Tory Burch's Global Fashion Empire
How She Built a Multi-Billion Dollar Company
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On to today’s piece!
Tory Burch created a global fashion empire worth billions of dollars.
She found a gap in the market, brought her own style to life, and created hit products that women absolutely loved.
Yes, she came from a privileged background, but you don’t become the 24th richest self-made woman in America without putting in the work to build a remarkable company.
She certainly did.
And she’d become a billionaire within a decade of starting her namesake business.
How did she do it?
Let’s get to it.
Tory Burch, born Tory Robinson, grew up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on a farm with her parents and three brothers in a 250-year-old Georgian house.
She’s described as being somewhat of a tomboy growing up, often spending much of her childhood playing tennis or riding horses, and always being active:
At the Agnes Irwin School, she was a captain of the Varsity tennis team, and early on she was already developing her own style, a mix of preppy and jock, which would be described by friends as “Torywear,” or “prock.”
Tory’s father, Buddy Robinson, who inherited a seat on the stock exchange and a paper-cup company, sold his company early on and, as he described, “I was on the exchange, but I didn’t really work.” Funny enough, Tory and her brothers would end up being the complete opposite, as workaholics in their own industries. More on that soon.
Buddy was also a stylish man, often designing or modifying his own clothes, with Tory mentioning that he could’ve been a designer in his own right.
Reva Robinson, Tory’s mother, is a fashionable woman who Tory would get a lot of inspiration from later on when she launched her company. She also was a stay-at-home mother when Tory grew up, giving up an acting career to take care of her children.
Tory mentions having family dinners every night and family being of the utmost importance to her.
She’d carry those influences of her parents and their fashion with her to college, where she attended the University of Pennsylvania and honed her bohemian style.
A week after graduating in 1988 with an art history degree, Tory unintentionally enter the fashion world.
Skills and Relationships
After graduating college, Tory wasn’t all that interested in working in the fashion industry, but, like any graduate, she needed a job. She also wanted to move to New York after graduating from Penn, so she was on the hunt for a job there specifically.
It didn’t take long.
Within a week of graduating, she landed a job working for Zoran, a designer whose clothes were favorites of Tory’s mother, and moved to New York to start working for him as an assistant.
From there, Tory would work at Harper’s Bazaar and then with the legendary Ralph Lauren. While working for Ralph Lauren she met Vera Wang and ended up working for her as well. Later, Tory would also work for Loewe, a luxury fashion house owned by LVMH.
These experiences gave Tory, who had no business or design experience, an insider’s look at the industry.
Not only did she gain experience in fashion PR but she was also exposed to the various elements of these brands, something she’d later use when running her own company.
She also made plenty of friends in the industry, was constantly attending events, and met the person she’d be linked to forever - Chris Burch.
After leaving Ralph Lauren to work for Vera Wang in 1995, Tory met Chris who was working in the same building.
They soon became romantically involved and got married in 1996, with Tory then becoming the famous “Tory Burch” we know her as today.
But you may be wondering, who is Chris Burch?
Well, he’s an entrepreneur and investor who started an apparel company called Eagle’s Eye with his brother in 1976, grew it to 60 stores, and in 1989 sold 70% of the business, valuing it at $60 million, and later selling the rest of it in 1998.
From that initial sale, Chris bought a small apartment at the Pierre Hotel, and after marrying Tory, to which he brought three children from his previous marriage, they ended up building a 9,000-square-foot apartment in the hotel, combining neighboring apartments to do so.
Tory had twin boys and she continued to climb the fashion corporate ladder, but in 2000, pregnant with her third child, she decided to turn down an amazing offer to be president of LVMH to focus on raising her children:
It was a decision that gave her the space to eventually start her empire.
Starting Tory Burch
Not long after leaving the corporate world of fashion, Tory got the itch to start her own company.
First, she tried to buy Jax, in an effort to rebuild the brand, but she was rejected by the owner, Sally Hanson.
Then in 2001, 9/11 happened, and she put off the idea of starting her own company, knowing this just wasn’t the right time.
But 8 months after 9/11, she kept seeing a commercial on CNN, again and again, of this little cartoon figure that said, “Follow your dream, start a small business.”
The signs were clear - start a business.
She would do just that, taking the first steps and launching less than two years later.
And this gets me HYPE.
Because she could’ve easily not done so.
Think about it for a second.
