Byline: Michael Shnayerson
One rainy evening last November, a modern-day version of Mrs. Astor's 400 filled Avie and Gigi Mortimer's sumptuous maisonette, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was a festive occasion-a 50th birthday for the host, a grandson of famed financier, politician, and diplomat Averell Harriman-and most in this almost young social crowd burbled with delight at being in exactly the right place that night. One couple, though, looked subdued. The other guests tried to hide their surprise that Chris and Tory Burch were there, together, at all: the usually swaggering venture capitalist and New York's hottest new clothing designer had announced their separation the previous January, and reports from both camps had been grim since then. But here they were, putting on the best faces they could. Partly, it was that neither wanted to miss the party. But, also, it was a signal. Separated as they were, divorced as they soon will be, the Burches had decided after a torturous year that they would stay on as partners in the national fashion phenomenon of Tory Burch. She had the talent, he had the money and business savvy, and now neither one wanted to let go.
Whether the Burches can pull that off, while completing a division of marital assets in the tens of millions of dollars, even as both pursue new romantic interests, is anybody's guess. But as everyone in the Mortimers' circle knows by now, Tory Burch, 40, is one very determined woman who's defied the odds before. Less than three years ago, she opened a store in Manhattan's Nolita district-"under the radar," as she puts it-with clothes that caused near pandemonium on opening day. Many from her wide circle of friends-Upper East Side socialites mixed with magazine editors and top-tier fashion executives-stripped to their underwear right by the racks to try on Burch's remarkably pleasing tunics and bold-print pants. By day's end, the stunned new store owner had $80,000 in sales and no more inventory. The phenomenon had begun.
Since then, Burch has opened five more stores around the country and supplied her clothes to 250 others, from Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue to Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Scoop. The company that she and Chris started together remains private and publishes no bottom-line figures, but the Burches claim it's already profitable and rattle off dazzling, if meaningless, statistics: that it's grown 750 percent since 2004, more than doubled its sales since last year, and so forth. Wall Street Journal lead fashion writer Teri Agins is as confounded by the lack of hard numbers as anyone else. Still, she says, "this is a bona fide success. They wouldn't be getting the real estate they got in Bloomie's and Saks if it wasn't."
Anecdotal evidence can be found wherever ladies lunch. Stefani Greenfield, co-founder of the stylish Scoop clothing stores and a keen fashion observer, says that whenever she goes to the ninth-floor eatery at the Manhattan department store Barneys at least 10 percent of the women are wearing Tory Burch. "Her clothes have become our uniform," says Samantha Boardman, a socially prominent psychiatrist and friend. The market's both class and mass. "I'm always calling Tory from airports to say, 'There goes another woman in your clothes,'" says Boardman. "'And another ... and another.'"
Burch's styles aren't familiar just because so many women are wearing them. They're an homage to the 50s and 60s. Picture Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road or Breakfast at Tiffany's, Julie Christie in Darling, Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Imagine a stylish woman of that day who lived on the Philadelphia Main Line, shopped in New York for the latest fashions from Rudi Gernreich, Hubert de Givenchy, and Sonia Rykiel, vacationed every year in Europe, packing the latest French and Italian styles into her Vuitton steamer trunks for the trip home, and on her way stopped in Morocco for tunics. That woman was Tory Burch's mother, Reva. To a great extent, Burch's clothes are inspired by what she coveted in her mother's closets.
The silhouette that's become Burch's signature as surely as the wrap dress became Diane von Furstenberg's is the tunic: slit-necked, bell-sleeved, as ancient as the Arab souks where Reva Robinson shopped in her youth, and new again in her daughter's clever hands. Yves Saint Laurent had his own go at tunics in the l960s. Tory Burch's are no less sexy, but more practical, with wider appeal. Sixteen-year-old girls wear embroidered ones on the beach as bikini cover-ups, their mothers wear white linen ones for Southsides at the club, and grandmothers prefer sequined Tory tunics for charity dos. The genius of Burch's entire line is how designer it looks-but how down-to-earth it sells. Working women can splurge on a Tory Burch polo dress for a little over $200. Wealthy women can grab the same dress to fill out a wardrobe of far more expensive clothes. All can be members of the Tory Burch Beach and Country Club-no reference letters required.
How a smart young woman with no design experience cracked the American fashion market is a story in itself. More interesting, though, is how in the process Burch took on New York. Society may not exist as it did in the gilded 1890s of Caroline Astor's day, when her social sidekick Ward McAllister drew up his list of the 400 suited to dance in Astor's ballroom. But it has its circles, and circles within those, and a woman from out of town, born to wealth but not a great fortune, had her work cut out for her. Burch breezed in with a steely charm and smart moves that were, like her clothes, both classic and contemporary. Her rise recalls the great social novels of Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss. Yet it shows, to borrow the title of Anthony Trollope's own social masterpiece, The Way We Live Now.
