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Self-made fashion billionaire Tory Burch still takes a hands-on approach

Designer Tory Burch may be a self-made billionaire, but she still takes a hands-on approach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 10:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 3:40pm

Tory Burch has been awake for 48 hours. Despite this, she looks as fresh as a daisy, dressed in a chic floral print pant suit (from her new Resort collection, naturally), matched with bouncy blonde hair and a glowing complexion. Her petite frame is lost among the massive displays of shoes and handbags at Lane Crawford in IFC, but that doesn't stop passers-by from staring or attempting to take photos from afar. Not that she notices.

"Honestly, I don't think about [the fame] although it's flattering and an honour. What's important is that my company can do good, and support women. We never just sit there and pat ourselves on the back. It's a journey that still continues," she says.

Even today, I like to think that we create things that we want to wear
Tory Burch

While Burch is known for her modesty, there's no denying that the 47-year-old is a fashion powerhouse. In less than 10 years she has built a brand that boasts more than 100 stores worldwide and collections that range from ready-to-wear and accessories, to a new fragrance, and watches which will launch next year.

Watch: Tory Burch gives The Post a sneak peek at her latest designs

This year, she was also given the accolade of the second-youngest self-made female billionaire in America by Forbes magazine, which also estimated her company to be worth more than US$3 billion.

This is one heroine who is in charge of her own destiny. From the day she launched her eponymous label, Burch has possessed a seemingly innate understanding of what women want to wear. Recognising a need for a more affordable "contemporary" brand, she developed a high quality and fashionable clothing line using her own name, featuring items that were missing from her own wardrobe.

Soon she was churning out bestsellers such as her signature embroidered tunic, which landed her on Oprah, the now ubiquitous Reva flat and, of course, the double T logo, which is almost as recognisable as the Louis Vuitton monogram.

"Even today, I'd like to think that we create things that we want to wear, and that are missing from women's wardrobes. I am always pushing myself from a design standpoint - now it's all about elevation. I want to elevate the look of the brand without elevating the price," she says.

"That's the biggest challenge - to use beautiful fabrics and a more defined fit where we want it, but also to push the customer to try these new things."

Indeed, the brand's aesthetic is moving forward in a positive way. While her earlier collections focused on more "trendy" items, her more recent offerings have shown a newfound maturity that's resonating with customers.

Her spring-summer 2014 collection, for example, was inspired by actress Romy Schneider in the 1969 French movie La Piscine. The look is French Riviera, with sweet but sexy linen dresses or silk tunics featuring blown up botanical prints (which she took herself in her Southampton garden).

Couture details add a high fashion edge, whether it's in the digitised Queen Anne's lace prints, lattice work or chunky embellishments like bejewelled collars, which have become a new signature. Everything is alluring in a sophisticated way.

Obviously, her efforts are working, as ready-to-wear still outsells accessories in most markets - an achievement not many brands can claim.

Today, her style has distanced itself from the Upper East Side princesses of the Gossip Girl world that she was once linked to (she famously made a cameo on the show).

"I don't know why people would call us preppy. I feel we are constantly pushing the envelope in ways that would make it anything from preppy.

"It is classic in spirit, yes, but what's nice is that women of all ages, preppy or not, are wearing it their own way. Preppy is a compliment on some levels, but doesn't necessarily describe our brand. People get caught up in labels; I try not to," she says.

Thanks to her savvy business sense, Burch is conquering the world outside of America. Her empire already includes 35 stores in Asia, and two years ago, she made the decision to operate her business in China independently, a risk that seems to have paid off. She has four stores in the country, with a fifth opening in Shanghai in the first quarter of 2014.

"I think there's a classicism [in the brand] that resonates with Chinese women, and they wear it that way. Yes, it's American in spirit, but it's more global, because the inspiration comes from all over. We are really learning about our Chinese customer - we want to listen to the customer negatives and positives," she says.

"We have bigger brand recognition on some levels, but at the same time we are slowing down by nature. Despite our rapid growth, we've always been very thoughtful about how we do it. We have been in China for two years, but we are still learning. We are not developing custom-made styles for the market, but I am thinking about developing small leather goods and accessories for men, exclusively for Asia," she says.

While it's clear Burch works very hard, those close to the designer say her pragmatic attitude has also contributed to her success. A work-life balance is vital, so her children (she is the birth mother of three sons and has three step-daughters) come first. She drops them at school each morning, and comes home early in the evening to see them. Every year, she takes them on adventures around the world. When we last met it was Burma; this summer it was Montana.

"If I wasn't a good mum, I wouldn't be good at my business. My life is centred around great friends and family - my kids are 100 per cent my priority," she says.

Empowering women is a cause close to her heart. In 2009, she launched the non-profit Tory Burch Foundation, which supports women entrepreneurs in the US through small business loans, mentorship programmes and entrepreneurial education. She recently collaborated with the Women's Foundation in Hong Kong (see sidebar) and has ambitions to take it global.

"It's essential to inspire women for me, not only because I am a woman myself. If you support women, and get men to be part of the conversation, the economy is better and families will be better taken care of. I have three brothers, and three boys, and that's why I say I want to get them involved. It's about everyone working together," she says.

But the foundation is not her proudest achievement. "Besides my children, I'm most proud of my team. Many have been with me from the beginning. It's like Hotel California; you check in any time, but you can't leave. I hope I never let them down and that they find working for me inspiring enough that they also contribute," she says.

Of course, running a big company comes with its highs and lows. In January she settled a legal battle with ex-husband, Chris Burch, whose clothing line C.W Wonder featured similar clothing and designs to her. Burch also announced that BDT Capital Partners and General Atlantic were making minority investments in the company, although she is still adamant that there are no plans to take the company public soon.

"People ask me that all the time about an IPO, but I'm not interested. I am passionate about [my work]. I want to be in the office until I am 80, with grey hair. It keeps me sane. I love it and am inspired by it," she says. divia.harilela@scmp.com

An earlier version of the story stated in the 3rd paragraph that Tory Birch "boasts 53 stores worldwide." It should be "more than 100 stores."

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