She had three young children of her own and three stepchildren - this on its own is a full-time job - and she didn’t have to work at all besides that with money she and Chris had already.
But she wanted to build something of her own, she wasn’t content with sitting on the sidelines, and I LOVE that.
Here’s why Tory went for it:
Tory had an idea, saw the hole in the market, and went about building a company, going against much of the advice of others.
And she was serious about infusing social responsibility into her company, even though this got a lot of pushback:
Of course, to start the company, Tory needed capital.
Together with her husband, they put in $2 million, most of that coming from Chris according to my research, and she raised $6 million more from friends and family:
It’s important to note a couple of things about this because I know many of you will be thinking about it.
First, yes, Tory was in a very privileged position to raise a couple of million dollars from her husband and $6 million from her friends and family - many entrepreneurs don’t have those connections or that kind of access. I hear you.
Second, that being said, Tory did have 12 years of experience in the fashion industry at this point, having worked at some very well-known brands, and also having built up a number of strong relationships in the industry and beyond. The fact that she was able to convince so many people of her vision and to invest in her company has to count for something.
With the funding to build her company, Tory continued to put in the work to make her vision a reality.
The early days were crazy:
Tory, with the help of Chris, set up manufacturing in Hong Kong, and she went there in person a number of times which made a huge difference in convincing them to take a chance on her, a first-time designer.
The 8 months leading up to the launch of her first store were brutal:
And the company was named Tory by TRB initially, with the TRB standing for Tory Robinson Burch. Tory had tried a number of other names, but they were all taken. Two years later, the company would become “Tory Burch” as we know it today.
So Tory had funding and a name for her company. She also had her now famous double T logo, which she hired a firm to create for her, as well as a collection of initial products:
Now it was time to launch her first store.
Launching the First Store
For her first store, Tory found an old Chinese furniture store in downtown New York on Elizabeth Street, which didn’t have much on it at the time, and which had relatively inexpensive rent.
She decided to launch in early 2004, during fashion week, and she was 37 years old at the time. I mention her age only because too often we put artificial limits on ourselves for when we can start something. Tory was 37 and had 3 children and 3 step-children when she opened the doors to her first store.
The night before that first store opening though was nonstop work preparing for the big day:
And boy oh boy did that hard work pay off.
On opening day, as soon as the store was open, people came flooding in:
It got so crazy that women were changing clothes in the middle of the store, which was when Tory really knew they had something:
Tory’s store made more than $80,000 in sales that first day.
And she quickly started gathering praise from others as well:
The next year, Oprah came calling.
Early on, Tory was growing her brand by word-of-mouth and by doing trunk shows, choosing not to do any advertising for years.
She stuck with one store for more than a year and had only two wholesale accounts - Bergdorf’s and Scoop.
But that was all about to change.
The Oprah boost.
Tory’s appearance on Oprah’s show transformed her business and their website had 8 million hits that week. Thankfully, with a warning from Oprah’s team, Tory’s website never crashed.
The Oprah experience highlighted a few things.
One is the importance of luck. A producer on Oprah’s show had given her a tunic created by Tory for Christmas, Oprah loved it and became a fan.
Two is the importance of being prepared for opportunities when they strike. Not only did Tory create a product that Oprah loved, but her team was prepared to take full advantage of the moment when Tory was on the show.
Three is the value of trusting your instincts. Tory launched e-commerce for her brand very early on. Remember, this was 2004 when she launched and 2005 when the Oprah appearance happened - a much different time for e-commerce than today - and Tory had been told back then that no one would ever buy online. Clearly, they were wrong and Tory and her team made the right choice, which ended up being critical to her business.
Tory didn’t rest on that early success, working hard to exceed even her own expectations of opening three stores in five years:
Yes, Tory got a boost from Oprah, but a year after her appearance on the show, she launched a product that would absolutely take off.
The Reva Ballet Flat
In 2006, Tory would launch what would become one of her best-known products, the Reva, a $195 pair of ballet flats named after her mother.
An article in the WSJ described what made the product stand out:
Sales of the Reva ballet flat exploded, with more than 250,000 pairs sold in the first two years, and all with advertising.
Tory took full advantage of their popularity, introducing a number of variations such as suede and patent leather, and limiting the quantities in each store to control the supply and increase scarcity.
More than 5 million pairs would be sold by 2013.
