RETRO CONTEMPORARY

Every now and then a designer comes out with a product that brings new meaning to the term "must-have." Last spring that designer was Tory Burch and, if you’re familiar with the brand, we don’t need to tell you what the product was.

For those who’ve been sequestered from fashion society for the past year, the item in question came in the form of a ballet flat. But, the accoutrement that identified the maker had more to do with a bold, gold emblem than the shoe itself. The shiny double "T" that topped the toe of the flats, and shined like the apex of the Luxor, provided an exclamation point to the otherwise simple, understated shoe.

It was different and different was good. Hence, the wild popularity.

What luck, you might be thinking, for a designer who had only been established three years to produce a bona fide must-have. But Burch, who has recently opened two boutiques in Las Vegas at the Shoppes at the Palazzo and Forum Shops at Caesars, hits the jackpot more often than not.

In her first year of business as a public relations executive turned fashion designer, she managed to garner a shout out from Oprah. By the end of the "Next Big Thing" show. her up-and-coming Web site fielded 8 million hits. The tunic that earned Oprah’s affection proved to be the Tory Burch ballet flat of that season.

The designer acknowledges that most of her success today resulted from that Oprah mention, but it extends beyond just dumb luck. Burch has a distinct, simple formula for her designs. "I just design what I like to wear," she said from the lounge of her newest store at the Palazzo.

Like her own personal style, the Tory Burch boutique grabs your attention with loud, unexpected statements (lime green carpet, velvet orange drapes and shelves lined in shiny gold), but the overall tone is retro polish. On this Wednesday afternoon, just hours before a private shopping event at the boutique, Burch perches herself atop the arm of a fluffy, white couch in her store. She’s chosen this as the spot from which she’ll field questions from the second reporter of several to quiz her today. The petite blonde’s tiny frame brings to mind starlets in Hollywood; in the photos they appear thin, in person even thinner.

Dressed in her own Thila dress and nude platform sandals, the ex-girlfriend of Lance Armstrong talks in a low volume and uses her hands for occasional punctuation. The chunky cocktail rings that overwhelm her little fingers form the same size contrast Mary-Kate Olsen’s sunglasses do on her face.

As she crosses one delicate leg over the other, Burch explains that, as a mother of six (three of her own and three inherited step-children from her marriage to venture capitalist Chris Burch) and the daughter of two fashion plates, she leans toward comfortable clothes with an undeniable ’70s influence. "Women of that period looked so effortless and chic," she said. "Things weren’t so trend-driven. Women were who they were."

Although the line evokes a strong shag rug nostalgia, it also claims a touch of martinis-for-lunch stuffiness (think hip-length cardigans and conspicuous detailing). But as it evolves, the brand appeals to a younger audience. The knockoff efforts among fast fashion retailers provide the most telling evidence. Payless Shoe Source sold a ballet flat last summer with a gold embellishment that came dangerously close to Burch’s design. And Forever 21’s racks boast a slew of trapeze dresses with round, jeweled collars and the kinds of prints that have become synonymous with Burch. She finds the imitation flattering.

"As we’ve grown I’ve decided to just go with it," Burch said of the counterfeits. "Most women want the real thing, anyway. And our prices aren’t that much of a stretch from knockoffs."

That depends on how limber your wallet is. Payless’ ballet flat rang in under $30; Burch’s will cost you $250. Likewise, a dress with an embellished bib at Forever 21 runs $34.80 while an original can cost as much as $595.

Burch uses the same math to support why she won’t consider diffusing her line for a budget retailer, such as Target, anytime soon. "For me, there’s not enough of a price difference," she said.

Instead, she plans to delve into home (interior designer David Hicks serves as a major inspiration to the designer) and luxury territory, which her new office in Milan may take on. A fragrance could also be in the works, Burch noted.

Whatever she does and at whichever pricepoint it falls under, expect it to make your must-have list.

Contact fashion reporter Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477.

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