Twenty years ago this month, on a sleepy block south of Houston in New York, Tory Burch opened her very first store. Burch, then 37 years old, was a busy mother of three boys under the age of seven who had left a career in public relations at Ralph Lauren and Loewe to start her own business. The night before the opening, Burch didn’t sleep. She and her teenage stepdaughters spent all night setting up. The following morning, when the bright orange lacquer front doors had yet to arrive, Burch placed space heaters by the entrance to ward off the winter chill. She was nervous. It was New York fashion week, and she was competing with a packed day of shows.  

Much to Burch’s relief, people showed up and shopped. Not just fashion editors: her friends from uptown, where she lives; people from the Philadelphia Main Line, where she grew up; and from the Hamptons, where she summers. Burch created her line for this community – women like herself with designer wardrobes, multiple homes and a packed schedule of charity galas. Her collection offered easy, classic and colourful pieces such as vintage-inspired tunic tops, cropped pants and espadrille sandals for less than designer prices. Most items were priced under $500.

Backstage at Tory Burch SS24
Backstage at Tory Burch SS24 © Alex Lockett

After an early appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005, Burch became a national sensation and one of American fashion’s brightest success stories of the 2000s: a woman with a shrewd head for business, a viral (before viral was a thing) bestselling shoe – a ballet flat – and a ballooning empire of stores. Her life was her own best advertisement. Two decades later, Tory Burch has 4,800 employees and 378 stores from the US to China. Her revenues are estimated at around $1.8bn. Burch remains the brand’s majority shareholder. Her foundation has donated $90mn to female entrepreneurs.

For years, Burch the founder was often more interesting than Burch the brand. But today her label is coursing with a fresh creative energy. Her collections are younger, subtler and weirder, capturing the attention of a new generation of women while jolting anyone who has come to expect no surprises from this stable, all-American brand. “The Re-Burch of Tory Burch” is how one headline from Gen-Z style bible Highsnobiety put it. At her last runway show in September, staged within the undulating white walls of the cave-like Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History, Burch presented a collection of swingy minidresses with hoop hems, body-hugging embroidered crochet dresses, and solid but transparent pump heels. No tunic tops or Jack Rogers-style sandals to be seen.

Burch wears printed T-shirt and twill cargo pants, both Tory Burch © Alex Lockett

“A lot of the time, people want us to work on things that have sold in the past. I wanted to scrap that idea and think about the future” Tory Burch

“We’re a bit edgier than people think,” says Burch on a quiet afternoon in her wood-panelled Flatiron office, where she sits cushioned by a blue cotton velvet sofa, surrounded by family photos. She still works with her family, including two of her stepdaughters, Pookie and Izzie Burch; her brother Robert Isen, head of legal and corporate development; and her husband, Pierre-Yves Roussel, the former CEO of LVMH fashion group. He and Burch married in 2018, two months before he officially joined the business as its CEO. She remains, as always, her own best model, wearing a roomy grey corduroy suit from her AW23 collection that fits into the new Tory mould.

Given the number of recent profiles and shopping newsletters declaring Tory Burch is “back,” I ask if any of the praise stings with the implication that, well, she was less than cool before. “I’m actually just thrilled,” she replies. Burch is even-keeled and relaxed in conversation, neither underplaying her accomplishments nor self-aggrandising. She tells me that her sons, now in their 20s, rib her about the influx of attention, telling her, “We didn’t know that you went anywhere.” But Burch has been building up to this transformation for nearly 10 years: “That’s how long it’s taken me.” The reaction means her plan has worked, but she’s not finished yet. “We’re still transforming.”

