On Planet Burch

Christopher Burch is the ultimate disruptive force

If you are shooting for the Moon but find the path overly ciruitous, your luck might send you into the orbit of ‘Planet Burch’.

Its eponymous creator has propelled many a project into the stratosphere of global success using sound judgement and a good dose of old-fashioned intuition, exactly as frontier-breaking mavericks have done since times immemorial.

Christopher Burch is a fascinating study in what happens when style melds with substance: a debonair man with an unerring knack for identifying concepts that capture the zeitgeist to become world-class brands, incubated and funded by his Burch Creative Capital vehicle.

‘Creative’ is an operative word in Burch speak. His Forbes profile states, rather one-dimensionally, that he made his fortune in fashion and Burch himself, when asked whether he had more success with fashion or property, cites the former after a moment’s hesitation.

His second name is, to many, instantly recognisable for the iconic brand he co-founded with his former wife Tory but the man is much larger than this, or even the sum total of the brands he’s pioneered.

Like all creative people, he comes across as somewhat unconventional but unlike most, he is capable of self-deprecating humour.

The Burch portfolio of investments is an interesting ecosystem of companies that focus on anything from investment advice, to health care, to clean energy, to entertainment, to publishing, to social networking, to organic food and luxury bottled water, to a spade of innovative tech apps, to yes, you guessed it, design and fashion, and even a high end branded hotel group.

It is, in fact, a global universe of brands that runs the full gamut of contemporary culture and also includes that ultimate one person brand, Ellen de Generis, in the shape of her ED style label.

ED must have been a no-brainer for them both – she is already an iconic figure with a much admired personal taste and vision which, when properly packaged, could spawn a global empire; Burch is a savvy investor who maximised the potential of his former wife.

He speaks warmly of de Generis, “an amazing creative talent”, and here is the crux: there has to be chemistry between him and the individual(s) behind the project – to engender what he describes as ‘creative leverage’.

Which is why, when pressed on the formula of success, he says he is good at analysing people –an entirely plausible assertion because, taking a great idea and transforming it into a disruptive force requires more than just number-crunching.

His Cocoon9 project a good case in point. A building model for the 21st century, it turns traditional living on its head by compressing all that a millennial is likely to need into one neat, environmentally friendly, pre-fabricated pod with seriously cool, à la Burch, credentials in the style and new tech stakes.

Having built, renovated, enhanced and launched countless properties, Burch is now focused on the Indonesian island of Sumba and the NIHIWATU resort there which he acquired together with South-Africa born hotelier James McBride in 2012. NIHIWATU has since been voted as the best hotel in the world but also represents an interesting exercise in philanthropy.

The hotel is a generous supporter of the Sumba Foundation, which does all the things a community-focused project does, i.e. improving the lot of the local population through a mix of jobs and medical facilities, alleviating poverty and building sustainable infrastructure, but with an important twist. While the hotel is ultra-luxurious, it is, Burch says, but a dot (with a tiny carbon footprint) on an island twice as large as Papua New Guinea.

Understanding the complex interplay between introducing the modern world to one that remains as primitive as it was hundreds of years ago, Burch keeps intervention – and help – proportionate.

For the ultimate “disrupter”, he takes care not to disturb the environment because a small tip of the scale reverses the effect of the ecological approach.

Using the philanthro-capitalist model that is well-established in parts of Africa, he has instilled in guests of the resort a culture of taking active interest in the wellbeing of the islanders. The impact on visitors, while not so easy to measure, is immediate and often greater than the impact on the islanders, says Burch.  Fostering the giver syndrome (of feeling good about something admirable you’ve accomplished) is something most philanthropic foundations aim for, but few achieve as spectacularly as Sumba does. The island’s rugged natural beauty, its inhabitants’ capsule lifestyle and resource-based economy, as well as the “Burch Touch” undoubtedly help.

Christopher Burch is also a major supporter of a very particular program at the NYU Langone medical center, called the Care Curriculum. The initiative places emphasis on the relationship between care professional and patient, an often overlooked component that promotes health and wellbeing, and educates physicians in “the art of providing medical care”.

Ultimately, Burch is someone who not only understands, but has the capacity and wherewithal to shape popular cultural perceptions and expectations  –  a formidable quality because,  creating and building “sexy” brands does not always guarantee success –  turning them into cultural references, integrated into the fabric of society, does.