Burch is small, blonde, fine-boned, beautiful, with birdlike hands and a surprising reserve. At her 7,000-square-foot showroom, on lower Madison Avenue, she's dwarfed by the burnt-orange and lime-green walls-her company colors-and seems happy to let her new publicist do most of the talking about her spring line. The flack holds up a short, black sequined cocktail dress with pride: the night before, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones wore it at an award ceremony to show off her newly svelte post-childbirth figure. More interesting than the dress is who the new P.R. woman is: Samantha Gregory, 31-year-old daughter of New York society fixture Jamee Gregory. "A brilliant hire," says one socialite.
Along with clothes, Burch shows me weekend bags, handbags and clutches, beach towels and sandals and ballerina flats, most of them branded with her distinctive, Asian-looking double-T logo. She had accessories right from the start-a huge risk, each item a production challenge of its own-because she wanted to be, in the Ralph Lauren tradition, not just a clothing designer but a "lifestyle" designer. Though she claims not to have realized it at first, the lifestyle she was selling was her own. "Her clothes fit her lifestyle," says David Chu, another lifestyle pioneer, who founded the brand Nautica, "and a lot of other women feel the same way."
"Tory has been very smart about branding herself," agrees Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. "I think she completely understands the power of image and marketing and branding.... Women find her clothes accessible and now they're buying into Tory herself." What they sense, adds Wintour, is that Burch is a real person: "A lovely girl, hardworking ... not a socialite who puts her name on something and goes to lunch."
"I think women can relate to me on many levels," Burch allows. "One, I'm a mother. A lot of the women I've met have decided to give up their careers, and it's been a really hard decision for them." When customers flock to her stores to meet her, they identify with her struggle to keep both lives in balance, and ask how she's feeling about the divorce. "They relate to that too," Burch says, "and they see that not everything is perfect." But, she adds, they see that "you can be divorced and still have a great life."
Burch's story is, as they say in the fashion business, aspirational: she's glamorous, rich, and a business success, and her customers want to be that, too. But what forges the bond is learning that Burch isn't just your run-of-the-mill mother. She has three young sons, from her marriage of l0 years to Chris-twins Henry and Nicholas, 10, and Sawyer, 6. She's also helped raise three older daughters Chris brought from his first marriage, to Philadelphian Susan Cole, a very pretty blonde: Pookie, 22, Izzie, 21, and Louisa, 18. The Burch brood occupies a 9,000-square-foot apartment at Manhattan's Pierre hotel-three suites combined-down whose long halls the boys go skateboarding. Chris has since decamped to the Carlyle, but Tory and the offspring still live in this splendid maze of rooms with Central Park views. By all accounts, Tory is up every morning to get the boys to school and is there to greet them and help with their homework when they return.
"If you don't know her, you want to hate her," says Marjorie Gubelmann Raein, a social fixture and co-founder of Vie Luxe home products. "She wakes up and takes a shower, goes out with wet hair, and looks gorgeous-bitch! She works hard, she takes her kids skateboarding at six in the morning.... She's not always in a tight black dress. People are quick to point fingers. They imagine she's swanning around the Pierre getting a pedicure. But she's not."
Burch likes to say that she never goes out before getting the children to bed, though certainly she seems to go out nearly every night, both to the right private dinners and the A-list charity benefits: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and American Ballet Theatre. When she walks in, says social photographer Patrick McMullan, she's instantly encircled by friends. "She's the popular girl," he says. "If it were high school, she's the one. She's also a girl who's a great dresser. And she doesn't just wear her own designs, either. Mostly she doesn't. She doesn't want to always be in front of the camera, but she's someone I always want to take a picture of."
A socialite isn't a socialite until she's photographed, and Burch, though she professes to hate the word, is no exception. Her business gives her another, mercantile motivation to be in front of the camera, and, in that, she's leading an increasingly large pack. Princess Marie-Chantal, married to Prince Pavlos of Greece, has a line of children's clothes. So does Lucy Sykes, twin sister of writer Plum. Tinsley Mortimer, wife of Standard Oil heir Topper Mortimer, designs handbags; Charlotte Ronson, daughter of English mover-about-town Ann Dexter-Jones, is a clothing designer; Fabiola Hearst Beracasa, granddaughter of press baron William Randolph Hearst, sells estate jewelry, while Zani Gugelmann has her own jewelry line, and airplane heiress Lulu de Kwiatkowski designs fabrics. Party pictures sell their products. Better yet, all the expenses of readying oneself for those business opportunities-from hair and makeup to Jimmy Choo shoes-should, in theory at least, be tax-deductible. It's a wonderful time to be rich.