Leather Small Deville bags, £825 each
Leather Small Deville bags, £825 each © Christina Fragkou
Sheer viscose jersey Hoop dress, POA
Sheer viscose jersey Hoop dress, POA © Christina Fragkou

In 2014, Burch was preparing to launch Tory Sport, a 1970s-inspired athletic collection of tracksuits and tennis skirts. Developing it “freed my creative mind up”, she says, and reminded her of her early days with the brand, back when her focus was on product ideas. “Then, in many ways, the business almost took over. A lot of the time, people want us to work on things that have sold in the past. I wanted to scrap that idea and think about the future.” Burch is not a designer by training – she has a degree in art history from the University of Pennsylvania – but realised her passion was the creative side. Not that she had much time to dedicate to it. As both CEO and head designer, she felt like a “jack of all trades, master of none”.

In retrospect, Burch says the media interest in her 2006 divorce from her ex-husband, the investor Chris Burch, also affected her mindset. He was heavily involved in the launch of the business and, after their split, the former couple became embroiled in litigation with each other over commercial issues. Back then, Burch was still known as a socialite – a word she despises and is happy to have seen fade away – which added to the media interest. She worried about the impact on her sons and stepdaughters. “It was a lot of unwanted personal press,” she says. “It made me pull back and be more protective of my family.” The former couple settled their disputes in 2013 and are now friends. “He told me it was a 10-year misunderstanding,” she says, laughing.

The launch of Tory Sport in 2015 marked an inflection point. Her main line had become a little staid and predictable, and Burch wanted to elevate the brand, but her colleagues were concerned: if she raised prices or changed her aesthetic, would she lose her loyal customers? “I was like, no, we don’t want to alienate our customer. But we want to inspire our customer and teach our customer… and take more risks.” She knew she could usher in the necessary changes if she had more time to dedicate to design. First, Burch needed to hire a CEO she trusted. She started with a co-CEO, who stepped in for two years. But finding the right person proved tricky.

Nylon taffeta zipped polo shirt, £515, and cotton and silk poplin pants, £1,000
Nylon taffeta zipped polo shirt, £515, and cotton and silk poplin pants, £1,000 © Christina Fragkou
Tulle Mesh tote, £255, and leather Small Deville bag, £825
Tulle Mesh tote, £255, and leather Small Deville bag, £825 © Christina Fragkou

Then came Roussel. Burch met him over lunch in 2014 when LVMH was interested in investing in her brand. The investment didn’t happen, but the two began a relationship, got engaged and agreed to work together. “I joke I had to marry him to get him to be the CEO,” Burch says.

Roussel would be a dream CEO for any fashion company: during his 15 years at LVMH, he brought Phoebe Philo to Celine and Jonathan Anderson to Loewe. Roussel says Tory Burch is one of the only American brands with a luxury business model – selling mostly direct-to-consumer, with a solid track record not just in handbags and footwear but also in a wide range of categories. “I don’t know how she did it before, because running the business and being creative at the same time – at the scale that we had back then – is just impossible,” he says. “No one does that.” Burch’s relief at having Roussel as her partner in the brand is palpable. “I’d never handed over the business to anyone before who operated at that kind of trust level,” she says. “I don’t think there has been a time where we don’t agree.” 

After Roussel arrived in early 2019, Burch went to work with new gusto. She built an atelier for seamstresses and tailors in her office. She hired designer Pookie Burch, her stepdaughter, as associate creative director. Pookie had recently closed Trademark, a small, five-year-old label that she had launched with her sister, Louisa, beloved for its clever twists on American classics. “She’s super-creative,” says Burch of Pookie. While they often disagree about colours and silhouettes, they enjoy the process of trying to win each other over. “I really need that way to work with people – where we’re throwing ideas out and just having that creative conversation,” says Burch. It’s the same with the stylist Brian Molloy, known for his work for The Row, who has styled Burch’s collections since 2020. That’s also when the former British Vogue creative director Jaime Perlman joined the business. By then Burch had brought in designers from The Row and 3.1 Phillip Lim too. “One thing I’m really good at is hiring amazing people,” she says.

