Tory Burch

For anyone who has been watching closely, it is obvious that a subtle shift has been brewing at Tory Burch HQ. It first became noticeable in the designer’s early pandemic collections, but really solidified in her spring/summer 2022 Claire McCardell tribute collection. McCardell was a trailblazing mid-century designer and arguably the inventor of American sportswear. Beyond their American roots, both designers share a drive to create clothing inspired by and relevant to their lives—McCardell’s as a woman in a rapidly changing and modernising world; Burch’s as a 21st-century working mother in New York City juggling multiple balls. By looking back at McCardell’s impact on fashion history, something clicked into place in the forward march of Tory Burch. The signature sportswear ease and uptown polish that have been Burch’s calling card since she launched her brand in 2004 are still there, but now they are cut with a frisson of edge—a certain tension that snaps the clothes and Burch’s fashion message into sharper focus. To put it in fashion speak: whereas before, her clothes can veer towards the “commercial”, now they read as “editorial”. Here, Burch tells us more about her creative reset and the evolution of her brand.

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I want to bring it back to a few years ago when the pandemic just started. There was a lot of talk in the industry about doing things differently. What were your own thoughts or realisations in that period and how have they manifested in your work?

With all the bad things that were happening, the positive was that it allowed me to have a bit of a reset, and to actually have the time to be thoughtful and introspective. Where in the past I had been inspired by my parents, or travel or other people, when the pandemic happened, I had to look within. In a way, that helped me refine my design philosophy and the essence of the brand. With that, came this idea of [doing] less of everything, and everything with more integrity.

Why did it take such a monumental event to have that reset?

A couple of things happened around the same time. My husband, Pierre-Yves [Roussel, the former CEO of LVMH’s Fashion Group] joined the company in 2019 and I gave up the role of CEO. Before, I used to run the company and design and do everything. I’m very proud of that but in hindsight, it wasn’t smart. Now, instead of spending 30 percent of my time on creativity and innovation, I spend 100 percent. It’s literally a completely new world for me.

What does spending 100 percent of your time on creativity look like?

It gave me the ability to do things for the creative process for which I didn’t have the time before, whether that’s research, or fittings—I love [being able] to fit all the things that I’ve thought about or touched on, but never had time to dive deeply into. I’ve always loved fit and fabric, and also just the innovation of fabrics itself, and having that precision, and that ability to make sure it all comes together, the difference is like night and day. I guess it’s much more about the actual materials and construction than it has ever been before.

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How does a Tory Burch collection today take shape?

I still love doing mood boards and image boards, but it’s very different. I was an art history major, so I always think about art. But now, it’s not so defined. We can start from like, a William Wegman dog photograph, and mix it with something else. I start working on the overall colour palette and fabrics at the same time. I never used to have the time to be able to do all of that, all at once. In a way, the collections now are more fully formed in my head. I’m designing more looks, rather than so many separate things. It’s more of a synergy today

For fall/winter 2023, you explored the idea of imperfection and a certain kind of undoneness. Why does that feel right for you right now?

I personally love the idea of imperfection. I think there’s perception and then there’s reality. Even when it comes to the way people think about me; I’ve heard like “Oh, you’re so this or that”—I am so far from anything around perfection, except maybe for my work ethic. So I love the idea of things that aren’t what they seem, and become more interesting when you look closer. That was where I started with this undone [look] and wearing things backwards. It’s kind of like a twisted concept around the ideal of beauty. And for me, there shouldn’t be this ideal of what beauty should be—I love differences in beauty.

I also picked up, with the spring/summer 2023 and fall/winter 2023 collections, this undercurrent of sexiness, though it isn’t rooted in how much skin is on show. What are your thoughts on sexiness and how do you translate that into cloth?

I always think of je ne sais quoi when I think about sexy. There’s a sexiness that comes clearly from the way a woman feels and her confidence, but it isn’t as obvious. The sexiness is in how you can make women feel that isn’t just about being exposed. It’s this subtle line you walk between how you design things that make women feel sexy and the best version of themselves, but also have a bit of an elegance. I also love the dichotomy of feminine and masculine. Femininity and sexiness go hand in hand for me, but I like to balance it with masculinity.

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In the almost-two decades since you launched your brand, the industry has changed so much. Which of these changes are you most excited about, and which ones less so?

For the first, when I started my business, the plan was to build a global lifestyle brand so I could start a foundation—I hear myself saying this and I’m slightly embarrassed because in retrospect, I didn’t know what I was saying. I knew instinctively that business and purpose went hand in hand, and that doing good is good for business. Back then, I was pretty much laughed out of the room. So the thing I’m most excited about now is how people and companies are being held accountable, to be purpose-driven—whether that’s inclusivity or the environment. That, to me, is the most important shift. I’m curious about what you think about what’s happening that is relevant to the second part of the question.

I feel like social media has been a great tool in terms of getting different voices heard, but at the same time, it has also had this flattening effect.

The interesting thing about social media is that it helped us build our brand. We were early adopters of all social media. We had a blog before blogs were really happening, and then the same with Twitter and Instagram. Because we didn’t advertise, it was such an important tool for us to reach our customer. I think there’s good and bad with everything in life. You just want to make sure that you don’t lose the uniqueness and integrity of the brand. [Pauses] There’s been a lot of collaborations. Collaborations are great but sometimes, I feel like they’re just happening because it’s the thing to do. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been approached and in a way, I’m kind of glad that we have kept a little bit off that path. I’ve always been interested in longevity. That’s not to say that you don’t adapt and evolve and innovate, but I am always like, to what end? Generally, we have said no to 99 percent of the things that come our way, because at the end of the day, are you aligned? Is there a synergy in cultures, or design, or the way you feel about social issues? Or is there a dichotomy that makes it interesting? I don’t want to say that all collaborations seem gratuitous; I think some are brilliant. In essence, I am looking more at purity—taking things off rather than just piling things on.