The new "business climbers," as The New York Times recently anointed them, see Tory Burch as their role model, just as her customers see her as a role model for living. But Burch is way ahead of the party-circuit competition: five years of relentless working-not just days but into the night with three a.m. calls to China, flying back and forth to Asia, overseeing a growing staff of full-time designers-and taking a lot of chances will do that for you. Socially, she's way ahead, too.
Burch says she's a private person with no interest in society outside of her friends. But she strikes a lot of people as socially focused. "She always has her eye on the next thing, like the person who's always looking over your shoulder at a party to see who she should talk to," says one former friend. Another friend says that, on the contrary, Burch is usually quite gracious-but to an end. "I've marveled at how good Tory is at being nice to people. It's partly her real personality, but it's also very smart." Underneath, says this observer, is a keen ambition that far outstrips that of the business climbers. "She's in a category by herself."
Adds the observer, "I think the general consensus is that Tory is on a mission. What I'd emphasize is: if you want to sit at Annette de la Renta's table, you don't bring Chris Burch."
"These people muttering these things under the mask of anonymity-what a cop-out," Burch says with a snort. "I've dedicated myself to work so many nights-for years. I've paid my dues. 'Ambitious'? I take that as a compliment. But I'm only ambitious about my career. Socially, all I need is my friends and family. I'm not pretending to be anything I'm not. I want my friends to do well; it's a shame that not everyone shares that."
We're in the back of a town car, on a road trip to Burch's family home, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I'm curious to meet Tory's mother, her fashion muse and lately the namesake for her Reva ballerina flat, a runaway best-seller, with its round, gold-metal, double-T buckle. I also want to check out two of the more damning charges one hears about Tory Burch. Her carefully honed image of a Philadelphia Main Line Wasp-the image that helps sell her clothes-is, say critics, wrong on both counts. Burch isn't from the Main Line at all, they claim. And she isn't a Wasp.
"The Main Line is just the railroad," Burch observes, slightly annoyed. "We were at the end of it." Socially, Valley Forge was remote from the enclaves one thinks of as Philadelphia Main Line-Haverford, Gladwyne, Bryn Mawr-but, technically, Burch is right. "They didn't want to live farther in to Philadelphia," she says of her parents. "They could have; they didn't want to." One longtime arbiter of the Philadelphia social scene rolls his eyes at that. "Nobody would be from Valley Forge," he says. "That explains everything!" But Burch says her parents wanted a farm. "We felt we were in the country," she says. "Mom used to fight with me to put on a dress." Rural or not, she says, it was Main Line. To Burch, our trip has just become a mission of vindication.
The rap on Burch's religion-that she may have downplayed her Jewishness-draws a quick reaction. "I wasn't raised Jewish!" she says, her shyness forgotten. "We celebrated Christmas and Easter. I find it so outrageous that people would say that I'm hiding my religion. We weren't hiding anything. It just wasn't important. But my kids, whom I baptized, know they're half Jewish and half Catholic." To the snooty charge that her clothes exude Waspiness, Burch retorts, "I don't look at clothes as a religion. Look at Diane von Furstenberg. I don't think people look at her clothes and think 'Jewish.' I don't design clothes to look Waspy."
Burch, all agree, has a remarkable, almost preternatural calm. ("Things don't ruffle her," says Gigi Mortimer.) She's calm now, but her dander is clearly up about critics who say she's hiding her Jewishness. The truth is, it makes her a lot more appealing than she seemed in her showroom. Behind her tightly controlled, almost blank blonde reserve is a well of very un-Wasp-like emotion. One friend puts it more harshly: "Her public image is very different from her private one. The fact is, she's got a very quick temper." When asked about this, Burch says, "I don't have that quick of a temper. I say what I feel.... But I have no problem with being a strong person. If I'm irritated, people will know it."
Just beyond the rolling hills and Colonial-era cabins of the Valley Forge National Historical Park grounds, we turn up a long, meandering driveway to a large, white Georgian house, 250 years old, with pillars and a commanding view. "There's the tree where I spent most of my childhood," Burch says. "My parents would turn us loose after breakfast, and we'd just play outside until we heard the bell for dinner." The Robinsons had 30 acres then-l5 have since been sold-and a menagerie that included ducks and about 30 German shepherds, which they bred. At any excuse, Reva Robinson decorated the house, both inside and out, with astonishing holiday displays. She's still at it: for Thanksgiving, the long front patio is covered with scores of pumpkins, Indian corn, and life-size Halloween skeletons.
