In the age of e-commerce, is an expensive, flashy store really necessary?

Tory Burch made the case for yes on a tour of the designer’s new Tory Sport store in New York City. It is the first permanent retail outpost for a fledgling brand in the world of athleisure, the fast-growing, still-confusing mode of dressing that has overtaken the apparel industry.

At Tory Sport, tennis dresses and sports bras hang alongside wide-leg sweatpants and knit midi skirts. Ms. Burch stretched the knee of a pair of yoga leggings to show the thickness of the fabric. She turned a running jacket inside out to reveal its seamless construction. She stroked the sleeve of a cashmere sweater with “Coolmax” fibers, designed to wick moisture and be cool to the touch.

It was the kind of hands-on experience that even the sleekest website can’t reproduce. “People are still tactile. They want to feel the product,” says Ms. Burch, the designer, chairman and co-CEO at Tory Burch LLC.

Among the more popular items at the Tory Sport store are a $395 tennis tote, right; a tennis sweater, left, with Coolmax fibers costs $325 and a laser-cut tennis skirt costs $395. 

Tory Sport has been available online and at a single small store (the brand calls it a “pop up” location) since last fall. The big new store, which opened March 18 on Fifth Avenue, is a significant investment for the brand and a potential launching pad for stores to come.

Stores are changing, Ms. Burch says. Their purpose is to engage customers and to build a community. They also can be a place where the online and offline worlds merge. A big cube in the middle of the Tory Sport store has an interactive tabletop where customers can view projected images from the Tory Sport lookbook.

Does anyone need a $350 navy ponte blazer with a white, hooded, zipped-in nylon dickey? Probably no. But when you are in the store, can you imagine throwing it over a sleeveless white piqué tunic dress ($225) after a tennis match? Or pairing it with cropped flared pants ($185) for a business lunch? Somehow, yes.

With just one or two sizes of most styles on display, the Tory Sport store isn’t meant to be shopped the way mass-market flagship stores are. Those behemoths, chock full of product, have a stack-’em-high-and-watch-’em-fly approach. (A Tory Sport spokeswoman says the store carries the full size range.)

Swimwear at Tory Sport is designed for performance, with built-in sun protection, while the swimwear sold in the Tory Burch line is fashion first. 

Instead, a designer store is a place to immerse and entertain shoppers in the fictitious, tightly controlled world the brand creates. It’s a chance to show and explain all that a brand stands for—and to seduce a shopper into buying something.

Such stores are an effective form of advertising. They are a good way to introduce customers to a new fashion concept, says Robert Burke, a luxury retail consultant. He points to a spate of new store openings in New York City, including the new uptown store for bohemian label Isabel Marant, and Sonia Rykiel’s library-like boutique. Menswear label Todd Snyder is opening its first U.S. store this fall in New York, with a tailor shop and a whiskey bar.

“The major statement and purpose is to make the announcement: ‘This is who I am, this is my brand,’” says Arnold Aronson, managing director, retail strategies, at Kurt Salmon and former chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Many designers see their own stores as a direct line to the consumer, more controlled (if also more costly) than selling through crowded department stores. It isn’t an either-or situation, Mr. Aronson notes. Tory Sport also began selling at select Barneys New York stores this week.

Ms. Burch’s persona and reputation will draw shoppers in; in return, she will get direct feedback from them. “It’s an opportunity for [Ms. Burch] to get a pure unadulterated, unvarnished reaction to what she’s doing,” Mr. Aronson says.


Both Ms. Burch and Roger Farah, Ms. Burch’s co-chief executive, insist the Tory Sport store remains very much about sales, though. “We’ve built the store to make money,” Mr. Farah says.

“We definitely want it to be profitable but we also want the experience to be one that people really like and get to know,” Ms. Burch says.

U.S. sales of sports-inspired, performance and outdoor apparel reached $67.4 billion last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor, which projects sales will top $82 billion by 2020.

Tory Sport also comprises golf wear, displayed near Jean Royére chairs that can be moved out to clear space for a yoga class. 

No wonder Tory Burch, like so many brands, is betting big on athleisure. (Ms. Burch and her team don’t use the term, instead calling the in-between apparel “Coming and Going.”) Late last year, Tory Burch laid off about 100 employees, or roughly 3% of its workforce. Mr. Farah says the company shifted resources to its digital team and to Tory Sport. “It’s a very high priority,” he says of the new brand.

Tory Sport appeals to the Tory Burch customer and also to a younger shopper, Ms. Burch says. Price points range from $25 for a knit wristband set to $495 for a laser-cut tennis dress--slightly lower than the Tory Burch line. Around 40% of Tory Sport shoppers online are crossing over from the Tory Burch brand; the remaining 60% are new customers, Mr. Farah says.

With 3,900 square feet of selling space, the Tory Sport store is situated in the Flatiron neighborhood, the hub of athleisure retailing in New York City, near big stores from LululemonNike and Athleta. The shiny-orange lacquer that is a hallmark of the Tory Burch brand has been recast as bright white for Tory Sport.

But that’s where the similarities end. The Tory Sport store evokes a kind of lodge where Scandinavian ski meets ’70s surf, Ms. Burch says. The original Tory Burch stores, in contrast, were inspired by the designer’s own Upper East Side home.

Blue lines along the floor in the front of the store are meant to evoke lap lanes in a swimming pool. Leather railings mimic the handle of a tennis racket. Nickel-plated trim in the entryway to the store’s rear section is etched with a diamond pattern, much like a net. “Every sport has nets,” Renée Viola, vice president of global store design.

Silver beams suspended from the ceiling are mobile displays for hanging clothes. Four Jean Royére chairs and wooden ottomans can be moved out to clear space for a yoga class.

Ms. Burch’s decade in retailing shows: Everything in the new Tory Sport store is mobile and entirely interchangeable—unlike the permanent, heavy fixtures of her first stores. “Our visual team is over the moon. They can move anything they want,” Ms. Burch says.