Dead ringers for luxury brands

Various bags and totes - and dogs - are part of the display at the new C. Wonder store. Sales associates roam the store with handheld credit devices so there's no standing in line to check out.
Various bags and totes - and dogs - are part of the display at the new C. Wonder store. Sales associates roam the store with handheld credit devices so there's no standing in line to check out. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: January 02, 2013

During a recent fashion-insider breakfast marking the opening of the C. Wonder store in the King of Prussia Mall, Philadelphia Style editor Kristin Detterline   stood chatting next to a wall of the brand's oversize shades.

Detterline was in midsentence when she spied a pair of black-tinted aviators - nearly identical to the Tory Burch sunglasses perched atop her layered tresses.

The only difference was the logo on the hinges - Detterline's featured Tory's trademark T, while the C. Wonder versions had a similarly stylized C.

"Wow," Detterline said. "I'd swear those were my Torys."

This isn't just your run-of-the mill coincidence - or knockoff, for that matter. You see, C. Wonder stores are the latest project of venture capitalist and Main Line native Chris Burch. And Chris Burch is the ex-husband of the modern-day queen of the flat, Tory Burch.

But the C. Wonder store doesn't just offer Tory-like merchandise. You can find what looks like a Longchamp monogrammed bag for $78 (compared to more than $200 for the real thing), Hermes-type belts, Judith Lieber-ish clutches, or reasonable facsimiles of Chanel charm bracelets. Detterline tried on - and bought - a so-very-J. Crew-ish pink floral blouse at the opening.

"It's so cute," Detterline said.

As we ring in the New Year sitting on the edge of the fiscal cliff, it's easy to see why customers are purchasing C. Wonder goods in droves - they are dead ringers for their favorite luxury brands.

Yet the uncanny resemblance of C. Wonder shoes, blouses, and even skinny tuxedo trousers to Tory Burch's items doesn't sit well with fashion purists whose endorsements helped her build her $800 million empire in the first place.

"What I find bizarre and nasty, and can't possibly finish well for him, is that he is . . . hurting [her business] by sabotaging it, by copying it," Council of Fashion Design President Diane von Furstenberg told Vanity Fair in November. "I don't understand."

Others in the industry are fans.

"We like the way the traditional items and accessories have a fresh feel," said Karen Giberson, president of the Accessories Council, which named C. Wonder the Specialty Accessories Retailer of 2012. "It makes you want to buy it. We love the concept and the customer service."

The customer service she's speaking of refers to the sales associates who roam the store with handheld credit devices - so there's no standing in line to check out. In the case of the nearly 5,000-square-foot store in the King of Prussia mall, the space looks like the boudoir of ladies who lunch - which is to say like Tory Burch boutiques, thanks to nearly identical doors, fixtures, rugs, and wall treatments.

Chris Burch started C. Wonder in October 2011 and already has 11 stores. The company is private, so Chris Burch wouldn't disclose sales numbers, but he said he stood to register millions of dollars in sales for 2012.

In the meantime, the two have argued through lawsuits. In October, Chris Burch sued Tory Burch L.L.C., claiming the company tampered with Chris Burch's relationship with suppliers and also tried to stop him from selling his 28 percent stake in the Tory Burch company.

In November, Tory Burch's company countersued Chris Burch, accusing C. Wonder of copying the "Tory Burch identity" and using her company information "to enrich himself at the company's expense."

The ex-spouses settled this week: They will not pursue their various lawsuits and countersuits, and Chris Burch will remain a minority shareholder in the Tory Burch company, although it is unclear how many shares he will retain.

When asked about C. Wonder's obvious similarities to the Tory Burch brand, Chris Burch, 59, says that like his celebrity designer ex-wife, he was inspired by all things high-end preppy, too. After all, Burch says, he grew up on tennis courts in Wayne and spent days at the Merion Cricket Club. He went to boarding school, too.

In 1977, he opened a monogrammed sweater company called Eagle's Eye Apparel. He sold the brand in 1998 for $60 million.

In 1997, he and Tory, then Robinson, were married, and Tory, who once worked in public relations for Vera Wang, started to design a casual, luxury line - with no previous fashion design experience. The couple invested $2 million and the line officially launched in 2003 with a store in Soho and a strong presence in specialty boutiques. The couple divorced in 2006.

The spark for C. Wonder came to Burch two years ago while shopping at Costco. He wanted to come up with a way to offer luxury in a warehouse environment (hence the roaming credit card devices).

Burch said he is going to open pop-up stores at the Jersey Shore, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard this summer. In addition, he says, there are plans to open at least a half-dozen more stores in the coming months. The customer base, he says, is ripe.

"Women who don't want to spend $10,000 on a Chanel suit can find a fabulous silk blouse for $124," he explained.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter, @ewellingtonphl.

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