That’s Tory Burch?

You’ll have to forgive the pair of whispering fashion writers in the second row of the Tory Burch runway show in September, or the three writers clustered at an industry party two months later, talking about the best shows of New York Fashion Week. They’re just a little confused.

They had a certain image in their minds of Tory Burch, they said: a preppy staple for colorful tunics and ballet flats stamped with gold logo medallions. Maybe they once owned those top-selling round-toed shoes, bought at the mall in the late 2000s, worn so often that the sole dissolved.

But in 2021, they began seeing new glimpses of Tory Burch. It wasn’t that the brand’s monogram flip-flops were re-emerging as ironically cool, like other signature accessories of the 2000s (Ugg boots, butterfly clips, wraparound sunglasses, thin eyebrows). It was that the brand — from what was presented on the runway — simply looked cooler. Less private-school parent goes to a garden party; more sensual city denizen goes for drinks at the Odeon.

“Something Different Is Happening at Tory Burch,” a Fashionista headline proclaimed after a runway show in February 2022 with unexpected layering and Mod-ish geometric patterns. After Emily Ratajkowski, who models for the brand in shows and ad campaigns, wore a nearly naked net dress from that same runway show to a 1970s-themed party, InStyle wrote: “We never could have guessed the designer behind this gown.”

The attention-grabbing net dress Emily Ratajkowski wore to a party last October, seen here layered atop another dress at the Tory Burch fall 2022 show. Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Laura Reilly, the author of that InStyle article, had already clocked the Tory Burch progression in her shopping newsletter Magasin, a resource for very-online fashion enthusiasts. Last June, she called Tory Burch “inexplicably yet undeniably cool now,” writing, “I haven’t been able to pinpoint what’s driving the brand’s evolution from collector-level prepcore to something bigger, but it’s there, and for the first time I’m seriously considering becoming a Burch girl.”

That was the thing: For all the insider chatter about the new energy of Tory Burch’s shows, nobody knew for sure where it came from.

Often, in fashion, this kind of shift in aesthetic — or perception — may be the result of a new player coming on board. It may be a new creative director, which is typically announced with fanfare, or a new design director or stylist, which tends to happen more quietly.

Yet Ms. Burch wasn’t saying much about the brand’s broader design direction, or about what may have shifted internally. Until now.

‘Night and Day’

“I just haven’t been ready, if you want to know the truth,” Ms. Burch said, sitting on a couch (Mediterranean blue cushions, white fringe) in her Manhattan office. “We’re still feeling our way and learning as we go.”

She wore a long gold chain around her neck, tucked partly beneath her navy cardigan. Hung from that chain was her father’s gold Zippo lighter, which she and her three brothers were forbidden from touching while he was alive. It was covered in totems: a horseshoe, a tennis racket, a St. Christopher medal.

The necklace was a reminder of the way Ms. Burch’s stylish Philadelphia society parents still influence her design sensibility. But she also wore it for luck. She was nervous.

“It’s hard for me to talk about myself,” she said. But here the story goes: In 2004, Ms. Burch founded her brand. She was 37 and had worked in various fashion jobs, including in public relations and in advertising. She was a “pillar of New York’s young social set,” as The New York Times reported, raising a blended family of six children in apartments at the Pierre Hotel, and making clothes for the “rich woman’s wardrobe.”

Much has been written over the years about the company’s considerable growth (with a side of tabloid drama, courtesy of a long legal battle with her co-founder ex-husband). But one thing Ms. Burch makes clear is that it was “super, super tough” being the chief executive and top designer, for 14 years, of a global company that currently has about 350 stores and 4,000 employees, in tandem with starting a foundation in 2009 to support women in business. “At the end of the day, I’m the hardest critic of myself,” she said.

Ms. Burch in her showroom/design studio this month. Credit…Tess Ayano for The New York Times

So, giving up the C.E.O. title, which she did at the end of 2018, “was probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done.” Replacing her as chief executive was her new husband: Pierre-Yves Roussel, formerly of the fashion group at LVMH.

“I had to marry him to get him to be C.E.O.,” she said. It’s a joke, but also not. “It took me many years of convincing him,” she said. “And it allowed me to rethink everything.”

It allowed her to shift her focus almost entirely, for the first time since starting the company, to design, a change in her life that wasn’t gradual or subtle.

“I went from spending 20 to 30 percent of my time on creativity and the product, to almost 100 percent,” she said. “It’s night and day, quite honestly.”

How does she really feel? “Oh, my God, I’m so happy.”

‘Creative Reinvention’

What happened next wasn’t an intentional rebrand, Ms. Burch emphasized.

It’s just that her return to full-time design coincided roughly with the onset of the pandemic — a moment that made many people reconsider their ways of working and living.

Ms. Burch decided she wanted to design “in a more personal way than I ever had before”: not by making collections inspired by people and places she liked (Morocco, Princess Diana), but by her own life. Her first ready-to-wear collection released during the pandemic was inspired by the Shakers, whose values of craftsmanship and restraint she learned of as a child enrolled in a Quaker school. The next was photographed at the Odeon in TriBeCa, which she’d frequented during her early years in New York.

