P. and that’s something we will always be vigilant about,” Burch said, when asked how she’s handling it.
“Brands like yours have enormous problems with counterfeits. You don’t want one you used to be married to,” Brown said, laughing.
“No, we don’t,” Burch said. “We definitely don’t want that.”
“Will you shut him down?" Brown asked.
“I don’t want to shut him down,” Burch said. “I’m very happy for him to have his businesses and be successful. I just think [his businesses] have to be different from ours.”