In her youth, Reva was a gorgeous aspiring actress who lived for a time in Greenwich Village and dated Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. At 70, she's still handsome and fit, thanks to her six-mile runs and long days spent in her two-acre vegetable garden. Tory's father, Buddy Robinson, moves more slowly at 84, but still dresses like a dandy. "My father was sort of a designer himself," Tory explains. "He would have his dinner jackets made and then line them with Hermes scarves."
"He designed his own diamond-and-sapphire flower cuff links," Reva adds. "They matched his embroidered tuxedo buttons."
Buddy smiles. "I thought everyone did that stuff."
Reva leads the way through a double-height foyer with a sweeping stairway and walls filled with art from the annual jaunts she and her husband once took to Europe. The dining table is set for lunch. From the kitchen, bearing a platter of food, comes a dignified black man in a white serving jacket. This is Madison, who started working for Buddy Robinson 55 years ago, in Buddy's bachelor days. (Buddy himself dated such bold names as Joan Bennett and Grace Kelly, Reva notes proudly.) Behind Madison hovers Angela, the Argentinean housekeeper, who's been with the family nearly as long. Her son, Leonard Lopez, 32, was raised in the Robinsons' house from infancy. Tory calls him her brother, with Robert and James. Over the years, more than a few friends of Tory's found themselves adopted, too, lovelorn or just lonely, at least for a while. "My parents took everyone in," Burch says over the screeching of Macky the Macaw, aged 60, in the dining room. "It was like The Hotel New Hampshire."
Over a first course of delicious hot sauerkraut soup-a family tradition-Buddy explains that his father had a seat on the stock exchange and passed it down, along with a paper-cup company. Early on, Buddy sold the company and settled in for a gentlemanly life of tending investments. "I was on the exchange," he says, "but I didn't really work." He had no qualms about that, nor did his children. "What's interesting," says Tory, "is that my brothers and I are complete workaholics." (Robert, 49, owns a plastic-wrap company, James, 42, owns a marketing company, while Leonard is an investment consultant at Lydian Wealth Management.) More intriguing, neither of Tory's parents appears to have had any social aspirations beyond each other's company and their children's. "What we loved to do was travel," Reva says. "One six-week cruise each year." Reva's mother tended the children while their parents were away; Madison and Angela helped. The parents weren't guilty and the children weren't glum. Everyone was delighted.
With more than her share of natural attributes, Tory appears to have simply embarked on a path of popularity that kept unfolding. At the exclusive Agnes Irwin School, she was captain of the varsity tennis team and rode horses. "She always had these gorgeous girls who were always trying to be like Tory," remembers her sister-in-law Patty Isen. "Yet she had all different kinds of friends. I don't think Tory is about making herself feel good, but about making others feel good. And when people feel like that, they want to be with you."
At the University of Pennsylvania, Tory dazzled her roommates with an emerging style all her own. "She was very bohemian," recalls Hayley Boesky, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, "listening to Janis Joplin, burning incense, wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts. But she also had this equestrian-Hermes thing going on as well. She was always accessorized, like a French or Italian woman." Burch laughs at the memory. "I did actually have a sort of style in dressing," she says. "They used to call it Torywear. My friend Patrick used to say, 'Half preppy and half jock-or prock.'"
Tory majored in art history, but fashion, not surprisingly, was on her mind. After lunch, Reva leads the way to the attic. She opens the door to a good-size room crammed with dress racks, the clothes of a golden-era life sheathed in clear plastic. A bit wistfully, Reva pulls one of the plastic covers up and goes through the labels: Sonia Rykiel, Mary McFadden, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino.
And then there's Zoran, the reclusive Yugoslav designer whose classic clothes were among Reva's favorites. Reva was such a good client that when she asked Zoran to give her daughter a first job out of college, he readily agreed. Within a week of graduating, Tory was working in New York. Now all she had to do was meet the right man-an ideal that might have been broadly defined but, based on her subsequent suitors, seemed to include, as a prerequisite, fairly sizable wealth.
From the start, Tory appeared to gravitate toward handsome scions who liked to party. One was Matthew Mellon, an heir to the Pennsylvania banking fortune, whom she'd met at Penn. Mellon calls her the love of his life at that time. "I commuted to New York while she worked at Zoran. We always talked about Tory starting a fashion company. She had it in her mind the whole time." Mellon later married Tamara Yeardye, creator of the Jimmy Choo shoe empire, and struggled to overcome drug addiction. (The Mellons have since divorced.) Like any college graduate in Manhattan, Tory changed jobs-from Zoran to Harper's Bazaar, then to Ralph Lauren. Almost as quickly, she changed relationships. But then, rather suddenly, Tory married William Macklowe, son of New York real-estate mogul Harry Macklowe. "Briefly," she emphasizes over lunch one day near her showroom. "For, like, six months. We were, like, 22 years old."
