It’s two days before Tory Burch’s fall 2024 runway show during New York Fashion Week, which will mark 20 years of her business, and photos of looks from her collections stretching back to 2006 are fanned out in front of her on a work table at her studio. She doesn’t want to look back.
“Some of it is, like, please no,” she said, laughing, initially suggesting we start the conversation about her design evolution at 2018.
But with all due respect to the “Toryaissance,” as documented by numerous publications around the globe citing the next-gen cool of her recent collections, Burch sold a lot of Reva ballet flats to get here.
With a firm business plan in mind, she launched her brand in February 2004 with products across 15 categories, including tunics, caftans and espadrilles inspired by things her parents wore when they vacationed in the ’60s.
“There are elements of that first season that I still love.…My mother always wore dickeys, it was kind of a Jackie O thing,” the designer said of her early David Hicks-meets-Marrakech aesthetic, a comment prompted by a photo of one of her T-shirt dresses with a dickey collar.
It was the tunic, however, that was a true lodestar.
“I was a really big vintage person and went to the Paris flea market, and bought the $6 vintage polyester tunic that’s framed on the wall downstairs. I thought it was the coolest, easiest shape. It didn’t have an age, it wasn’t older or younger, everyone could wear it. And we had every celebrity in it,” she said.
The first turning point on the way to becoming a household name was in March 2005, when Oprah Winfrey invited her onto her show after receiving one of Burch’s tunics as a Christmas gift. The next day, the brand’s website got 8 million hits.
In addition to the tunic, the dickey and the tote, there was a knit sequin dress that Catherine Zeta-Jones wore. “We could not keep it in stock, then we did knit turtlenecks and sweaters.…There were a few things like that,” Burch said of her early brand pillars.
And of course the Reva flat, named after her mom whose colorful style filled the family’s Philadelphia Main Line home. “I was always intrigued with ballet flats and Audrey Hepburn and the ease of them, and when I put the logo on, they took off,” she said of the shoes with the distinct “TT” hardware.
How many pairs has she sold? “Millions.”
By 2008, Burch’s designs were trickling down to J. Crew and Target, and Prince was wearing a Tory tunic on the Coachella music festival stage, cementing the designer’s place in pop culture.
“I remember being in the bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel and getting the call from Prince about doing his concert costumes — on my cellphone, in the bath and it was Prince. I don’t know how he got my number,” she laughed. “At the time, our business didn’t have the capacity to do his concert wardrobe but we would send him things and he’d wear them.”
For a while, globetrotting was one of the primary sources of inspiration. “I went on a monthlong trip to India. We went to Rajasthan and all over, and I got really into supporting women artisans. The goal was to show craftsmanship — it was a time when things were more bohemian,” she said, commenting on a resort 2010 look with a sporty metallic striped sweater and khaki miniskirt paired with a mirrored bib necklace — a very Tory hippie preppy mix. (In 2009, she would launch the Tory Burch Foundation, which has given more than $100 million in low-interest loans to female entrepreneurs through its ongoing capital program with Bank of America. The brand has contributed more than $90 million to women’s empowerment initiatives.)
For spring 2011, she showed a haute version of a Baja hoodie with metallic pants, recalling her teenage years as a Dead Head. “I was a total music festival person,” Burch said of her days at the University of Pennsylvania. “I used to wear an Hermes scarf with a Grateful Dead T-shirt.”
Her first runway show was spring 2012, and featured jeweled cardigans, ladylike skirts and shorts suits with unexpected trims, like rows of raffia fringe. “I wanted always a weirdness and twist to things,” she said of a trait that’s become more pronounced in recent collections; see the Walter Schels cat photo prints for resort 2024.
The next years saw a hit parade of novelty jackets and coats, including the Sgt. Pepper military-inspired style worn by everyone from Blake Lively to Beyoncé, a fall 2015 tapestry coat from a collection inspired by magic carpets and Morocco, and a fall 2016 rainbow blanket style nodding to the wardrobe of jockeys.
Then, the athleisure revolution hit.
“When I started to work on Tory Sport in 2015, it made me want to rethink design in general, because I was experimenting with different kinds of fabrics and techniques,” Burch said of her shift in approach. “I kept hearing about the concept of being on-brand, and it really bothered me, because I don’t even know what’s on-brand, and it pigeon holes you,” she said of wanting to grow and stretch.
