Traveling up and down the East Coast in a refurbished, vintage Airstream sounds like the classic American road trip experience.
But for Neely and Chloe Burch, it was all in the name of fashion.
The sisters — and nieces of Tory Burch, the chairman, CEO and designer of the eponymous women’s brand — were recent college graduates interested in launching their own accessories line, one that was timelessly chic but affordable for working women their age. They wanted to go back to the basics, homing in on the purpose of a handbag — to carry precious essentials — while bringing its design up to speed for on-the-go gals.
But Neely, who dipped her toe into the fashion pool first, needed to know what appealed to her customers and what didn’t. So she targeted college students, a demographic she knew best, hosted a pop-up boutique housed inside of the traveling silver Airstream and assessed what worked. And that was only the beginning.
The sisters knew they had an advantage. Coming from a bloodline of fashion entrepreneurs, the Burch women weren’t the first Burches to scale its heights. Besides Aunt Tory, whose billion-dollar company includes more than 200 brick-and-mortar stores worldwide, uncle Chris Burch owned C. Wonder, a New York-based retail concept store that closed in 2015, and cousins Pookie and Louisa Burch own Trademark, a New York-based women’s accessories brand. Neely and Chloe’s father, Robert Burch, also co-owned Eagle’s Eye, a women’s and children’s footwear biz, with brother Chris for some 30 years.
If the sisters want advice, it’s at their fingertips. But they wished to break through on their own.
Just one year apart, Neely (Victoria) and Chloe both attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Neely, who studied art history, had been with Sotheby’s for one year when Chloe accepted a position in merchandising for J. Crew. But Neely caught the entrepreneur bug first and soon left Sotheby’s to pursue Neely by VNB, a traveling retail concept she created. It was this project that would later grow into the sisters’ eponymous line.
Neely by VNB — which stands for Victoria Neely Burch — was designed to bring fabulous finds directly to consumers, namely college girls. In a restored 1930s Airstream made to resemble the most stylish personalized boutique experience, Neely traveled as far south as Georgia, hosting some 50 pop-up shops on college campuses as well as select retail locations, paying close attention to how customers responded to the products. She bought women’s accessories for wholesale prices — with brands including Tory Burch (of course), as well as Superga, Dolce Vita and Joie — and sold them for retail value.
After being on the road for a year and a half, Neely returned and persuaded Chloe, “after a lot of convincing and a lot of long conversations,” to join her company. In September 2016, Neely & Chloe was born.
Neither of the sisters had educational backgrounds in business or finance, and they knew they had a lot to learn.
“We were forced to become familiarized with the backend of the business,” Neely says.
The sisters moved into a Tribeca apartment — they’re originally from Gladwyne, Pennsylvania — which they still share, and began working together on their brand, pooling all of their skills, experience and insight, with a little advice from their family.
“We feel really lucky to have family in the business,” Neely says.
Within a short time, Neely and Chloe generated $1.25 million from fundraising, which they collected from family, friends and investors. Then they began refining their products, which targeted women in their 20s and 30s, a bit older than their originally anticipated demographic.
“Our customers are millennial women that are a bit more sophisticated, a bit more timeless, who are still young and trying not to spend an arm and a leg to get through the day,” Neely says.
The brand, which is based in New York, has been described as selling handbags that look like handbags. In other words, form meets function — with a stylish twist, of course. Handbags by Neely & Chloe aren’t adorned with trappings or trimmings. Instead, their look is characterized by minimalistic, clean lines and strong, saturated colors, branding that is strategically placed inside the bags and with monogramming options for just $12.
“I think for customization, something we go back to is that it should be more about you than it is about us when you leave the store,” Neely says.
For added personality, the brand offers ornaments — which can be placed over the clasp — from the likes of a delicate gingko leaf to a feather, a snail and a lizard, as well as tiered tassels.
The bags are meant to last — not only for the season but also for years to come. Each purse is designed with simplicity in mind. They’re large enough to house all essentials — phone, wallet, keys — but not large enough to compete with an outfit. And with a price point that caps off at $300, they’re affordable for the working millennial lady.
Going forward, the pair intends to continue focusing on the “finishing touches of a woman’s outfit” and is not planning to expand into clothing.
“I think we’re really focused on creating a clean and concise offering,” Neely says. “I think we only scratched the surface for our consumers that are out there. I think until we feel like we are able to reach out to many women across the country, we want to maintain a really concise product offering.”
But they do plan on bringing back the Airstream — again and again. From June through August of last year, the duo traveled from their home state of Pennsylvania down to North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, hosting trunk shows and sharing their products with new customers. This year, there’s another tour in the works.
And, as for the sibling dynamic, Neely and Chloe say that it’s working to their advantage.
“Our parents’ goal was for us to be best friends growing up,” Chloe says. “We went to high school together, we went to college together and now we work together. We are together a lot but we have different skill sets, so we complement each other, which is great.”
Adds Neely: “It almost feels like working with yourself a bit.”
For more, visit neelyandchloe.com.