In fact, Tory was 26. Macklowe, about the same age, was handsome and charming. "He made me laugh," Burch says. "That's more important than anything." Her sister-in-law Patty Isen, who had a high-powered job at Calvin Klein and had helped get Tory her job at Harper's Bazaar, says Macklowe's family money wasn't the draw. "Every guy that's ever met Tory has fallen madly in love with her," she says, "and a lot of them whom she had no interest in had a lot more money than Billy Macklowe. She really thought she was in love with him."
The two went bungee jumping on their honeymoon in Phuket, Thailand. But the marriage was soon over. There were, says Isen vaguely, "significant moments where significant things happened that she wasn't prepared to deal with. The good news is she got herself out of it." One woman Macklowe later dated describes him as "a pent-up ball of anger ... a control freak who wanted to cage me." Burch says the two divided the wedding presents-and that was that. "Let's just say that Tory wasn't heartbroken," says her friend Hayley Boesky, with whom Tory came to live for a while when the marriage ended. "Breakups are hard, but Tory is never one to look back and have any remorse."
Tory was a copywriter by now at Ralph Lauren. "When you got your Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater, you'd find a little tag describing the cashmere and how great it was," recalls a fellow Lauren employee. "Tory would write that." The job wasn't glamorous, but her colleagues were. For young, social New Yorkers, Lauren and Calvin Klein were the places to get finishing-school jobs in the early to mid-l990s. "It was a real moment," says the Lauren employee. Carolyn Bessette led the way by taking a public-relations job at Calvin Klein. At Lauren, Gigi Mortimer was an accessories designer. Whitney Fairchild, who married into the famous fashion-publishing family, was there, and so was a delicate, beautiful brunette named Jennifer Creel, whose husband, Larry, was related to the Gardiners of Gardiners Island, off the eastern end of Long Island, and the Colgates of Colgate-Palmolive.
Tory left Lauren, in 1995, to work for wedding-dress designer Vera Wang-again in publicity, not in design. It was then that she started running into Chris Burch, who had offices in the same building as Wang and who, as it happened, had hired Tory's sister-in-law Patty Isen to help him run his sweater company. Chris was tall, with shaggy silver hair and an impetuous look that belied his age: l4 years older than Tory. He, too, was from the Main Line, though he'd grown up in Wayne, a town slightly higher in the Line's social food chain. He'd met Patty on the commute he made to New York. Patty and her husband, Tory's oldest brother, Robert, had become friends with Chris and witnessed the falling apart of his first marriage. They knew him well enough to be worried when he and Tory became romantically involved.
Chris and his brother Robert had followed a rather unusual course for the Main Line: they'd gone into the garment industry. Their father was a manufacturing salesman, nicknamed "The Eagle," who co-signed a $20,000 loan to enable his sons to start their
sweater-importing business, first at their house, then above the Wayne movie theater. In deference to their doting dad, they called the company Eagle's Eye and found a market with sweaters called "novelty knits" in the trade-adorned with winter scenes, sheep on hillsides, spouting whales, Christmas ornaments, and other cozy icons. In 1989, when they sold a 70 percent stake to a global trading company, Eagle's Eye was valued in the tens of millions. Chris emerged from the sale with enough to live well on the Main Line and maintain a small pied-a-terre at the Pierre hotel, where eventually he and Tory began spending time.
In person, Chris exuded a blustery intimacy that Tory found more charming than some others did. "He just talks and talks and talks," says one social observer. "And it's always the same thing. He talks about people's psychological makeup or weight addiction. He likes to talk to people about themselves." With women, that bluster could seem slightly forward. "Chris Burch!" one Philadelphia woman recalls. "Oh my God! I went out on a date with him in the 70s. I'll never forget it. He put the moves on me!"
Tory was unfazed by such stories. "In all fairness to Chris, that's part of his persona," she says. "He liked to shock people. It was a lot about shock value and intrigue and spicing up a conversation." The age difference bothered her not at all. "I'd never dated someone like him," she recalls. "I fell in love." The two married in 1996, after arguing, according to one source, over whether to have a pre-nuptial agreement. Tory says, "The talk maybe came up, but we decided that it was not a good thing. It was a mutual decision." Tory got pregnant on her honeymoon-with twins. Also, Chris's three daughters spent a lot of time with their father in New York. "So my first year I was married I had five children," Tory explains. "For a while I tried to manage all that, but in the end I couldn't, and work too. So I stopped working."
