By  on October 17, 2007

As the bridge department has undergone major flux in the last decade, one element hasn't changed: Eileen Fisher.

In the late Nineties, when bridge floors were dominated by the suits and structured career coordinates of Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein, Eileen Fisher's softer, more casual looks stood out. As the workplace became more casual and women's looks became younger, those classical brands lost space to the likes of Elie Tahari, Tory Burch and M Missoni, and the bridge floor today looks much like a luxe version of the contemporary floor — while Eileen Fisher continues to cater to its core Baby Boomer consumer.

Clearly it has a winning formula: As many of Eileen Fisher's competitors are now in flux, it is the one brand that, through it all, has stood as a pocket of prosperity, enjoying constant growth of 15 to 20 percent annually for the past five years. The firm estimates wholesale volume will hit $250 million in 2007 — up 75 percent from $143 million in 2002, and more than triple the $73 million it did a decade ago in 1997.

"In some way, we never fit the classic idea of the bridge department — it was just a place that carried our price point," Eileen Fisher said. "We are very much our own thing."

The brand is carried in about 484 specialty stores and about 580 department store doors, averaging about 1,000 square feet per door, and growth consistently outpaces that of the individual store, according to major department store accounts.

Retail sales, which have consistently made up a fifth of the brand's revenues, have doubled in the last five years. Eileen Fisher's first retail store opened in Manhattan at 53rd Street and Madison Avenue in 1991, and today the brand has about 40 of its own stores, between full price and outlets. The company aims to add three to five stores a year. The Web site has taken less time to double — between 2006 and 2007, it reached about $10 million in retail sales.

In a famously fickle industry, the question is why — or, more practically, how — has Eileen Fisher achieved such uninterrupted growth?The easy answer is the brand's signature forgiving silhouettes (including special sizes, which comprise more than a quarter of revenues) have earned a following among the ever-growing Baby Boomer population, which has money to spend, if not perfect bodies. The line's timeless looks, sans "planned obsolescence," also appeals to a demographic less concerned with the trends of the moment than investment dressing.

Looking at the bigger picture, observers note Fisher's continued involvement has kept the brand true to its roots and right for its core customer, evolving her at a pace with which she can keep up.

But even the designer's camp and its best retail clients can't fully answer why Fisher has done so well and seem to be in awe over the phenomenon.

"There's just something about it," said Frank Doroff, senior executive vice president of Bloomingdale's. "I don't know what it is. I'm just the curator of the museum; Eileen Fisher is the artist."

Eileen Fisher and Bloomingdale's have a special relationship, according to both camps. The brand is one of the retailer's biggest accounts and one of its best full-priced sell-throughs, and in turn, the Bloomingdale's Manhattan flagship is Eileen Fisher's biggest door, with $5 million in sales a year.

"Bloomingdale's had gone into the Madison Avenue [Eileen Fisher] store, where people were standing in lines with stacks of clothing. Bloomingdale's said, 'We don't get it, but we see that it's working,'" the designer recalled. "Our women don't have that much time, and many of them don't shop for fun, so if they find something they like, they buy a lot."

Eileen Fisher's business in Bloomingdale's has "grown steadily double digits every single year over the last eight years, year after year after year," according to Doroff. "It has a unique niche in the marketplace. You know Eileen Fisher clothes when you see them."

Indeed. Fisher came from a graphics and interior design — not fashion — background. In 1984, when she was 34, her brand was born with a line of four "graphic shape" pieces — a box top, cropped pants, a shell and a pullover vest — that "just came to me in pictures," Fisher recalled. To those first four pieces, she added another four: a kimono jacket, a tunic, a straight skirt and long pants. Loose pieces, all in luxurious fabrics, continued to be added, courting a devoted following from the Baby Boomer woman."Our customers in the beginning were creative, artistic types — therapists, artists and teachers, who didn't have to wear the corporate clothes," Fisher said. "We tried to fit into that world [suits], and it wasn't great for us. Then, by the Nineties, people in the corporate world started thinking they didn't just have to wear suits, and they would wear our clothes straight home from work to sit on the floor with their kids."

