Isn’t it fun?” says Christopher Burch, stepping through the lime-lacquered doors of the Soho flagship of his new store, C. Wonder, and looking out at the candy-colored floor, where customers browse a vast array of merchandise to the songs of sixties girl group the Marvelettes. “This is my music,” he says. “It’s so me.”
There’s a note of paternal pride in his voice. As a venture capitalist and the head of J. Christopher Capital, Burch, who is 58, with white curly hair, crinkly eyes, and a Santa Claus demeanor, has had a hand in launching close to 50 brands, which have provided him with enough wealth that he feels comfortable spending a business day in a down vest, red pajama bottoms, and black velvet slippers. But C. Wonder is his baby, the first property in a long time that he feels is really his. “Look at this stitching,” he marvels, running his hand across a rack of bright button-down blouses and preppy blazers before whirling off to the shoe area, where a huge tufted ottoman awaits suburban princesses who wish to try on the store’s selection of loafers and colorful ballet flats. “See that quality?” he says, bending a ballet flat. “And look: It’s on sale for $39!”
In the home section, where light fixtures shaped like teapots dangle above a display of quirky crockery, Burch picks up a cow-shaped mug. “Now this little item, they didn’t want,” he says, referring to his creative team. “But I actually said, ‘Look at all the moms who come in and want some coffee or Coke or whatever, and the kids want this,’ ” he says, caressing the cow’s spots. “It’s just fun. Isn’t it so fun?”
A curly-haired salesgirl bounces over, her bracelets jangling. “Hey, Mr. B,” she says, beaming.
“Hi, sweetie pie,” Burch says, and they high-five.
“What do you think?” he asks her, as if genuinely wondering. “What do you think it is about this store?”
“I think it has really great energy,” she replies and dutifully goes on about the adjustable music and lighting in the dressing rooms and the spontaneous dance parties the staff encourages customers to join in on, until finally she spins off to complete some task or other, perhaps with the help of cartoon birds.
The point is made: C. Wonder is fun. In fact, it’s so fun, so warm and domestic and full of “Heart”—or “He-Art” as the letters embroidered on Burch’s slippers spell out—you wouldn’t expect it to be the subject of a vicious dispute. Especially not one between this friendly guy who bear-hugs his employees and his ex-wife, designer Tory Burch, a woman the Times recently described as “perfectly perfect.” And yet, this whimsical space has become a battleground where the Burches are fighting a decidedly unusual war over the brand—and life—they built together.
To Chris Burch, C. Wonder is the realization of a long-held dream to provide low-to-mid-price retail in a luxury setting. To Tory Burch, he might as well have erected a giant lacquered middle finger in the front window, directly facing the orange-lacquered doors of her eponymous store a few blocks away. “It’s a rip-off, Tory knows it, and everyone knows it,” says someone we will refer to as a Friend of Tory. “The interior is blatantly plagiarized. Then there’s the snap bracelets. The wallets. The buttons … ”
This is not merely a postmarital dispute between exes. Since their divorce in 2006, Chris and Tory Burch have continued to serve together on the board of what has become a billion-dollar company. Now, he also owns what looks, to some, like a competing brand. “There is some apparent customer confusion between the two brands,” says board member Glen Senk. “And that’s not good for anybody.”
For now at C. Wonder, however, love is in the air. The store has just set up its windows for Valentine’s Day, and Chris Burch points to a sign announcing that customers who find a love note in the store will receive 10 percent off. “See, that’s kind of our vibe,” he says. “I really just want to make women happy.”
This instinct comes not just from the goodness of his He-Art. Catering to women also, as Chris Burch once remarked to a colleague, “makes a shit ton of money.” He should know: He’s been selling to them most of his life. Though he usually remains in the background, you may be familiar with some of his earlier work.
“I designed the first Christmas sweater,” he tells me one evening, while sipping an iced tea in the bar at the Crosby Street Hotel. “They actually got pretty popular. Anyway.”
Talking to Chris Burch is a kinetic experience—he’s always doing things like photographing the whales on the backs of the chairs, or showing you his mineral collection, or saying, “Oh, can you write that down?” to the phalanx of loyal employees who attend to him with filial concern. He has a reputation for being cutthroat, but he doesn’t think of himself like that. “I’m not a business guy,” he says at the Crosby. “I’m a curious creative. And I love collaboration. Creativity, curiosity, and collaborations. Hey, can you write that down?”