Fortunately, Chris was in on a new gambit that seemed almost unbelievably promising. The dot-com era had begun, and at its red-hot core was the concept of "B2B": Internet start-ups that would create a support network to help businesses do business with one another. The hottest of those was a Wayne, Pennsylvania, company called Internet Capital Group, or I.C.G., which provided operational and capital support to its e-commerce partner companies. "It was his idea, I think," Tory says vaguely of Chris's next big thing. Actually, it wasn't. A Philadelphian named Walter "Buck" Buckley III, whom the Burch brothers knew socially, hatched the notion for I.C.G. with a friend, Ken Fox. The Burches were among the first investors.
"It was a ride beyond belief," Tory recalls. "Everyone we knew invested in it. My baby nurse, family friends." I.C.G. went public in August l999, with dot-com mania at its peak. In two days, its share price more than doubled to $30 a share. By the end of the year the stock had risen to $170 and I.C.G. was buying companies left and right. The idea was to tie the companies together and leverage their value. The profits would come when the companies were sold. That would take time.
At I.C.G., a few insiders, including the Burches, saw that profits were at best a long way off and rushed to sell when the six-month "lockup" period came to an end. "You were supposed to take maybe a little money off the table but keep the rest in the company because you wanted to stay loyal to the hope," says one I.C.G. insider. "I think the Burches sold a meaningful chunk. And remember, the stock shot up like a rocket after the I.P.O., so any money invested became hugely valuable." Tory confirms, "We took some money out before it went down." By September 2001, I.C.G.'s stock had bottomed out at 52 cents a share. Buckley stayed with the company-which today shows signs of a comeback-but by then the ride was over. Tory had decided it was time to start a business of her own.
With their I.C.G. windfall, the Burches had already raised their public profile. At one point, they even considered buying the duplex of former mogul Saul Steinberg and his wife, Gayfryd, at 740 Park Avenue, seriously enough to be included in Michael Gross's book 740 Park. The apartment, often spoken of as the best in New York, went instead to the Blackstone Group chairman, C.E.O., and co-founder Stephen A. Schwarzman for a reported $37 million. Tory says today that she and Chris looked at 740 as a lark. They stayed at the Pierre but Chris's pied-a-terre grew to encompass not just other suites but hotel corridors.
The Burches did buy an oceanfront house in Southampton, on fashionable Meadow Lane, though it wasn't quite the house its address would suggest. A two-story spec house, it was in foreclosure when Chris and a business partner, Todd Morley, scooped it up for $932,000 in l999. It sat on the far end of Meadow Lane between a helipad, on the inlet side, and a stretch of ocean beach where locals brought their trailers on weekends. Tory joked about it with friends but quickly established a Southampton social life. Chris was the one who hired interior decorator Daniel Romualdez to spruce up the place. Romualdez wasn't yet the society darling he's since become, and Tory was wary. "When I first met Tory, I was working for her husband and not for her," Romualdez recalls. "So she was a little suspicious of me." But the two soon hit it off. Sensing a rising star, Tory had Romualdez design the Burches' sprawling apartment at the Pierre and, eventually, the Tory Burch stores. By now, Romualdez is very much in Tory's camp. "Chris was just furious at the amount of money being spent on the Pierre," one friend recalls.
In a sense, says one observer, the Tory Burch brand emerged at this time, well before the company itself: "She was in WWD and Vogue-a marketed figure. If you have a different dress to wear every night and you're spending $1,000 to go to charity dinners, you'll get photographed." Tory took these appearances seriously enough, says one friend, that she'd have a professional makeup artist come to the Pierre before she went out. "The woman who does the Victoria's Secret models! I was amazed by that."
When Tory started drawing up plans for a clothing company, she sensed a market niche that no one had seen. "It was really my idea," she says, "and Chris was skeptical in the beginning. But he took a chance and went with it." Later, some might grumble that Tory had gotten a free ride: her husband had just underwritten her company with a check. Chris did kick in $2 million-money he prepared himself to lose. But then friends and family contributed millions more. Over an intense period of eight months, Tory and a small staff of designers worked up sketches at the Pierre apartment. Every night, Tory was on the phone to Hong Kong, where her friend and fellow Lauren alumna Fiona Kotur had set up a production office. Often sleeping only three or four hours before rising to get her children to school, Tory would get migraines. "When they first started [the business] in the Pierre," says one friend of Tory and Chris, "all they would do is scream.... [Tory] was so abusive with Chris that sometimes the household staff would leave the room." Tory says, "I wasn't abusive to him but it was very difficult working with him. I had to be very strong with him."
