When ambition gained the better of Julius Caesar, he found himself betrayed. His final words were, “Et tu, Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?”) as he recognized his dear friend among his assassins. Maybe William Shakespeare is to blame for the negative connotations surrounding the word ‘ambition’, or perhaps it is the loudest proponents of ambition who have transformed it into a machine of callous social climbing.
From time immemorial, this word has often been used to praise men and denigrate women. It’s a dirty word, a scapegoat term employed to take down anyone who would dare succeed despite the odds, despite the challenges of raising a family, running a company, being the breadwinner. There are few so well-equipped in the realm of ambition as Tory Burch, one of the world’s most powerful and forward-minded businesswomen.
She opened a brick-and-mortar store in Manhattan with a full range of product offerings as a fledgling start-up without brand equity, Ambitious. She won over Oprah Winfrey and legions of fans with an uncompromising vision to make luxury affordable. Ambitious. She opened her first international flagship in Tokyo in 2009, only a year after the global financial crisis (with European expansion quickly following in 2010). Ambitious.
From strength to strength, Burch has carved out a reputation so unimpeachable that she scarcely needs an introduction. You’ve undoubtedly heard about how she has scaled her business to be a billion-dollar success – “Burch” and “billion” practically seem synonymous at this point. Still, it’s crazy to think that a woman who is so lauded, whose name is in wardrobes worldwide, and who has achieved some of the highest honors in her industry could stay so down to earth.
In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Burch was an astonishingly gracious subject. She addressed her successes in terms of her team – never “I”, but “we” – and acknowledged that the whole endeavor started with a desire to build a foundation designed to empower women. To discover that is her entire raison d’etre is only one of the many surprises we uncovered in our long and illuminating talk with Burch during her latest visit to Dubai. Listen in.
It’s been six years since the last time you visited Dubai. What brings you here this time?
I’m inspired by women globally, and the region itself is such an important market for us. We’re happy to be an American brand, but my references are always more about women from all kinds of cultures and countries, so the Middle East was such a natural fit. For instance, caftans and tunics have been part of our DNA from the beginning. We now have 22 stores throughout the region, and it’s important for me to come in and check on our team, but also look at how the market is growing for us. It certainly has changed a lot, even in the last six years since I’ve been here.
Your couture-level caftans are currently on display in The Dubai Mall, but will be donated to Esmod right after. What is the reasoning behind that?
I’m always interested in supporting local institutions. These caftans were a lot of work – it took 300 hours of work on some of them. It’d be great for design students in Dubai to see a unique take on something that is so traditional.
I feel like your mother has been a massive inspiration to you from the beginning. I’ve noticed that there’s always a reference to your mother when you talk about your caftan designs. What have you been able to take from her personal style to incorporate into your brand?
My parents honeymooned in Morocco 60 years ago, and went back almost every year that they were married for 50 years. I have all these old Moroccan caftans that they brought back. Growing up, I remember my mother getting out of a pool and throwing on a caftan with no makeup and wet hair – just as chic as you can imagine. That is her natural essence, and it comes from what she believes: that the clothes should not wear you, you should wear the clothes.
She really exemplified that. Looking at pictures of their travels made me interested in all cultures and inclusivity, which is why I started my company based on that. [They gave me] a picture of a more gentle time. The way [my parents] traveled and met all kinds of people exposed me to a world bigger than Philadelphia.
What kind of qualities do you see in women here in the Middle East?
I’ve always admired their resilience and strength. A lot of my Middle Eastern friends have an innate sense of style, but they also have incredible substance. We have shared values of caring about family, and they are often the backbone of their family. I’ve also always related to the concept of modest dressing. What’s interesting is jewelry is something that’s really resonating here. I’m interested in the idea of designing more products in that territory.
While a lot of brands are trying to figure out how to appeal to or navigate in this region, the natural aesthetic of your brand seems to have always resonated here. It’s not like you had to force a new narrative to meet market demands.
When we go into places around the world, we want to be respectful and understand traditions and customs. We want to go in subtly, not pushing anything in a place that has its own set of traditions. But there are a lot of areas where [Tory Burch] is already aligned with the Middle Eastern woman – like the caftan and modest dressing.
