Eileen Fisher founded her eponymous clothing company in 1984 after a 10-year career in interior and graphic design. It was a trip to Japan — and the country's traditional, yet simple kimono — that inspired one of her first pieces. "I was intrigued that the kimono was the only shape in Japan that they used for years," said Fisher at Wednesday's NYC meet-up event, moderated by Fashionista's Dhani Mau. "How can you make a design to last that long? A design that belongs to a moment, but also, transcends a moment."
This idea was the foundation of her fashion business: simple pieces made from good quality fabrics. With no technical background in fashion, Fisher built her company from the ground up and presented her debut collection, a total of four garments in three different colors, at a trade show. She ended up selling a small amount, about 100 pieces; then, it was up to Fisher to find someone to help with production. "I lived in a loft in TriBeCa and cut the clothes on the floor," she remembered. "Then I would carry them in garbage bags out to Queens to a contractor." The second time around, she arrived at a trade show with a total of eight styles and a new fabric — a cotton knit — and more orders flowed in from there.
"If I had some technical training, maybe I might have gotten the idea off the ground earlier," said Fisher. "On the other hand, because I didn't know what I was supposed to do or how I should do it, I just did it differently in my own way." She's also grateful for the people around her who offered to help, from designers consulting on price points to a sewer working a night shift after a full day of work. "I really didn't know anything," she admitted. "I studied design and had a career in interior and graphic design, so I had a sense of how to have a concept and how to materialize it."
Fast forward three decades, and Fisher's company has hugely expanded in the retail space with 65 stand-alone shops, as well as two Green Eileen outposts and more than 300 department and specialty stores nationwide. She claimed "organic growth" was what made her business flourish, along with focusing on few fabrics, which helped with budget and management. "I wasn't someone thinking, '$1,000, $1,000,000.' That never motivated me," she said. Fisher responded to where her business was pulling — a new market, for example — rather than sticking to a strict plan.
Her pragmatic approach has lead to discoveries that have since shaped the company's ethos, like developing an entirely sustainable supply chain. Fisher's timeless designs and the idea of sustainability are a perfect match, although she admitted that achieving this goal has been a slow and steady process. "Because I've been so established and known for the cottons and fabrics that I was doing, and they weren't organic, it was going to cost me money to upgrade them," she said. An example is the brand's best-selling pants, which would cost 15 percent more in organic — a risky business decision. In the end, however, the item still sold well. As the brand gets closer and closer to using 100-percent organic cotton, Fisher's passion for all aspects of sustainability within the fashion industry has grown over the past three years. "Some people say [clothing is] the second or third largest polluter," she said. "I've come to really believe that we have a lot of power as designers to actually change this problem."
Other steps that Fisher's company has taken towards sustainability have included researching supply chains and material sources; streamlining processes and inventory; launching campaigns, such as Vision2020, to educate customers; transparency practices like labeling garment hang tags with materials the same way we label a food's ingredients; and inching towards more manufacturing in the U.S. (Most of Fisher's clothing is made in China, but her brand offers long-standing programs on health and wellness, manager training and fair wages.) Just the other day, Fisher was called an "activist" by a colleague, and being the self-proclaimed shy person that she is, it's a new term that she's still learning to sit with.
Of course Fisher's career is rewarding, which shows in the brand's longevity. And over time, her role has inevitably changed, from being intimately involved in design and business to hiring a "core concept team" that maintains her design and merchandising duties on a daily basis. Five or six years ago, Fisher had thoughts and plans to retire, but now, at 65, she's actually come back into the center of the company to lead it into a more purpose-driven organization. "How can everyone be engaged in purposeful work?" she asked. "Whether that's being a sustainability ambassador, being involved in the girls program, volunteer work, helping others develop within the company or designing sustainable clothes. That's one of the things that I'm passionate about: making this company really great in so many ways."
According to a member in the meet-up audience, that seems to be working. The attendee mentioned during the Q&A portion that Fisher's company is a desirable place to work at among industry insiders. Fisher tipped it to her roots in waitressing, which included a stint at Burger King, that has helped her strive for a comfortable, inclusive work environment where people are treated well.
Fisher also believes that, at this stage in her career, she's created a real platform, not just at her company, but in the fashion industry at wide. "I realized I have a seat at the table in certain places where I can actually influence people and make a difference," she said. "I hope to be a part of leading the fashion industry in a cleaner direction." This new movement has certainly affected the brand's employees, too. "The most incredible, loyal people feel they're involved in a purpose that's much bigger than them," says Fisher. "They're doing something that really matters and so they want to be a part of this. What we're doing is going to change the fashion industry and change the world. That's a powerful reason to work for someone."
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