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October 21, 2011

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A sharp eye and distinct taste

The Tory Burch woman takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary. She lives 24-7 with effortless ease, elegance and style.

The result: a complete package of intelligence, confidence and wit.

That's the muse Burch created eight years ago when she launched her label. Since Day 1, she has offered a consistent mix of everyday outfits, including printed tunics, tailored trousers, big handle handbags, strategic sequins and ballet flats.

She says it was important to not just think about how this woman would dress, but also how she would live.

Now Burch says she has the privilege of seeing her come to life all over the globe. San Francisco, Nashville, Rome, Beijing and her new Manhattan flagship store are among the places she has set up shop. Soon, she'll be in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Waikiki, Hawaii.

"I see a lot of it for working moms, but also for women who are younger and older," Burch says. "I love to see how each woman puts her personal spin on it. I love to see how they put it together."

Burch described herself as "a shy person" - one who is still adjusting to media attention - but she'll stop someone on the street when she sees her graphic double-T logo. She says she is so flattered that women whom she has come to respect, even if she knows them by type instead of name, choose to spend their money on her collection instead of all the other things they want. Hmmm, maybe family vacations or home improvements, she muses. "It's very passe to think women want to spend a fortune on clothes."

She adds, "Our goal from the beginning was to design the most stylish clothes we could for the least amount of money."

This isn't fast-fashion, however, and definitely not cheap. Burch has found her niche in the contemporary market, with dresses largely in the US$300-US$500 range and sweaters US$200-US$350. Her famous flats cost mostly US$150-US$300.

Burch, 45, staged her first formal runway show last month at New York Fashion Week, attracting all the right retailers and editors. The theme was the seaside French resort of Deauville, which, she says, captures the right mix of polished and sporty. There was a striped sequin cocktail dress, daytime dresses with dropped waists and pleats and knit short suits.

The inspiration came - as always - from her parents and the trips they took. "When I'd look at old photos, everything seemed so optimistic - and chic, and glamorous, and they always looked like they were having fun!"

Now, with so many seasons under her belt and, she hopes, many more in front of her, she just wishes they had taken even more vacations. (Photos of mother Reva and her late father, Buddy, hang on the walls of the Madison Avenue townhouse shop.)

Her parents gave her more than ideas, though. They encouraged her to do her own thing, she says. "They gave me the ability to believe in myself, they gave me early on the confidence to take risks."

Her mother was the chic blonde sitting alongside the catwalk when Burch came out to take her bow at her fashion show.

Burch grew up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as an art history major. She had an internship at Christie's auction house. Landing a job afterward in the fashion industry wasn't planned, she says.

"I'd say I've surprised myself and the people who knew me then. I had a different style at Penn, I was a tomboy - and I still am a little bit of a tomboy. ... I didn't know this would happen."

That said, she wasn't totally unexposed to the high-fashion world. She's been part of the upscale, uptown social scene, especially since moving to Manhattan after college, and her own wardrobe includes items from top-tier designers. Many of those designers are now friends, and it's not uncommon to see Burch in the front row at the fashion shows of Proenza Schouler, Narciso Rodriguez or Carolina Herrera. She has struck up a high-profile friendship with Kanye West, too, attending this spring's ball at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art arm in arm with the fashion-obsessed hip-hop star.

Hal Rubenstein, fashion director at InStyle and an early Burch supporter, says her success comes from a sharp eye and distinct taste.

"From the start, she said, 'Here's the girl, a very specific girl. She didn't spread her look all out," he says. "She edited with a specific profile, and a whole bunch of women said, 'I want to be the Tory Burch girl'."

With most years of her business growing during an economic downturn, Rubenstein says she didn't try to be all things to all people. Instead, she focused on convincing consumers they wanted her singular point of view. "It's about an uptown girl with a downtown vibe. She's urban and has a sophisticated life, but not a stuffy one," he said.

Such a clear vision is unusual at Burch's price point; it's more typical of couture clothes, Rubenstein notes.

"She didn't start out super-expensive, and she didn't start with all guns blazing. She didn't have to rush to grow her brand. It happened quickly, but it seems like an intellectual growth plan," he says. "The best way to write a big story is to start with a small one."

Still, Burch is looking to expand. In addition to opening more stores, Burch has allowed herself to think about what comes next: She already has an eyewear partnership with Luxottica, and a fragrance and beauty line would be nice, she says with a smile.

Not everything is about work, though. As a Manhattan single mother of three sons, Burch says she has learned to set limits, especially on her time. "My biggest challenge every day is to be a great mother and a great businesswoman. I've learned time management, organization and I have priorities. I take them to school in the morning, and I leave the office at 6:30."

There's a collective family appreciation of music in the house, and Burch will listen to everything from classical to the Beatles to Kanye to unwind.

At the dinner table, there is little, if any, discussion about Burch's day, instead asking the boys about their sports or guitar lessons. Soon, they'll start talking about their planned holiday trip to Myanmar or the African safari she'd like to take the family on.

"I think you can have it all," she says. "You just have to know it's going to work."


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