Eileen Fisher Wants to Equip People Inside and Outside Her Company to Change the World

The designer sat down with Fern Mallis at the 92Y to discuss the past, present and future of her eponymous label.
By Dara Prant ,
Eileen Fisher and Fern Mallis at the 92nd St.Y: Fashion Icons talk on Dec. 5. Photo: Laura Massa/Michael Priest Photography

On Tuesday night, Eileen Fisher sat down with Fern Mallis for her 92Y "Fashion Icon" series, whereby the two matching fashion vets – they donned the same Eileen Fisher tunic — engaged in a candid conversation about the establishment and upkeep of the designer's environmental and social-friendly namesake label. 

Fisher created her label of comfortable basics in 1984, after being inspired by Japan's simplistic designs — the designer frequently traveled there, while working for a Japanese interior design firm. "I had this idea about clothes, that they would just be nice fabrics, cool shapes and comfortable, but I couldn't figure out to materialize it and I didn't know anything about designing clothes." Luckily, Fisher had a timely romantic entanglement with a sculptor who took her to her first trade show. "I remember walking around and seeing all these companies and small designers showing their clothes," she described. "I couldn't imagine designing clothes and taking them to the buyers, like Henri Bendel, because I couldn't take the rejection — I was too shy, so I had to figure out a way to design them and show them. At the trade show if people didn't like them, they would just walk by and people who were interested would stop." 

At her trade show debut, Fisher sold 100 pieces to eight small stores, amounting to a $3,000 profit. But a few months later, she returned to the trade show grounds with double the amount of pieces, more colors, a different cotton knit and made $40,000 in sales. 

A few decades later and Fisher's company has transformed into a multimillion-dollar operation that boasts a large retail and department store presence all over the U.S. But numbers aside, Fisher has built a female-run company (it's 80 percent women) that truly values its simple — yet timeless — product, its environmental and social impact, and its workers. In fact, in 2005, she decided to transfer partial ownership of her company to each one of her 875 employees. Her employees now collectively own 40 percent of the company. Furthermore, her workers receive wellness benefits, meaning money is set aside to allow the employees to partake in various meditative and restorative rituals, like complimentary massages, yoga classes and acupuncture sessions. Fisher also treats work meetings like giant sharing and caring circles, where she makes sure that each voice is heard and requires all meetings to start with a moment of silence. "Having that moment [of silence] to just kind of stop and step back, makes us a little more thoughtful and conscious of the choices that were making in the meeting going forward, whether that's how we behave or the decisions that we're working on in that meeting," she notes. "It has deepened the work that we do." 

Fisher has certainly led her company into deep work with her commitment to sustainability and charity. Eileen Fisher is the largest B Corporation in the New York state, which means it meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency criteria. And in 2009, Fisher launched "Green Eileen," now called, "Renew," which is a program that pays people $5 to bring back their used Eileen Fisher goods, and then the company will either find new homes for the apparel or rework them into new designs. The reselling of these recycled pieces at the brand's corporate headquarters in Irvington, New York has brought in almost $2 million, which has gone to various women's causes.

In addition, Fisher was one of the early adopters of sustainable clothing design, meaning she latched on to the planet-saving idea years before it became the trendy thing to do. "Years ago, I would say we were taking baby steps because it was a daunting thing that we were trying to do," Fisher said. "Then, a lot of people were getting more passionate about sustainability and what was happening with the planet and becoming more aware that our industry is one of the worst polluters in the world, so about four years ago we made a commitment to be a 100 percent sustainable company — we said it's not possible but we have to make a commitment, because that will drive us." 

The company launched Vision 20/20 in 2015, which is a campaign to push towards 100-percent sustainability by 2020. "We want to have 100 percent of our materials be eco-preferred, which means they're organic cotton, or they're dyed with safer chemistry and that there's no chlorine in the wool," she explains. "We are about 60 percent there on the eco-preferred and we were at 13 percent four years ago, so we've made huge strides." 

Fisher has also worked to share her sustainability work with others, having partnered with the CFDA back in 2016 on a Social Innovators Project, a yearlong residency that gave three recent Parsons graduates immersive access to mentorship, specialized skills, resources and knowledge about eco-conscious design practices. "We have to get the word out and train other designers — we have to share what we know and trade information with other companies," said Fisher.

Spreading knowledge, collaborating with young talents and working to build individuals up to be the best versions of themselves is at the core of Fisher's brand and lifework. "Everyone has a purpose and everyone should have the opportunity to be able to do whatever they dream or to get in touch with what matters to them," she said. "I'm passionate about delivering programs both inside the company and outside to help people to be the best people that they can be, because that's what's really going to change our world." 

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