The night before her first store opening, Tory got no sleep at all: she and her three stepdaughters worked for l8 hours, straight through the night. Tory went home to shower, then came back downtown to open the doors at 10 a.m. By noon she knew that all the hard work had paid off. "We were amazed," recalls Reed Krakoff, a fellow Lauren alumnus who's now president and executive creative director of Coach. Krakoff and his wife couldn't get over how many categories Tory had launched at once. "Most designers start with one. She had l5, which really separated her from the pack."
For more than a year Tory did no advertising, stuck to one store, and signed up only two wholesale accounts-Bergdorf's and Scoop. Then, in March 2005, Oprah called. "I thought it was a joke," Tory recalls. "I said, 'Oh, sure.'" One of Oprah's producers had given her a Tory tunic for Christ-
mas; Oprah was now a fan. Tory went on her show in April, showed the clothes, and talked about starting her company with six kids underfoot. The appearance was a huge success. "She changed our business," Tory says of Oprah. "She made it where it is today. And I can quantify that: our Web site had eight million hits."
Tory had to tell her family to go ahead without her on a planned vacation to Buenos Aires so that she could make her Oprah appearance. She arrived in time for an Argentinean steak barbecue replete with musicians, a rope twirler, and a whip-wielding woman in leather, among other hotel festivities. The mood appeared jolly, but, as one observer put it, not all was well with the House of Burch.
With his dot-com money, Chris Burch had invested in a new hotel property in Argentina after hearing about it on a shooting trip. Alan Faena, a 40-ish former T-shirt designer from a wealthy Argentinean Jewish family, had persuaded him and other investors to help fund his dream: the Faena Hotel & Universe, a chic hotel whose interior would be designed by Philippe Starck. Tory helped organize a group to go down for the opening and invited a reporter from W to chronicle the auspicious event. Many of the Burches' best friends went: Gigi and Avie Mortimer, Jamie and Steve Tisch, Austin Hearst, Hilary and Tony Dick, Chris and Cristina Cuomo. Also Jennifer and Larry Creel.
To close friends, the Burches' marriage had seemed under strain for some time. In social situations, Chris's trademark bluster now seemed to embarrass Tory, especially when her girlfriends rolled their eyes. "He was a lot of fun the first two times I sat with him," says one. "And then it got really old. He'd start talking about his sex life with her. Or telling stories about his ex-wife. [He] was trying to be amusing and provocative, but it was sort of gross." This friend, a Tory supporter, says, "She's so optimistic, she kept hoping he'd engage more or be there more for her. But it was like Groundhog Day." Tory says, "I'm a very, very private person, and Chris isn't as private as I am. Obviously we were very different, and that's why we're getting divorced."
At work, tensions were high. The Burches were co-chairmen of the company, with Chris the business guy, Tory the creative force, but as its chief investor, Chris often expressed financial concerns. "When your husband is controlling your company," observes one fashion-industry friend of Tory's, "there are days when he's going to say, 'Your blouses are costing us too much, and we're not going to do them.'" Tory responds, "He's always done different things than I do at the company so I'm not looking at it as control." But, she concedes, "It was difficult working as a married couple the whole time. I'm very calm, and Chris is not. He's very creative, he can be all over the place, and I'm very focused. That's why we hired a president. We knew we needed someone to run the company." The Burches hired Brigitte Kleine, a well-respected executive who'd worked for Donna Karan, Gucci, and Michael Kors. Kleine says that reporting to both Burches has been a pleasure. One observer has a different take. "At the office, the environment was unbearable.... Chris runs the business through Brigitte so he never has to talk to Tory."
Along with control, the Burches wrangled over credit. Who was more responsible for the company's success? Chris Burch declined to speak to Vanity Fair about either his business or personal life, but his brother Robert says, "At least half of the success-at least-is due to my brother's efforts." At Tory's version that she did much of the spadework by going to Asia and talking factory owners into producing her designs, Bob Burch scoffs, "It's a background that my brother and I have. To think he'd send his wife on her own to source apparel when he'd been doing it for 30 years is a bit much to take. My brother put up the money for the business, and he's the one that built the organization."
At the Faena Hotel opening, relations seemed strained to one observer. The Burches and the Creels had been close friends until the Argentina trip, but the observer sensed that this bond, too, had started to fray. (Tory and Jennifer maintain that they're still friends.) Over the next months, Tory Burch's sales soared, the Faena Hotel prospered, but by January 2006, the Burches were separated. The Creels reportedly followed suit not long after.
Reactions to the Burches' breakup varied, as they always do. "We were really surprised, all of us," says one social friend. "They seemed very happy actually, just on the social scene. It's always strange when you see a woman who has everything and then gets divorced."
"I think he truly let her down," says Hayley Boesky. "She had been trying to work through things with him for a long time."
"She left him, and she made that very clear to me," says another friend.
"I think he was devastated," says a third. "He was a wreck."