The changing workplace — where women have become more secure in their status, can often work part-time from home, wear soft dressing rather than just suits at the office, and travel more so require versatile, packing-friendly clothes — has only helped Eileen Fisher, while it has hurt other bridge brands that built their businesses around suiting.

"As the workplace has gotten less structured, Eileen Fisher's appeal has grown wider," said Robert Mettler, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy's West. "When the suit and structured apparel market was growing so strongly, that drove a lot of the customer's buying, but as women have gotten more comfortable in their role in the workplace, that has helped Eileen's appeal."

Today, the company thinks most of its customers fall between ages 40 to 60, though it is adding some women in their 30s as well.

"It's the Baby Boomer phenomenon," said James D. Gundell, vice president of retail and e-commerce at Eileen Fisher, who added the brand is expanding in warmer climates, where Baby Boomers are spending increasing time in second homes. "As women get older and their bodies change, we offer options for a lot of different body types. She is the consumer with the disposable income today."

As much as the brand clearly loves its core woman, it is actively trying to expand its reach while remaining focused on her. The clothing, though still flowing and comfortable by design, has added stretch to some fabrics and is less loose than its original incarnations, Fisher said, which has attracted a more body-conscious demographic. The firm also credits a recent ad campaign with bringing in a younger customer.

In the bridge department's race to catch up with the contemporary floor and add a younger customer, traditional bridge brands like Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman saw sales sink as they alienated their core customer — a misstep Eileen Fisher never made."She has stayed true to her vision and has not confused the customer, as many other people have," said Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's chairman and ceo. "They have moved with the times, but not forgotten who their customer is. She's attracting a younger customer, but also maintaining her core customer, who she has had since the beginning."

Eileen Fisher's vice president of sales, Mariclare Van Bergen, who worked at Dana Buchman for three years during its peak before joining Fisher in 2000, agreed.

"Other brands interpreted the word 'modern' into young," Van Bergen said. "Eileen Fisher interpreted modern not as an age, but rather as a style."

"There was a core customer who fell in love with its simple, relaxed, high-quality clothing in the beginning," said Frank Gazetta, president of Macy's North. "There was a perception that Eileen Fisher was for people trying to hide body sins, but that's not Eileen's vision at all. It's meant to be more relaxed clothing, rather than hiding problems, but it does do that, so that customer followed that and stayed with it for a long time. Our mission at the moment is to introduce it to a younger customer."

Macy's North has carried the line for the past decade, and it's now in every door, with most having a shop-in-shop, according to Gazetta, who said Macy's North has a particular "passion and commitment to Eileen Fisher."

"It's one of the brands that still has its founder working on it and completely involved — the other bridge brands that have been struggling through the years, their founders aren't necessarily there anymore." Gazetta said. "When the founder and designer is totally into a brand, it never loses the spirit it starts with it. The roots of the concept are good, but a lot of it is Eileen. She is not a front-of-the-house person, but she is very involved with the brand and she knows what she wants the brand to be: The voice of Eileen is always there."

Everyone at Eileen Fisher — including the woman herself — is quick to stress the importance of team, though. For the fourth year, The Society for Human Resource Management and the Great Place to Work Institute voted Eileen Fisher a top 25 midsize company to work for. In addition to its three floors at 530 Seventh Avenue, in January, the firm moved the design, merchandising, core concept and visual presentation teams of its more than 700 employees to a 12,000-square-foot creative center at 111 Fifth Avenue, which echoes the brand's spirit in breakout living room areas for collaborative meetings, a meditation room, a space for a Tuesday night yoga class, and a kitchen and dining area where lunch is served at least twice a week.The company credits some of its success to customers supporting its actions on social responsibility — like supporting female artisans in Peru who make certified organic cotton sweaters and giving grants to female entrepreneurs and nonprofits that help elevate the self image of women and girls, and its employee treatment — such as giving $1,000 credit every year to employees to use for massages, yoga classes and other alternative medicines to benefit their well-being, plus another $1,000 for education, whether it is for knitting classes, horseback riding lessons, computer classes or wine tastings.

Eileen Fisher is banking on that loyalty of customers and employees as it expands internationally and into product categories past apparel such as home, shoes and eco handbags.

"People have said, 'I believe in this brand,'" Van Bergen said. "It's more than just clothes for them."

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