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The designer pivots into sportswear — and maintains her tennis grip on the American imagination.
Polar fleece, it turns out, contains multitudes. And Tory Burch knows it.
Too thin, or too soft, and it looks cheap, basic, ready to accept the embroidered logo for a corporate 10K. But when the fleece gets thicker and curlier, it can become something else: slightly crunchy and Waspy and knowing. Such a fleece can reek of boarding school in the ’80s, though Tory Burch also knows that is currently a desirable thing. Which is why Burch, who is not only the designer but the face of the brand, is not quite satisfied with a cream-colored fleece vest during a fitting in a showroom at her Flatiron District offices. It’s too thin, too soft, not Tory.
“Do you have those Steiff samples?” Burch asks her designers, who are German and wearing black, about fleece sourced from the high-end teddy-bear company. “Too expensive,” comes the answer, and Burch nods. Too expensive just wouldn’t work, it would go right against the plan. The polar fleece couldn’t be too expensive, but it would certainly have to look it. Another batch of samples is produced, and Tory pets them and shrugs. None is exactly right.
Nearby, a member of Burch’s art department is waiting for approval on a series of short animations explaining some of the more technical aspects of the collections. The animations will appear on the website, which, in Burch’s plan for the business, will be Tory Sport’s No. 1 outlet, its main point of sale. In one video, an angry little microbe attempts entry (denied) to a jacket. (The jacket’s antimicrobial — get it?) “I love it,” Burch says unconvincingly. “In theory. But that little …”
“The microbe’s a little angry. Let’s try the same idea but less angry. More like us.”
The designer nods — of course. Tory Burch is definitely not angry.
Tory Sport is the second label launched by Tory Burch. The first began 12 years ago as TRB by Tory Burch, with a storefront on Elizabeth Street selling a small collection of clothes that would pass muster at any country club anywhere. This year, the company is reportedly on track for revenues of a billion dollars, raked in through the big lacquered doors of its 175 stores around the world, and Burch herself has become a billionaire, too. Her early runaway hit — a pair of $225 flat shoes named for her mother, Reva, and adorned with the company’s heavy circular logo — has sold millions and counting.
Tory Sport has been on Burch’s mind, she says, for at least seven years, and though she resists the somewhat icky marketing term athleisure, the category sticks. It is a collection of high-performance getups grouped around different sports: tennis (short white dresses), golf (dress-code-compliant trousers and knits), swimming and surfing (color-blocked swimsuits and rash guards), running, and studio sports like yoga and Pilates (stretchy black pants). The whole point is that it all works as well as something from Paragon, but it looks stylish, too. You can wear the swimsuits to do laps and look a bit jazzier than you do in, say, a Speedo. There is also, critically, a sixth category, called “coming & going,” which is, Burch says, an acknowledgment of the way women currently live and dress in big sweaters and yoga pants, in clothes that are as comfortable as what one wears in the gym. “It’s what girls wear in college now,” Burch says one afternoon on a hugely stuffed and tasseled sofa in her Daniel Romualdez–designed office. “Nobody gets dressed anymore.” Burch is dressed, though, with tall heels, a full face of makeup, and her pretty blonde hair in a tidy little bun; she’s wearing a knee-length navy-blue Tory Sport skirt that holds its A-line shape because it’s made of neoprene, like a wet suit. (At $275, it’s relatively affordable, like the rest of Tory Sport.)
That the clothes are functional is beyond question: Kerstin Dorst, a lead designer, comes to Tory via Adidas, where she worked on Stella McCartney’s line, and, like the rest of the team, she is totally versed in how to make cashmere “breathe” and understands what “wicking” actually is. But functionality is only one part of the Tory Sport appeal — the “sport” part. The other part, the more important part, is Tory herself, not just as designer and executive but as something closer to female-self-empowerment icon. A very particular kind of icon: tiny and permanently tanned, in a tennis-court kind of way, with her beautiful manners and her understanding of how to mix prints, Burch is the torchbearer for preppy, suburban-American style. She understands why the tiny floral print on her cotton golf polos is the right tiny floral print, why it immediately conjures pitchers of iced tea and white sneakers grayed with the clay of a tennis court when so many other tiny floral prints do not. “It’s a very different aesthetic from my other collection,” Burch says. “Maybe it’s the Gemini in me. I have that whole preppy-bohemian thing, but I’m also very sporty.” As she points out, she still wears the Tretorn sneakers she had in high school.
But over the past 12 years, Burch has transformed herself completely, into something much bigger than a preppy icon. “Look,” Burch says, “there was a lot of eye-rolling when I started my business. Oh my God, a lot. I got a lot of raised eyebrows.” She’d had a career in fashion PR and marketing at Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, and LVMH, and married fashion entrepreneur Chris Burch, but with the birth of her third child, she’d moved her family to Philadelphia in order to be close to her father, who was unwell. “I was a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I played a lot of tennis.” So when she returned to New York ready to launch her own label, she wasn’t taken hugely seriously: Wife of wealthy man grows bored, needs hobby.