Still a devotee of hotel living, Chris moved into the Carlyle, fifteen blocks north of the Pierre. He started appearing in public with a movie-and-television executive named Jen Worthington. The two now live together, while Worthington pursues a Times Square entertainment project-American Idol meets karaoke for the tourists-that Chris is supporting.
One evening in mid-November, Tory settles into a sofa of her Central Park-view living room at the Pierre and reluctantly volunteers a few details of a wretched year. The book-lined room that Daniel Romualdez designed is like the Georgian library of a British country home. Outside, the lights of the park twinkle. Inside, the living room's maroon-shaded lamps are turned low, the apartment quiet while a nanny tends to the boys in some distant quarter.
"It wasn't about other people," Tory says. "It wasn't because he had an affair or I had an affair. At the end of the day, we weren't going to be able to spend the rest of our lives together. We had six beautiful children together, three of them his, and a wonderful family unit, but what we had together wasn't strong enough."
For months after the separation, Tory acknowledges, she and Chris didn't speak. The business that both had created continued to rise. "I don't want to make it sound like I'm not giving him credit," says Tory dutifully. "I do give him credit." Eventually, says an observer, the two did speak again, but not happily.
Then, as sometimes happens in a divorce, illness intervened to lend a new perspective. First, Chris went in for an operation on a herniated disk, only to lose, for terrifying months, partial use of one arm. One close relative became sick with cancer, then another. "You realize the pettiness has to stop," says Tory. "If you had asked me two months ago if we could work together, I would have said no. Now I think we can. I've been thinking about this solidly for two months. We talk on the phone now-for a while we couldn't. Now we're putting the business and kids first."
What this means for the company's future is still unclear. "Everyone assumes they'll do l5 stores and sell to Liz Claiborne the way everyone else does," says one fashion-company chairman. Another industry observer notes that in general clothes don't make the profit-fragrances do. Unless Tory Burch comes out with a best-seller fragrance, she says, selling out is almost inevitable. "With fragrance, so much is timing," Tory says. "You need to know when your brand is ready, when it's big enough. We're starting to talk to different people. It's in the future, for sure." Tory says she has no intention of selling-the company is her life. "She has to avoid going too fast," cautions Diane von Furstenberg, whose own first business soared, only to plummet to the verge of bankruptcy. "To lose control is not good, to do too much licensing is a danger. But she's a good woman, and she'll be all right." Anna Wintour agrees: "I would be amazed if she failed."
Meanwhile, Tory has begun to enjoy the freedom of legal separation. She's been dating a wealthy movie producer named Matt Palmieri. Palmieri, son of real-estate financier and corporate-turnaround specialist Victor
Palmieri, is putting a film company together. "He's a wonderful guy," Tory says, but, she adds, "it's not serious. I'm not at a point right now.... My main focus is my kids."
Last fall, Tory made "Page Six" of the New York Post when she was sighted at a restaurant with Ronald Perelman, the Revlon billionaire recently divorced from actress Ellen Barkin. Perelman grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and actually attended the Haverford School with Robert Burch. He's available, and Tory somewhat bears a resemblance to Patricia Duff, Perelman's third wife. But the dinner was merely social, Tory says: she's not Ron Perelman's next wife, much as some gossips would like to imagine.
At Avie Mortimer's 50th-birthday party, Tory and Chris Burch got through the evening, their new romantic interests temporarily sidelined. Despite their own reported separation, Jennifer and Larry Creel were at the party together, too-no happier than the Burches, one observer sensed, but there all the same. Tory, as always, looked poised and beautifully put together, and talked through the evening to dozens of friends. Her grace-and perhaps her social clout-had won her more allies than Chris in this rocky year. "People very much took sides," says one Chris sympathizer bitterly. "Chris lost an enormous number of friends."
Life-Tory Burch's life, at least-was moving on, her company booming, her social status intact, perhaps even enhanced. One guest that night muttered later that Tory had taken center stage in New York society so smoothly that no one could say quite when it happened, or how, only that it had. "When the Miller sisters were in New York, they were the cat's meow," this observer notes. "Then they moved to Europe. Then Brooke de Ocampo was the big thing. Then just at the height of her social success, her husband got a job in London and she had to go. That sort of left the playing field clear. People like Aerin [Lauder] and Marina [Rust] don't want the spotlight on them. That left the field to Tory." And now, despite the divorce, the center has held.
When the party broke up, most of the guests went out in pairs to a posse of idling limousines. It was still raining, one guest recalls, when Chris and Tory Burch bid each other an awkward good-bye. Then New York's hottest fashion designer started walking briskly down the dark streets, away from the limousines, alone.
Gale Document Number: GALE|A159249062