Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women and men from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight unspoken, real-life insights on how they have been able to turn weakness into strength. A naked soul point of view of how their breakdowns were really a preparation for breakthroughs. They are your quintessential paradigm shifters; internal shifts converted into genuine change.
Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because, "What we think determines what we feel and what we feel determines what we do." Hence, why Empowered by You takes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and redirected that energy as a tool of empowerment.
I hope from these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens. At the very least you will be more equipped with real life tools to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day, we are our own Alchemist turning the silver we were born with into the gold we are destined to become.
Robert Burke - Founder, Chairman & CEO of Robert Burke Associates
How did you get into the fashion industry?
After college I went to LA and was deciding whether to go to graduate school, but I needed to get a job until I figured out what I wanted to do. Some of my friends worked at the Ralph Lauren Polo store in Beverly Hills, so I thought it would be a fun job to do for a little while. I ended up working for the company for 11 years. Eventually I moved to New York and I worked in various positions. The company went public and franchise retail was brought in-house and I worked in the newly created retail division. I spent a short time in design (which Ralph encouraged me to do) before returning to retail. In my time there I had the opportunity to work very closely with Ralph, who has really been a fantastic mentor and supporter.
In 1999 I was hired to be the V.P. Fashion Director at Bergdorf Goodman. At that particular time there were a lot of changes at BG. There's no store like Bergdorf in the world, but it had gotten very dusty. This was an amazing experience in my career. It was a fantastic team of people. I hired Michael Bastian (who has his own label now) as the Men's Fashion Director and Roopal Patel (now the Fashion Director at Saks Fifth Avenue) as the Women's Fashion Director. We had an incredible time and felt and realized that anything could happen. The CEO Ron Frasch and President Peter Rizzo at the time pushed us all to create the best store possible.
So how did Robert Burke Associates come about?
I was at Bergdorf's for 7 and a half years. I dealt with many established brands and new designers when they were just starting out: Tom Browne, Tory Burch, Proenza Schouler, and Derek Lam, plus the executives. I had this incredible vantage point into the business on what worked, what didn't work. I found that many of the brands had questions when they were looking for strategic growth and how they were going to position themselves. The only consultants out there were generally retired executives from department stores and I was about 42, and thinking about what else I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to open my own consultancy company. I went and I spoke to a handful of people: Anna Wintour, Rose Marie Bravo, who was still at Burberry, and Ralph. And Rose Marie and Anna said yes, do it, but Ralph said 'this is a terrible idea, you should come back and work for me', of course we talked it out. In the end, I started Robert Burke Associates, almost ten years ago.
When I started out, Tory and Chris Burch were still married at the time, and Chris had just started an investment firm officed on 57th and Madison, so they offered me some office space. Our first client was Marchesa, Anna Wintour called me and said Harvey Weinstein's girlfriend (at the time), Georgina Chapman, wanted to start a new dress line, and asked if I would meet with them. So of course I said yes.
It was a fantastic start and I found that the industry did need someone who could advise brands. Brands often times need to have the perspective of the retailers, so we're unique in the way we approach things. We're not a Bain or McKinsey in that market research driven way, we are more competition and positioning driven. We work with international brands, who might be looking to come to the US and maybe don't understand nuances of the US market, like Alexandre Birman, a shoe designer from Brazil, as well his Schutz brand, which is looking at expansion in the US. So we do that type of work, and we do quite a bit of international and domestic retail, which is generally working with developers and local partners in a region.
What project would you say you are most excited about right now?
I would say the re-design and re-conceptualizing of the Beverly Center because it is such an iconic mall. It's exciting to make it into a strong retail destination for luxury and contemporary retail. Working with the Tommy Hilfiger brand globally has been a very interesting and exciting experience as well. It's a brand that is really poised for great growth.
What do you envision the future of fashion will be like? Do you have any advice for young designers or brands?
I think there is generally a lack of original ideas. This athletic apparel movement is a good example of everyone jumping on the same bandwagon. So I think new designers need to be very clear and focused and not try to be everything to everyone. We went through a period in the early 2000's where a young designer wanted to have a sunglass line, a jewelry line, a shoe line, a handbag line, a ready-to-wear line, and a secondary line, and what we've come out learning is that the customer appreciates when someone is the very best in their field at doing one thing. The advice I would give younger brands is to be very clear on who their customer is and what their product is.
The company has evolved to work with bigger clients, because it's more advantageous, but I think it's very important to work with young designers and to see their design and help them in navigating. We've had many people who have worked with Robert Burke Associates and gone on to become quite successful. There is a young woman named Alison Chemla who interned here, who now has a jewelry line, Alison Lou, which is sold at Net-a-Porter and Matches, and she just opened a store in SoHo. George Sotelo launched a men's swimwear brand called Thorsun. That is really rewarding to see the people who worked here launch their brands at a relatively young age and find success.
What has been your biggest breakdown to breakthrough moment?
There were a few. Those experiences take you out of your depth. I had always been more interested in the business side. But I think I witnessed the bridging of design, retail and commerce while at Ralph Lauren, which set me up for my work at Bergdorf's. If I hadn't had that experience in intimate design meetings and Ralph asking me which color red I like and then in a store design meeting for a new Ralph Lauren store in London I wouldn't have become confident in what I went on to do advising brands. Unlike some very traditional houses, Ralph will put you in many different positions: you can be in a design meeting, then be in the retail store. That experience doesn't exist as much anymore, but it's important to gain as much experience as possible and hopefully have really good mentors along the way. And Ralph was really incredible in that way, he still is.
That's the thing about fashion, it's never all business and it's never all creative. Like Andrew Rosen is highly unique because he's a product person and he's a business person. And at the end of the day, Ralph is a designer and a business and product person. You look at someone like Jason Wu, he's very left-brain and right-brain, he's very focused. He called me when he was first starting and asked to have lunch, and I could just tell he was very focused. Then six months later, Michelle Obama wore his dress.
What kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind?
Seeing the people I have worked with and mentored go out on their own. It's not about being successful, it's about having the courage to go out and follow your passion, and many times that inevitably leads toward success. Seeing those young people achieve and strive and become confident, that's probably what I am most proud of. And having some positive influence on them. I think that the creative and business processes in fashion sometimes have a rap of being difficult or pretentious, but I actually find it to be the opposite. I find there is a lot of nurturing and support. You definitely get what you put out, but my experience has been extremely positive.
I was definitely influenced by the big names that I've been behind, and starting my own business was a very different experience from working for them. I wondered if I'd get the phone call back, or get the meeting, but I found that when you form those kind of deep relationships, you do. It's a very positive and loyal industry.
Listening to Robert's story and how all the circumstances of events in his life have led up to the point of creating a unique position in the market is quite extraordinary. By having a credible name in the industry, he has been able to create his own space where he uses his reputation and spotlight to launch others. He is not only a source of admiration but one of inspiration.