The CFDA got a jump on New York Fashion Week on Wednesday night by hosting a talk with Tory Burch and Christopher John Rogers.
Despite late August typically being prime time for many city dwellers to retreat to the beach, dozens of guests turned up at Fotografiska’s New York locale. After attendees mingled over cocktails, the CFDA’s chief executive officer Steven Kolb welcomed them and described Burch and Rogers as being among the loud voices in American fashion that speak to truth and creativity. Several CFDA members — including Tanner Fletcher’s Tanner Richie and Fletcher Kasell, Collina Strada’s Hilary Taymour, John Bartlett, Bach Mai, Cynthia Rowley, Jeffrey Banks, Kay Unger, Jacques Agbobly, Gigi Burris, Jonathan Cohen, Tanya Taylor and 4S Designs’ Angelo Urrutia — were among the designers who heard Ssenses’ Steff Yotka chat with Burch and Rogers about their careers.
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Maintaining creativity, weathering the ever-churning fashion cycle, determining the criteria for collaborations, making impactful social media connections and diving into unexplored depths were among the topics they discussed. One of the livelier exchanges centered around AI. Rogers sounded cautiously intrigued by the technology’s duality of being able to do something “insanely amazing,” while simultaneously “insanely scary.”
Having “become obsessed with AI,” Burch said “I brought it to my design team. You can imagine it wasn’t a very popular thing. The way I look at it is a tool. It’s not to replace creativity or us designers in any way. It’s a tool to give you the opportunity to be more creative. That’s what I find interesting. But you can also take it and think about window design. There are so many different things and ways that you can use it.”
Similar to the advent of the internet, the mainstream emergence of AI places “us on this cusp of this crazy new horizon of what’s to come. What I was saying to the team was, ‘However we choose to use it, we need to be part of it and understand it. Then you can make the decision of how or whether we decide to use it.’ I do think it could save people a lot of money, not with people but with time.”
Asked by Yotka about their favorite way to talk to their audiences, Rogers, who reads all of his DMs, singled out Instagram as being the easiest and most intuitive. “You get a different take than if you were talking to someone face-to-face. They may feel they can be more honest [about specific products and requests],” he said.
Being able to give people some perspective about his company can be helpful, such as being able to explain that one employee pretty much singlehandedly took care of all shipping. (That is no longer the case.)
Burch, who launched e-commerce in 2004 and used to host word-of-mouth trunk shows at friends’ homes in different cities, said “any which way that we could possibly think of is what we did to get out there. TikTok is really interesting now, because it’s just so raw and authentic. I find that amazing. I’m not really on it per se myself. I have to get moving. But I love watching the team do such a great job,” Burch said. “The Substack [newsletter by editors at Tory Burch] is amazing.”
Asked about how they set aside time for design with so many other responsibilities, Rogers said, “I’m still trying to figure that out. We are a small but mighty team of eight so it’s challenging. But it’s also a reminder to remember why we started doing this in the first place. It was never for the adjacency to fame or to necessarily become millionaires or anything. We’re really into it because of the fashion and the process that we love.”
Burch recalled how when she first started the company she was much more into the design process for the first couple of years “then, in a way, the business took over. It took me years to figure out what my passion was and it was the creative process.”
After running the company and the creative for 14 years, the designer is now focused on the creative “and feels a bit like a new designer.” She said, “I had to get Pierre-Yves [Roussel] to come on board. I had to marry him to get him to be CEO. But happily giving up the CEO title was the easiest thing that I have ever done. I used to spend 30 percent of my time on design and now it’s 100 percent.”
After 18 years in business, Burch said she has never been more excited about being in the industry. “It’s just the most special, difficult, heartbreaking, wonderful industry. Christopher and I were talking about how every day there are new challenges, and you have to figure out how to manage through,” Burch said.
As for how each has cultivated such a signature sense of community, Rogers said that was never a goal but something that happened naturally. “Because our vision was so specific, the people who were attracted to it were just attracted to it because it was cool or it signaled something other than the person in the clothes. The community has become a community, because they all know what it stands for,” Rogers said, adding that “being honest as you grow is also important.”
Allowing that “having a great culture is not a given,” Burch said she has spent “a tremendous amount of time” with her team including longtime employees and attendees Suki Wong, Honor Brodie and Nandini D’Souza, whom Burch cited by name. “I have to say when people don’t believe in the culture, it rarely works out. It’s something you have to work on. One of my goals was to create an environment where people felt safe, appreciated, valued and that they were doing the best work. But also [doing this] in an environment where they are allowed to have a life,” Burch said. “The culture can change overnight so there’s the constant , ‘How do you keep working on that?’”
In regards to deciding on collaborations, Rogers, whose latest one is a paint collection with Farrow & Ball, said it comes down to what comes naturally. “I have really strong people around me who remind me who I was, who I am and who I want to become,” and considers the backgrounds of potential partners and how any collaborations could resonate not just in the here and now, but in the years to come.
For her part, Burch has learned that saying “no” to collaborations is just as important. Her approach has been to “highlight people who didn’t necessarily get the credit they deserved.” Partial to 85-year-old collaborators, Burch described cold-calling Dodie Thayer, “who was this incredible potter during World War II and the original entrepreneur” for the company’s first collaboration in 2010. Emphasizing the importance of aligning over things that you are passionate about, Burch, whose collaborations included one with the activity tracker Fitbit, said that venturing into sport led to the reinvention of product design and the company’s direction.
In terms of trusting your intuition, Rogers said he liked to lean into the subliminal space between two points. “It’s about hammering into the thing between hard and soft so it’s both and neither at the same time. While that’s a little weird but also esoteric, that is the thing,” he said. “If people don’t get it, they don’t. And that’s OK but you want the people who do.”
Addressing how a key item can help get you on the map — as was the case with Burch’s ballet flat and Rogers’ striped sweater — but also make shoppers associate them with that one thing, Rogers said retailers appreciated the sell-throughs and wider reach, consumers valued the size inclusivity and comfort. Implementing those ideas into more types of products is the task at hand. “I’m always trying to reinvent the thing so it’s never the same thing. It always excites me to try to provide people with the thing that makes them happy. The second that we see that people are no longer happy with it we’ll try something else,” he said.
Having experienced that multiple times in her career despite offering a plethora of designs, Burch discussed the balance of doing things that you become known for with integrity. “It’s not just about one or two things. It’s really about seeing the scope of your work. That’s the age-old question.”
All in all, what Burch loves most about the way women dress today is that they’re not really set on rules. It’s about their individuality. “I love being able to give people options so they can make it their own. For me that’s success. It’s not about numbers. It’s about having women feel confident and really exploring their own creativity,” she said.
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