That was a billion dollars ago, and the rich husband is now out of the picture, though after they divorced (in 2006), he started a rival brand, C. Wonder, with a logo (and aesthetic identity) that struck a lot of people as uncannily like Tory Burch’s (which many of those people took as a sign that he believed he was the company’s creative genius all along). But C. Wonder shut down in 2015. And Tory? She’s got perfumes handled by Estée Lauder and watches built by Fossil. She has also, very publicly, dated a series of handsome, high-profile men (Lance Armstrong, music executive Lyor Cohen, and, most recently, Pierre-Yves Roussel, the dashing CEO of LVMH Fashion Group, to whom she became engaged over the holidays). And now, a whole second brand. Tory Sport is a bold kind of reinvention, a brave and confident expansion shortly preceded by the news that Tory Burch would lay off 100 employees in an effort to reorganize its brand with a stronger focus on customer-facing technology. (That is: opening stores less frequently and making a huge investment in all things digital.) Burch’s original boutique on Elizabeth Street, the one that had the lacquered orange doors and the handles in the shape of the logo, will now carry Tory Sport. When that store opened the first time, Burch was lucky to get an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey; this time around, an endorsement’s not so necessary. Tory has become, in a sense, her own Oprah, speaking directly to her customers on her blog. Most recently, she offered her opinions on winter layering: “I have been wearing our wool sweater alone and over silk blouses.”
The question is, in an era when celebrity amounts to role-playing the spirit animal in the intimate and aspirational dream lives of consumers and fans, what special kind of spell does this impeccably groomed, everything-in-its-place personality cast? There is nothing so appealing in a public woman, right now, as a capacity for resilience, ambition, and reinvention, which even the quite fortunate Tory can seem to embody. It should come as no surprise that Burch is a big supporter of Hillary Clinton, for whom she held a fund-raiser this summer at her $38 million Southampton estate (the elaborate sprinkler system went off and sprayed all the guests).
In 2014, Burch published a coffee-table book, Tory Burch in Color. It’s a helpful primer for understanding the Tory ethos, which is bright and poppy and relentlessly optimistic. As Burch tells it: “My parents always taught me that negativity is noise. I just tune it out.” It tells the story of a pretty tomboy who grew up on a colonnaded gentleman’s farm — a sort of mid-Atlantic Tara — on the Main Line of Philadelphia. There are pictures of the big swimming pool, and of the screened-in porch where her beloved parents would needlepoint while Tory and her brothers swam and laughed and got up to all sorts of wholesome high jinks. There are more recent photographs, too, of the swimming pool in Southampton and of that house’s dining room, which was inspired by the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. There are collage pages in the style of high-school yearbooks of the friends and family members Tory loves best: lots of Upper East Side faces (a Boardman, a Gubelmann, a Mortimer) and siblings and nephews and high-school friends who still live near Philadelphia. She has recipes for guacamole and ideas for mixtapes, too. “My first concert was the Grateful Dead,” reads the preface to one that, predictably, features “Ripple.”
It’s an enviable life, documenting family reunions in Hawaii, fishing trips to the Bahamas (look, the fish Tory caught matches her Windbreaker!), the jolly design team in Tokyo, India, Myanmar. Everyone in the book—her children, her parents, her friends, her employees — is grinning, and who wouldn’t? Days are spent outdoors, and rest is taken in wallpapered rooms on beds piled high with D. Porthault linens.
In her office, Burch is fielding calls from her sons’ doctor (they picked up a mysterious stomach bug during an Indonesian surfing trip with their father) and explaining, in almost comically low-key tones, her much bigger vision.
All around her office, pretty, well-dressed assistants are hovering, and one is dispatched for an example of the “seed box.” Inside is a scented candle, a canister of tea, a Turkish towel, and a leather key fob. Each of these items, she explains, was made by a female entrepreneur who is, in some way, a beneficiary of the Tory Burch Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to empower women entrepreneurs. “The business plan from day one was to start a foundation,” she says. “I wanted to build a global lifestyle brand so that I could start a foundation, and I laugh now because I had no idea what I was saying. Back then, lifestyle wasn’t an overused term. Or global. But back then a lot of the men that I met with said never say philanthropy and business in the same sentence. I found that really interesting,” she says. “And that actually made me more determined to make that not the case.”
The entire goal of the foundation is to support female entrepreneurs by helping them secure capital (Bank of America is a partner), offering courses on everything from negotiation to networking, with sessions where women are given access to people like J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler (a friend of Tory’s) and the opportunity to pick his brain.
“I’m very passionate about women’s issues,” Burch says. “Women have a much more challenging time getting loans, being in the workforce, having confidence, so many things. But when you help a woman, you help the world, and I truly believe that.”
Applications to Burch’s foundation have been far more numerous than she anticipated. But it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. Right around New Year’s, Burch posted a photograph of herself in a kayak on her public Instagram. She is wearing a Tory Sport rash guard and orange bikini bottoms and big sporty sneakers. Her thin, tanned legs are in the foreground, her smiling face relaxed. She looks like a teenager on an Outward Bound trip, except for the enormous diamond ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. The picture has gotten 13,600 likes and a couple hundred comments. The most repeated word in those comments? Goals.
*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
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