But it wasn’t until she returned to in-person runway shows in September 2021 that people began to see the beginnings of what Ms. Burch now refers to as her “creative reinvention”: a shift toward a more “refined vision and focused collection.” That show was a block party on Mercer Street in SoHo, near the company’s new flagship store.

The collection she showed in SoHo was inspired by Claire McCardell, a midcentury designer whose name Ms. Burch first heard while taking a women’s art history class at the University of Pennsylvania. In rediscovering Ms. McCardell’s innovative work during the pandemic, Ms. Burch saw a kindred spirit: a utilitarian sportswear designer who valued freedom (corsets bad, pockets good) and flattery (defined waists).

The finale of the Tory Burch’s Claire McCardell remix show, held in September 2021 on Mercer Street in Manhattan.Credit…Tory Burch

Three looks from the spring 2023 collection, inspired by 1990’s New York.Credit…Photographs via Tory Burch

Not every critic wholly loved the collection, but appreciation for the McCardell homage was palpable. The tribute included long, easy cotton dresses and jersey skirts, often in clashing prints or counterintuitive color combinations — striking that enviable balance of looking relaxed but also interesting. It’s that interestingness that fashion people sometimes like to call “directional” or, as Mr. Roussel put it, having “a bit more tension.”

This tension has not quite yet taken over Instagram, like, for example, those Miu Miu miniskirts did. But Bella Hadid is now wearing Tory Burch ballet flats, and in fashion that means something.

“The last three or four fashion shows there have been a real change in perception,” Mr. Roussel said. “We’ve had more visibility, coverage, interest than we’ve ever had before.”

Yet with the new interest came curiosity about whether there’d been any major changes to her design team. No, Ms. Burch answered, though there were “probably new people along the way.”

One new person — and a source of some online speculation about the shows’ newfound energy — was Brian Molloy, now a stylist for the brand’s shows and ad campaigns, who also works with the Row and Issey Miyake. He said that behind the scenes, the brand’s evolution unfolded more organically than deliberately.

“I don’t think it was a concerted effort on everyone’s part to be like, ‘Let’s scrap this and start fresh,’” Mr. Molloy said. “I think it was like, ‘OK, what do we have to say here? What do we want to say?’”

So Long, Hamptons?

Many of the words often used to describe fashion are not actually very useful. “Chic,” for example, can mean different things to different people, as Samira Nasr, the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, pointed out when asked about the word “modern” being applied to Ms. Burch’s recent collections.

“It depends on the person, I guess,” said Ms. Nasr, who worked as a stylist with Ms. Burch in the label’s early years and has remained close with her. “But I definitely feel a confidence. It’s a flex. She’s certainly using her talents. But Tory has nothing to prove.”

“To say there’s been a change sort of implies that some miracle happened,” Ms. Nasr continued. “I think that talent and vision was always there, but I think she’s more self-assured.”

In the spring 2023 campaign, Emily Ratajkowski and Vittoria Ceretti wear a mix of newer design elements (sheer layers) and more familiar signatures (metallic monogram shoes).Credit…Tory Burch

Yet there’s still a contingent who consider the feeling of Ms. Burch’s collections to be “wildly different,” as Ms. Reilly of Magasin put it — because that does depend on the person.

“I just really wasn’t paying attention to Tory Burch,” said Ms. Reilly, who is paid affiliate income when some of the products linked in her newsletter are purchased. “I was like, ‘OK, this is the brand with the sandals that have the logo that girls from the suburbs think is luxury.’

“For so long, it just felt like there was this sort of vague Hamptons-y veneer over everything, but it didn’t relate to the city that I live in or the people that I know live in and the way that we dress and the clothes that we covet.”

The new collections changed Ms. Reilly’s perception of the brand. Particularly the most recent, presented last fall and on sale this month, with its sheer tops and sleek coats and stretchy belt skirts that can be worn at different lengths, which all evoked a sexy and sophisticated ’90s energy. It resonated with a young, digitally minded audience. On Instagram, Who What Wear said its editors “audibly gasped”; Grazia called the collection “cool girl minimalism.”

It felt fresh but also very much on-trend — the kind of pieces one may find at the online retailer Ssense, whose feverish sales Ms. Reilly navigates like Virgil for her readers. (Tory Burch’s designs aren’t there, though; the brand’s ready-to-wear clothing is largely sold through its own website or in its own stores.)

To that end, Mr. Roussel is cognizant of not being too trendy. “You don’t create a brand by following someone else,” he said. But he knows evolution is essential. Even if that just means a more expansive closet — slinky fishnet gowns joining those suburban sandals. A WASP has wings.

“Before, I think she was designing a lot for herself. She was saying, ‘I’m looking at what I’m missing in my wardrobe,’” he said. “Now she has a broader view, probably.”

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