© Alex Lockett

“She’s always had a very practical, intuitive side as well as a creative side. It’s a unique balance you don’t see often” Robert Burke, luxury consultant

Burch considers her SS21 collection as a “palate cleanser”, especially in her references. In the early years of the brand, Burch looked to the sophisticated exuberance of her parents’ wardrobes in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as tastemakers such as Lee Radziwill and David Hicks. These days, her influences are less tied to a specific time or place. “I started to look more within and think about design and shape and fabrics.” Her collections became more masculine, less repetitive. The colours changed too: fewer bright oranges, more lime greens.

After Burch’s SS22 collection, inspired by the influential midcentury designer Claire McCardell, editors and influencers took notice of the changes. Burch’s runway shows, for years held early on Sunday mornings during fashion week, moved to a primetime evening slot. The shift was in full effect with the SS23 collection, when the first version of Burch’s pierced mules debuted. The style featured a hoop hanging off a cutout on top of the toes, giving the illusion that the foot is pierced. It was one of the “hottest products” of AW23, according to shopping platform Lyst. “I didn’t know if it would sell,” says Burch. She loved how sculptural it looked, though, and TikTok agreed, helping introduce the brand to young women who missed the Reva flat craze of the late 2000s. Burch’s team has also been smart about embracing young, creative influencers. Now her front rows are filled with women such as Suki Waterhouse, Lori Harvey and Hari Nef, while model Emily Ratajkowski is one of the new faces of the brand.

Sheer nylon taffeta Prisamatic T Monogram zipped polo shirt, £515, sable crepe Stretch pants, £1,400, and mesh Prismatic logo tote bag, £225
Sheer nylon taffeta Prisamatic T Monogram zipped polo shirt, £515, sable crepe Stretch pants, £1,400, and mesh Prismatic logo tote bag, £225
Sheer viscose jersey Hoop dresses, £1,400 each
Sheer viscose jersey Hoop dresses, £1,400 each © Christina Fragkou

“In a way, we’re just starting to put all these pieces together,” says Roussel. He adds that brands usually create new momentum by bringing in new creative directors; Tory Burch’s trajectory is particularly exciting, he says, because it’s under the leadership of the founder. “You don’t have to worry about ‘is that the DNA of the brand or not’, because she’s the DNA of the brand – so whatever she feels like doing is right.”

Deal rumours have circulated for years. Last October, WWD reported Tory Burch was exploring strategic options with Morgan Stanley and possibly preparing for an initial public offering. “I don’t even know where that came from,” says Burch about the IPO speculation. Her backers include General Atlantic and BDT Capital Partners. “We have incredible partners; we are looking at different scenarios, but we always are.”

Roussel says that Burch is excited to keep building the business on her terms. “I don’t think Tory is willing to compromise, whatever the [deal] configuration would be… she will not compromise on the integrity of the brand, the long-term view, the journey we are on.” He points to European luxury brands that “are 10 times bigger than we are” as an example. “We have a lot of potential to grow.”

Robert Burke, a luxury consultant who brought Burch’s line to Bergdorf Goodman when she launched, says few modern American brands have been able to scale to the same level. “She’s always had a very practical, intuitive side as well as a creative side,” he says. “It’s a unique balance you don’t see often. You either have total creatives, or you have people that are almost on the verge of merchandisers.” While Burch is evolving, he says, she isn’t abandoning that brand identity that made her successful two decades ago. The current transformation “[is not] a repositioning as much as a refocusing”.

After interviewing Burch, I drop by her Mercer Street store in SoHo, where the New York fashion writer Liana Satenstein is hosting a holiday cocktail party. The store is packed with beautiful young people I recognise from the internet who are more likely to hang out in Greenpoint than on the Upper East Side. Satenstein stands by a wall of handbags greeting guests, wearing a pair of black ballet flats adorned with the Burch’s gold T-logo medallion – an updated style of the version that was ubiquitous in the late 2000s. 

“Everyone loves the Toryssance – the cool clothes, the cool girls – but let’s not forget about the classics,” Satenstein says. “I want to be buried in these shoes, for the record.”

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