To help, in 2018 she built an atelier at her New York headquarters, where she could work directly with patternmakers and sewers throughout the design process. Another change came in 2019 when husband Pierre-Yves Roussel joined the company as chief executive officer, setting out to elevate and globalize the brand, which sources told WWD in October has hired Morgan Stanley to explore various alternatives, including a potential initial public offering. That step allowed Burch to relinquish her CEO duties and focus solely on design.
She beefed up her team, hiring designer Pookie Burch, her stepdaughter, formerly of the twisted Americana classics brand Trademark, as associate creative director, and started working with stylist Brian Molloy.
Burch pegs her true creative renaissance to the spring 2021 Shaker-inspired collection, developed during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“That was the beginning of cleaning up and editing everything,” she said, explaining how she looked inward for direction. “I went back to how I was raised. I went to Quaker schools, which even in Pennsylvania were a little more humble surroundings. I remember going to Amish country and seeing Shaker furniture and loving that artisanal but refined and edited approach,” she said, pointing to a simple dress made of white cotton shirting with a large collar and black-piped paneled tiers fusing gentle graphic elements, which also happened to resemble a Tory tunic in a way.
Utility and simplicity were still on her mind when, for the spring 2022 collection, she hosted a block party to celebrate her new Mercer Street boutique. On the asphalt runway, she paid homage to trailblazing American designer Claire McCardell, the mother of modern American sportswear in the ’40s and ’50s, with a lively mix of picnic plaid, technical knit jersey and cotton poplin pieces dedicated to ease of movement.
“Women’s [dress] had been very restricted, and she [McCardell] crashed that idea. I hope I do that in a way, too. I want to give women the ability to be individuals,” Burch said.
That season’s technical knit jersey “corsets” and dropped-waist dresses marked the beginning of a new exploration of the body for Burch, a thread that led to the leggy layered opaque and sheer skirts for spring 2023, all the way to the galactic-looking jersey hoop dresses for spring 2024.
Did her customers get it right away, or was there resistance when she went from being a product-driven to a more design-driven brand, with prices two to three times higher?
“Well, if that happened, I don’t know about it,” Burch said. “Even though these clothes may feel more designed, they’re actually quite wearable. And that’s kind of what I love about McCardell’s clothing as well.…It definitely brought in a new customer but we’re also bringing our customer along. I have been thoughtful about not alienating our customer but not to the point of not doing what I want to do.”
Spring 2023 was also when she introduced the Surrealist-inspired Pierced slingback and mule with tromp l’oeil toe rings that became her hottest shoes since the Reva craze. “I was thinking about my first time in New York, which was the ’90s, and how clean and cool it all was,” she said of the season.
For fall 2023, she continued to push the concept of special pieces and wardrobe builders with a twist, including sweaters with perma pushed-up sleeves, pleated pants, power mesh camis with tiny rosette details, and an acid green satin dress worn back to front.
“Especially now with the environment, you need to have quality and construction and beautiful things that are enduring,” she said. “And one thing I’m thinking about as I go is I want to have a dialogue and not reinvent the wheel every season. To have some continuity but also push forward.”
For the fall 2024 collection due to be shown Monday night, she’s looking ahead, not back — continuing to explore unconventional materials, crash traditional tropes of femininity, play with form and volume, and sprinkle in retro-futurism details that have helped her brand soar to revenues of nearly $2 billion.
“I was thinking a lot about making the everyday sublime, which is one of my favorite words,” said Burch, who made the WWD cover look, a mocked and ruffled minidress, from nylon shower caps of all things.
An ingenious stiff glossy black sleeveless mock croc top and squared-off skirt (inspired by the shape of a lampshade) create architecture around the body, and then fold to pack flat.
She’s also made lace-edged slip skirts in everyday nylon, crocheted over iridescent sequins on a lush coat, and even thrown in a couple of sexy bodysuits if any of today’s pop stars want to continue the tradition of Tory wear on the concert stage.
Clearly she’s having a blast, even if the CFDA Designer of the Year Award has continued to elude her. Being overlooked by the industry might have crushed lesser people, but not Burch.
“I don’t look at life that way,” she said. “I guess I can’t.”