Tory Burch reflects on a difficult year, the lessons learnt and fashion’s way forward.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Tory Burch reflects on a difficult year, the lessons learnt and fashion’s way forward.

From left: A vibrant take on the power suit from Tory Burch fall/winter 2020. Tory Burch at home

Since starting her namesake label in 2004, Tory Burch has grown it into a billion-dollar brand built on an innate understanding of what women want. Part Hamptons ease and part Manhattan polish, Burch’s vision of effortless American sportswear has resonated around the world. But in a year unlike any other, the designer and entrepreneur, like so many others, has had to pause and pivot. Here, she shares what she has learnt and her plans going forth. 

The global lockdowns earlier this year served as opportunities for many to rethink the way they work—what was it like for you? 

The first few months were incredibly tough. Our priority was safety, for our employees and customers. After we closed the office, we went home and didn’t leave the room for almost a month. It was a crazy time—trying to protect jobs, keep people safe and get the support we needed to continue to operate. 

As a designer and an entrepreneur, what were some of the big lessons you’ve learnt from having to weather this crisis?

There is no playbook for a pandemic, and as I reflect on what feels like thousands of decisions, I realise that a great team, clear values and a deep awareness of interconnection have enabled us to weather this storm. The value of interconnection has played out in so many ways. For example, early on, we saw there was no unified voice speaking up for American fashion, and so we advocated in Washington for the needs of our own industry as well as those of landlords and suppliers.

The emphasis on relationships has also informed how we communicate with our customers. From the beginning of the pandemic, I wanted to be more personal. It felt important to share my challenges, frustrations and hopes. We’re part of an ecosystem and everything is connected. It’s vital that this spirit comes through in everything we do and I think this collegial spirit is so important for the industry going forward. Each of our successes—and that of our partners—are so intertwined. 

Why did you decide to opt out of New York Fashion Week in September?

We have no rules about how we introduce each collection. Long before the pandemic, I knew I wasn’t going to do a show this September. I was already drawn to something more personal, such as the previews we did in-store at the start of the company. To be respectful of the climate, we’re sharing this collection with a digital lookbook. The focus will be on the clothes, design and craftsmanship.

Do you foresee yourself making a return to the runway?

I do think we’ll go back to shows eventually. They have a dynamism and an energy that are hard to match digitally, and there’s nothing like seeing the collection in person—where every special detail, material, colour and print comes through so clearly.

My Reading Room

From top: A sculpture by artist Francesca DiMattio displayed at Sotheby’s New York, where the Tory Burch fall/winter 2020 collection was shown. Burch with her swatches. Models backstage at the Tory Burch fall/winter 2020 show

What excites you about fashion today?

The pandemic has driven everyone in the industry to question everything. Why do we do what we do? How can we be part of the solution to the very real changes facing our world today? I think people are in an innovative state of mind and in touch with what matters; I’m excited to see how we each rise to this moment. 

What do you want to see more of in the industry?

We need more diversity. We need designers, executives and every type of talent from all races and backgrounds. And that means we each need to review how we recruit, and who gets funding and mentoring. At Tory Burch, our team is pretty diverse, but there’s always more we can do internally, especially at senior levels. And I’m currently looking at ways I can support young designers outside the company as well. 

In this age of physical distancing, what are your thoughts on physical retail? 

I believe in stores and the in-store experience, but the industry will certainly evolve. Ultimately, the relationship with the customer will remain paramount, and I know that customers respond to spaces where they can fully immerse themselves in the brand. From the start, I wanted our stores to feel like a living room—and we’re already seeing that customers crave that; they’re hungry for new experiences after so much time at home.

You collaborated with artist Francesca DiMattio for fall/winter 2020—what drew you to her work?

I’m always inspired by strong female artists, women who aren’t afraid to go against the grain. As Francesca says, her work “imbues the decorative with strength and power”. We share a bold approach to colour, and a love of porcelain and pottery.

Her work plays with the conventions of femininity—is that something you constantly think about as well?

Absolutely. Fashion is ultimately about identity: Who do I want to be today? What [does it mean] to be a woman now? These are questions fashion seeks to answer. For me, the role of the designer is to seek inspiration in response to these questions and translate it into an answer for this moment. It requires constant evolution. 

Which other artists do you have your eye on at the moment?

There are so many. One I would highlight is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian-born artist who moved to the US in her teens. Her work explores the reality of being at home in two cultures by creating imaginary domestic spaces where Nigeria and America coexist. Many are collages depicting Crosby and her husband, American artist Justin Crosby, who both evoke the power of love to create something new; a shared world from combined experience. 

What was your thought process for spring/summer 2021?

The collection drew from my memories and life experiences. And also from travelling in my mind, dreaming of places I’ve never been. It has a timeless quality, with pieces women can wear again and again. 

What was it like working on it when New York was in the midst of a lockdown? 

The biggest pivot personally was designing the collection remotely. It was comparatively easier to run the business virtually; designing a collection required more ingenuity. At one point, I had racks of clothes in my dining room and a couple of team members standing in as socially distant fit models. We made it work and I’m proud of the collection we designed—in many ways, I think it’s our best one yet.