“Will you share some scones with me?” Tory Burch asks, tucked away in a quiet corner at one of her favourite London hotspots, Claridge's Hotel. Happily, I oblige. She describes herself as a “private person,” although within minutes of meeting it is clear the powerhouse is also, undeniably, a people person.
One of America’s richest self-made women she may be, but the fashion mogul and philanthropist is hell-bent on sharing her piece of the pie. If juggling being at the helm of a global lifestyle brand which employs over 4,500+ people (84% women, FYI), mothering a nine-child blended brood and mentoring aspiring female entrepreneurs sounds stressful, the 53-year-old shows zero signs of it. Just do not describe her as Having It All, she abhors the phrase. “I don’t even understand what that means,” Tory says. “I think everyone has to do things in their own time and do what they can manage to do.”
In 2001, after stints working in top PR and advertising roles for the likes of Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang, she turned down the promotion of a lifetime - as President of Loewe - to be a stay-at home mum. “If I was going to take that role and not be an engaged mother, someone that could be there for the important years, I wouldn’t be doing either (work or motherhood) well,” she explains. “But it was hard, because I loved my job. And it wasn’t obvious how I would get back in.” In fact, it was during this career ‘break’ that she came up with the idea of launching her eponymous label, with no design training, then opening a boutique in New York City in 2004. 15 years later, and Tory Burch is reported to bring in $1.5 billion in sales from apparel, footwear, watches, accessories, and fragrances. From pivoting to dealing with impostor syndrome, Tory shares with BURO. her pearls of wisdom on how to shape your own path in 2020.
One of the first interviews I ever did - the headline was ‘Don’t Call Her A Socialite [laughs] - the journalist asked me if I was ambitious. It was actually a rude question at the time. There was this idea that women are aggressive, stubborn and too pushy if they’re ambitious. Men, however, are celebrated for their ambition. After the article was published, my dear friend (film producer) Jane Rosenthal called me and said: ‘why did you shy away from that word ambition?’ It really struck accord. I know there is still shame around that - one of our entrepreneurs even googled “How to Look Less Ambitious in an interview” or when meeting with men. What I’m trying to do is change the conversation and get women to embrace their ambition. I’ve learned to do that.
I think every place I’ve worked, whether it was the perfect job or not, I’ve taken so much from it. I was an art history major at the university of Pennsylvania, and I knew that I wanted to move to New York. My mother wore a designer called Zoran – he was from Yugoslavia and looked like Rasputin. He was such an interesting character and his designs were really original and minimalist. So, I sent him a note saying I would love a job - I just thought fashion would be interesting to try and he called me back and said I could have a job, but I would have to start on Monday. I graduated on Friday and I moved to New York City by Monday. There were no desks and it was three people: Him, his business partner and me. I did everything that needed to be done – PR and if someone came to the office that he didn’t want to see he’d go hide in the bathroom; I’d have to interface with that person. From there, it was about being a jack of all trades. Being exposed to different situations, adapting, being on the fly and really responding and solving problems. It was working with very high-profile people, too, so I think the vodka was starting at 10am [laughs] – not for me though! I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, so it was a shock to the system. But a welcome one. After that, I went to Harper’s Bazaar as a sittings assistant. It was a totally different thing, I went on all the shoots, exposed to photographers from Francesco Scavullo to Mario Testino. I don’t know if I was a very good assistant, but it had me learn to be organised.
I think everyone goes through stages of questioning their worthiness. I’ve definitely felt impostor syndrome. Growing up, my mother would say “you’re Tory Robinson, don’t you know you can do anything!” My mum would say “fake it ‘till you make it” and there’s a good amount of truth to that, because everyone has the same feeling on the inside. It’s how you learn to cope and deal with it and be comfortable being out of your comfort zone. Everyone has self-doubt, I think that’s important to acknowledge. I talk a lot to my children about that but also the entrepreneurs we work with (at the Tory Burch Foundation), and our team. I think over the years, something that has helped me with that is being open to change, intellectually curious and not set in my ways. Books are a big part of my learning education, I’m an avid reader. Both Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China about four generations of Chinese women, a historical novel and A Life: The Autobiography of Simone Veil, are so inspiring.
There’s a lot of challenges I’ve faced over the years. You have to learn that things aren’t perfect, and you can learn to let go and surround yourself with excellent people. Our team is amazing but there’s a challenge a minute and you just have to have grace under pressure – you don’t get anywhere with emotion. Being calm is the most effective tool you can have; it gives you time to have a thought process and be strategic and not be an emotional decision maker.
The ultimate mentor for me is my mother. We grew up on a farm, but she was an entrepreneur in many ways. She’s an organic gardener and started her own flower business. She was and still is a feminist, an advocate for equal pay for women. For instance, at the dinner table she’d make a comment that a woman could get a credit card in her own name and not even go through her husband, she furiously said “it’s about time!” I grew up with that. She built me up to make me think I could do anything my three brothers could do. Gender never came into it.
When I started working on the company, it was a very intense eight months of really pulling it together and figuring out funding and selling these people my dream. Saying something that was a bit radical at the time, that my dream was to build a global lifestyle brand and start a foundation for women. They looked at me as if I had something wrong with me; at the time it was mostly male investors. Obviously, that’s changed, but 15 years ago, it wasn’t really happening. Today, businesses are not innovative without a sense of purpose. But it has to authentic; it has to be what you truly care about; it can’t just be a charity you pick. I wanted it to be a foundation that helped women get access to low interest capital and education about business and how we create communities to learn about these things. The Tory Burch Foundation has had over 15,000 women write business plans off of the tools that we give them – it could start from how you structure a business plan to funding to the legal implications of building a start-up to public relations.
I was a late bloomer entrepreneur for sure. I ended up making the hardest decisions to leave a career I loved to become a stay at home mum, when I found out I was pregnant with my third son. Often the fear [of taking a career break] is valid. I wouldn’t even say depending on the career, because it happens across the board - when you leave people fill the space and that’s scary. Particularly if you love what you’re doing. But I would say anything is possible; if I can do it, anyone can do it. You have to decide what is important to you. For me, it was my children and family and making sure they were well cared for and you have time to focus on your passion. Sometimes you can’t do it all at once, and sometimes you have to be open to knowing that you can’t go back to fill the exact same place where you were. And maybe you shouldn’t – maybe it should be about evolving your thought process and learning about what you can achieve.
I didn’t have a design [or] business background and I learned on the job. I had so many different ideas for so many different businesses, none of them came to fruition. For example, at the same time I was working on the company, I was also thinking of starting a progressive school in New York City. The thing that I learned was to stop talking about it and just let it happen. Let it speak for itself.
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