Tory Burch talks women and ambition ahead of Hong Kong pop-up for her new label Tory Sport
Fashion designer’s new athleisure label to appear in Lee Gardens this summer, while her foundation’s Embrace Ambition campaign is pushing the message that women need to be loud and proud about their dreams
Tory Burch is a self-made billionaire in a world where there are still more CEOs called John on the FTSE 100 than female CEOs. She has built an accessible luxury empire from her kitchen table and has created a new model of high-low fashion retail that has spawned hundreds of copycats.
But Burch hasn’t always celebrated her extraordinary success. In fact, over the years she has found herself shying away from a word that is obviously applicable to her: ambition.
“I remember reading a New York Times article that described me as ambitious and I didn’t like it,” she says. “I wanted to be feminine, and I knew that word threatened people’s perception of me. And then I realised that if I felt it, how many other women did too? And after hundreds of conversations with people all over the world, I began to see exactly how harmful this double standard was – the idea that in men, ambition is attractive, but in women it’s something to suppress or be ashamed of.”
We are having coffee at Claridge’s on an unseasonably hot spring day in London and I am finding it difficult to imagine Burch being ashamed of anything. Dressed in the oversized floral prints and chic ballet flats that her brand is famous for, she is in the British capital for the launch of her new Regent Street store. She is confident, articulate, beautiful and ageless in a way that only the famous seem capable of.
But despite the high society gloss, she is also warm and engaging, apologising profusely for being 10 minutes late and questioning me repeatedly on how, as a single woman, I feel about the word “ambition”.
“It seems nearly every woman is affected by this,” she says. “And I find it extraordinary how many men can’t see it. I was on a panel recently with Graydon [Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair] – who is going to kill me for saying this, by the way. His opinion was that I was wrong because the women he knew didn’t have an issue with ambition. So I said, ‘I beg to differ but based on conversations I’ve had with thousands of women globally, including women on your team who have said that they have to hide their ambition from you, it is a problem.’ And then he got all hot and bothered.”
Aside from putting powerful men in their place, Burch has used her charity, the Tory Burch Foundation – which mentors women trying to start small businesses – to launch a campaign titled Embrace Ambition. Featuring celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon alongside a New York firefighter and the NBA’s first openly gay basketball player, they have pushed the message that women need to be loud and proud about their professional achievements.
Burch, who publicly supported Hillary Clinton in the US presidential campaign, doesn’t want to link the success of Embrace Ambition to the swelling support for women’s rights provoked by Donald Trump’s win.
She does, however, say that she has noticed a number of Republican men are far more open to the idea of equal rights in relation to their daughters than to their wives – a reference, perhaps, to the roles played by Ivanka and Melania Trump in the White House.
Burch may have distanced herself from the current president, but she, too, grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth. The daughter of Buddy and Reva Robinson – a glamorous duo with inherited wealth and a list of exes that impressively includes Grace Kelly and Warren Beatty – she was raised on a sprawling estate in Pennsylvania.
“I have three brothers so most of my childhood was spent at the net of a tennis court with balls slamming into my head,” she says. “It turned me into a real tomboy.”
This bucolic upbringing helped inspire an aesthetic that somehow marries preppy chic with retro prints and hippie fabrics. But the tomboy deep inside Burch must be delighted by the recent launch of Tory Sport – a separate line inspired by the film The Royal Tenenbaums that is set to take on Lululemon, Sweaty Betty and Nike in the battle for a slice of the increasingly lucrative “athleisure” pie.
Burch initially came up with the concept of a fashionable sportswear brand seven years ago, when she noticed a shift in the way women dressed.
“Of course, exercising has become a lot more popular than it once was,” she says. “But more than that, I think women are really starting to experiment with the concept of high-low dressing, pairing their track pants with a jacket or wearing workout gear all day. But to do that, women need comfortable, stylish leisure wear, which is not always easy to find.”
If the impetus for Tory Sport sounds familiar, that’s because it is – Tory Burch was started in 2004 when Burch went on a personal quest to find the perfect blouse and came up empty-handed. Thirteen years and a billion dollar brand later, she is on now on the hunt for breathable, durable sportswear that focuses equally on style, comfort and performance.
“We felt we could offer the market something new,” she says. “Before I launched Tory Sport, I often thought of the track pants and sweatshirts I had in high school that had that great retro feel. I wanted to bring them back, but with modern technology and fabrics that can keep you cool in summer and warm in winter.”
The new brand’s current bestsellers follow that premise – the Chevron leggings, for example, are rooted in 1970s sportswear but are made out of a lightweight nylon fibre called Tactel that is velvety to the touch but wicks away moisture.
Unsurprisingly given her recent campaign, Burch has big ambitions for Tory Sport. Instead of turning it into a capsule collection relegated to corners of her 150 Tory Burch stores, she has created a separate label with a unique identity and independent shops – including a flagship in the Flatiron Building in New York, where yoga classes and wellness workshops will be held in a studio adjacent to the retail floor.
Burch is taking this major new launch to Asia, with a Tory Sport pop-up store opening in Hong Kong at Lee Gardens this summer. “We’ve now got a major initiative to push into China and elsewhere in Asia with Tory Burch and Tory Sport,” she says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for both brands.”
But while Burch’s business interests lie in an almost overwhelming number of directions, her personal life is very much focused on one place: France. Engaged to Pierre-Yves Roussel, the CEO of LVMH, since the beginning of 2016, she finds herself in the happy position of living between Paris and New York – and the more trying position of having to learn French at the age of 49.
And, in a neat recreation of her childhood, she is mother to three boys with her ex-husband Chris Burch (with whom she had a lengthy legal battle over the rights to her brand) and stepmother to Roussel’s three sons.
“We went out west on vacation recently to this two-room cabin and it was me and seven guys,” she says. “You have no idea what I was like by the end of it. But I definitely needed a second vacation.”
Knowing Burch, I would wager that she looked as immaculate as ever and had all seven of them eating out of the palm of her perfectly manicured hand.