By  on December 28, 2010

NEW YORK — Eileen Fisher, who started her business with four pieces and $350, now steers a women’s sportswear company generating $300 million in annual sales.

She said the key is bringing together employees “who are passionate about what they’re doing. A lot of what we do in our sustainability efforts come from their passion,” Fisher told attendees at the recent Sustainable Textiles Conference here.

When Fisher began designing 27 years ago, she loved natural fibers. “I thought they were a good thing, like eating natural food, real food. Real clothes seemed like a good start,” she said.

Fisher recalled attending a friend’s wedding years ago in a polyester dress “and thought I’d get cancer; I was sort of creeped out,” she told the packed room. She wanted to create designs and good-quality clothes that would last. “I loved the idea of the Japanese kimono. For thousands of years, they used only one shape.”

Fisher believed that the simpler the style, the more you could adapt it and take old things and make them new. She was intrigued with the idea “of what makes a style last a long time and still be in the moment.”

She recalled running into a woman at one of her stores wearing a dress she designed 26 years ago. “Certain things really do last. How do we create these things and what makes a design transcend its time?” said Fisher, who last year started a recycling program for her timeless designs at her Lab store in Irvington, N.Y., where her company is based.

One sustainable practice was to move into fabrics that were washable. She told the crowd that sometimes the way people take care of their clothes “is more damaging than how it’s created. How you wash and dry clean a garment is more important than how it’s made,” she said.

Fisher began testing organic cotton from Sally Fox and did a wool program with Black Sheep.

Most importantly, she noted it’s imperative for a customer to love the way the product feels. “She’ll buy it even if it costs a little more, if it has a tag on it [that says it’s] eco-friendly. The problem with Black Sheep was the wool was scratchy.”

So the company went back to see if Black Sheep could make it softer. Fisher said her firm also has “ongoing partnerships with vendors and mills about cotton,” and is always trying to figure out ways to make fabrics better and less harmful to the environment. “My intention is to make a difference, be open to what others are saying and to care on a deep level. It’s not just about profits. New business models have to go much deeper,” she said.

Fisher said her business is up 10 percent this year.

She had several members of her team on stage with her. Among them was fabric designer Inka Apter, who said while growing up in Croatia, “reduce, reuse and recycle” were part of her everyday vocabulary. “Plastic bags were lovingly folded” and reused. When she moved to the U.S. “the hardest thing to absorb was the multitude of things. Going to a department store, I’d have an anxiety attack. There was too much stuff.” She came across an Eileen Fisher store and “was struck with the simple beauty. It was an eye opener and I wanted to be part of that company,” said Apter, who has worked at the firm for 13 years, expanding its global sourcing.

“We’re trying to bring a positive change to the product,” she said, explaining that as a fashion company, Eileen Fisher can test the products for pilling and strength. “But there’s no test for the ‘wow’” factor, she said. “We need to make sure we champion those products that have those qualities.”

Still, she was realistic.“Green products cost more,” Apter said. “The price of raw materials is going through the roof on every level. We’re one link in this chain.”

Sustainability reaches to some of the techniques the company uses, even if these can at times have drawbacks of their own. Fisher noted she is passionate about hand-beading from China and Peru. “We want to support these crafts people,” she said. “But [the garments] can’t go by boat. They need to be dry cleaned and go by plane. There are endless complexities. We’re all on a path, and it’s all imperfect.”

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