How has your role changed with your husband (Pierre-Yves Roussel) operating as CEO?
Certainly, having my husband as the new CEO has given me the ability to give up that role and focus exclusively on product and brand. I’ve been doing that during the last nine months, and it’s been transformative. It’s not only a relief, but it’s also the right business decision.
Sustainability has become a vital topic in the fashion industry, and informed consumers are researching the practices of brands before spending money with them. What is Tory Burch doing to make itself more sustainable?
The way I look at it, everyone has to embrace it. It’s the right thing to do, not the thing to do for marketing. It’s definitely a Herculean task. That said, I’m obsessed with the environment, so it’s a top priority of mine. We’ve put together a task force that’s not about external messaging in any way. Instead, we focus on how we package things – the actual packaging itself – as well as the dyeing process and how we use plastics. We also look at what materials we can use that are recycled. It’s step by step and it’s going to take some time, but we are absolutely dedicated to getting there.
Speaking of important social initiatives, the Tory Burch Foundation has been doing amazing things for women in small business.
You know, starting a foundation was always my business plan. I knew that I had to build a successful business to start a foundation because I didn’t have the finances to do that otherwise. When I went to raise money, I said I wanted to build a global lifestyle brand so that I could start a foundation. I was told very concretely to never say that.
But that made me more determined to do it. Tory Burch launched in 2004, and the foundation in 2009, so our foundation is now 10 years old. That’s when I sent a company-wide e-mail saying we’re finally ready to message the work we’re doing externally. We have real impact and scale. We are not changing lives, we are helping women change their own lives by giving them the tools they need to empower themselves.
That’s an important distinction. You’re not changing lives, you’re empowering women to change their own lives. That is the true definition of empowerment, if you ask me.
Yes, it’s an important time to be having this conversation. Women still need to have equal pay. It’s not a favor, it should be a given. What we do is give women access to low-interest capital, and then we also create the ability for networking because women are great collaborators and networking is part of what women need. Through our website, women have access to tools to help them write business plans.
We want to be the go-to source for women entrepreneurs. Because of our partnership with Bank of America and their $100 million dollar donation, we have given $50 million in the past two years, and plan to give the other $50 million in the next two. I’d also like to make the foundation international at some point. Tory Burch Foundation exists for women across all business sectors, it’s actually very little in fashion. Sometimes people think [the foundation] is just fashion-related, but we actually help all kinds of businesses because we believe that women are a great investment.
What sets Tory Burch Foundation apart from similar efforts?
I feel like the one thing that differentiates us is that men are also a part of the conversation. I think we can sit all day long talking to each other about issues that women face, but we’re not going to create change if we don’t get the other 50 percent of the population on board. That’s something we’re committed to doing.
You host a very intriguing entrepreneurship and empowerment summit every two years. What’s slated for your 2020 summit?
We’re carrying over the theme of #EmbraceAmbition from the last summit, which is about confronting unconscious bias and stereotypes. Ambition is seen as a dirty word, and I realized I wasn’t embracing my ambition. Why is it okay for men to be ambitious, and not women? How do we get rid of that very harmful stereotype? Since then, it’s been a goal of mine and our foundation to really get rid of that stereotype.
You have a billion-dollar company, which makes me curious about your decision-making process. It seems to me that the bigger the company, the more weighted the decision. What guides you towards making the right decisions?
I’ve always had an amazing team and surrounded myself with amazing people, like my older brother, who has been involved in the company for a long time. I could’ve never done anything without my team. When it comes down to taking a decision, I generally listen to other people’s points of view and then make the call. At the end of the day, I think you need to have that ability to make the call. It’s not always the right decision. I think one thing I’ve learned is how to be agile when you don’t make the right decision and how to recover quickly.
What’s the company culture like inside Tory Burch?
Our values are inspired by my father, Buddy, which is why we call them “Buddy Values”. At Tory Burch, we treat everyone with the same amount of respect and kindness, while expecting great work. I want to create a great place for people to work. Otherwise, what’s the point?