Building on the Oprah appearance in 2005 and the launch of the Reva ballet flats in 2006, Tory Burch the company continued to grow, doing a reported $100 million in sales in 2007.
Around that time, she also made what would be described as a “brilliant hire” adding Samantha Gregory as her new head of PR.
It’s something we see with Tory again and again, an ability to bring in world-class talent to help her build her empire, which by this point includes a number of stores, personalized to perfection, as described by Fast Company later in 2014:
Things weren’t all good in Tory’s life at this time though.
While her empire was growing, her marriage was collapsing, making for a difficult and complex road ahead.
Business & Family
Tory founded Tory Burch with the capital and some help from her husband, Chris.
In 2008, they finalized their divorce, relevant in our story because of how intertwined they are, both in the name of Tory’s company and Chris’s interest in the business, in which he still had a 28% stake.
Tory initiated the divorce in 2006, with the proceedings taking almost two years.
They didn’t talk for months after the initial separation, though a series of health scares added some perspective:
Tory also mentioned that her ability to compartmentalize things, something she’s good at, helped her to continue to expand her empire while going through one of the toughest times in her life.
Around the same time, she hired some key team members and brought on key advisors, continuing to add strengths to account for her weaknesses.
These included her half-brother, Robert Isen, who she hired as president of corporate development, and Eric Schmidt, who at the time was the CEO of Google, to become a board member.
Throughout it all, Tory Burch the business kept growing.
Global Expansion & Billionaire Status
Tory opened more than 40 stores in the first 5 years.
Her company did $200 million in revenue in 2008.
The next year, she’d launch the Tory Burch Foundation, a non-profit created to empower other women entrepreneurs.
By 2011, Tory Burch did $500 million in sales, with 60 stores worldwide, and 1,500 employees. That same year, Tory won a $164 million lawsuit against online counterfeiters, one of the largest such lawsuits ever at that time.
The following year, Tory Burch would do $800 million in sales and Tory would have her Chris Burch problem reappear.
He’d sue Tory for a breach of contract, she’d counter-sue because of his C. Wonder brand, and it all was just one big mess that’s not worth spending too much time writing about.
The gist of it is this - Chris would eventually sell most of his stake in the company. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Meanwhile, Tory continued to expand her brand globally, describing her careful approach in an interview with Reid Hoffman on the Masters of Scale Podcast:
In 2013, with the sale of Chris’s stake in Tory Burch, the company was valued by Forbes at an estimated $3.5 billion.
With Tory’s 28.3% stake in her company, she becomes a billionaire for the first time.
The next year, her company does more than $1 billion in revenue, 10 years after its launch.
It’s interesting because Tory never worried about becoming the biggest brand:
Well, being an extraordinary brand certainly led to her becoming one massive brand as well, expanding into a number of categories, from dinnerware to watches.
And yet, 10 years in, Tory was still as ambitious as ever:
And in 2014 Tory also brought in a Co-CEO, Roger Farah, from Ralph Lauren, to help expand globally:
Roger was the COO of Ralph Lauren for 14 years and helped the company quadruple revenue in that time to $7.5 billion.
By January 2015, Tory Burch had 136 boutiques globally and 70 in the U.S.
A few years later, Tory would hand off the CEO role completely, allowing her to focus all her attention on the creative side of the business.
CEO Handoff & Tory Burch Today
In 2014, Tory Burch started dating a man named Pierre-Yves Roussel, who at the time was working for LVMH. They had met two years earlier in Paris, at a breakfast with investment bankers, becoming friends not long after.
The two got married in 2018 and at the start of 2019, Roussel became CEO of Tory Burch, leaving his role as CEO of the LVMH Fashion Group.
But taking the CEO position took years of convincing from Tory, as she jokingly described:
The decision for Tory to bring him on board was an easy one for her.
Roussel would help Tory Burch navigate the pandemic, with temporary store closures and employee furloughs, and continue their global expansion.
In 2022, Tory Burch would do $1.75 billion in sales.
Today, they have more than 370 stores around the world.
And the additional time Tory has had to spend on the creative side of the business the last few years?
It’s led to what the New York Times has described as “A new energy” and “A creative reinvention” at the brand.
Tory is now 57 years old, she’s been building her business for 20 years, and yet, it seems like she’s just getting started.
Tory Burch’s Wisdom
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
On their “Buddy Values” at Tory Burch:
On knowing when to trust your instincts:
The advice she’d tell her younger self:
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