By  on March 30, 1994

NEW YORK -- Eileen Fisher, a 10-year-old contemporary sportswear company here, seems to be growing things in 50 percent increments these days.

Last year, the company's volume rose 50 percent. Its new showroom, slated to open at the end of April on the fourth floor at 214 West 39th St., will be almost 50 percent bigger than its current space on the 12th floor of the same building. And at the company's headquarters in Irvington, N.Y., a recently completed expansion increased the square footage by 50 percent.

"Business was great in 1993," said Eileen Fisher, the 43-year-old designer and president of the company that bears her name. "We did between $17 [million] and $18 million wholesale, and $7.4 million retail, which is pretty good, considering two of the stores were only open half a year."

But success won't spoil Eileen Fisher, if she has anything to say about it. Rather than going forward with a rush of expansion plans, Fisher is huddling with her executives -- several of whom are new to the company -- to manage the growth. At the same time, she's trying to build a brand name that's consistent with the company's size.

"We feel strongly that the company is bigger than the name right now," said Fisher. "People are always surprised to learn that we do $25 million."

In January, the company hired its first chief executive officer -- Frederic C. McCabe, a retail consultant and alumnus of L.L. Bean. Other new staffers include Robert Valentine, art director; Mary Cally, production director; Mary Lynne Heldmann, human resources director, and architect Brady Wilcox. They are based at the firm's Irvington headquarters, which contain general offices and warehousing and which now cover 26,700 square feet. The new showroom in New York will have 3,100 square feet.

"We have over 130 employees," said McCabe. "The challenge, when you grow this fast, is to maintain a healthy workplace."

Another part of building the brand is increasing Fisher's specialty store reach. There are five Eileen Fisher stores: four here, and one that just opened in Sanibel, Fla. The company plans to open at least three more stores this year -- two in Boston, and one in East Hampton, N.Y.But Fisher doesn't want to crowd her retail accounts. McCabe said the plan is to put freestanding stores where they won't take business from existing accounts.

There's also a planned rollout of Eileen Fisher in-store shops this fall at key retailers, but vice president of sales Anne Kasper said she's still hammering out the details.

In the midst of the hubbub, Fisher continues to create simple, fluid separates in silk, linen, cotton, wool, rayon and various knits such as cotton cashmere or rayon chenille. Silhouettes vary only slightly from season to season; standards on the line include boxy tops, crop pants, long wrap skirts, tunic tops and short skirts.

Fisher keeps the line updated by adding her take on current trends. For fall, that means shorter skirts, a collarless jacket or a high-neck vest. She gravitates to luxurious fabrics such as rayon velvet and silk crepe de chine, mixed in with nubby natural wool sweaters.

Fisher said she's working on a group of cotton and Tencel denim pieces for late fall.

"We've found there's a customer out there who doesn't follow fashion in a traditional way," she said intently. "She's a therapist, a teacher, an art director. She's busy, she doesn't have time to deal with fashion, yet she wants to look good and pulled together.

"It's a very, very easy line to sell," said Jackie Chalkley, owner of three stores in Washington, D.C., under her name. Chalkley has been buying the Eileen Fisher line since it opened. Now, she said, it has become the store's core apparel line. Full-price sell-throughs average about 70 percent.

"It's so basic that it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, and can go to a huge variety of people," Chalkley said.

At Neiman Marcus, Butch Mullins, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for women's apparel, said the store is considering increasing its buy from Eileen Fisher this fall. The retailer carries the line in "fewer than 10 stores."

"We've been working with them on and off for about two years," said Mullins. "We'd been doing very well with the knits, such as the cotton cashmere two-piece dressing, but not as much with the wovens. But I saw the fall line, and I think it interrelates quite well."Although Neiman's might increase its buy, Mullins added that Fisher is at the top price point of its contemporary bridge department, which includes resources such as Max Studio, Parallel and Laundry. Therefore, the store is taking a "test-and-see" approach for now.

For the first time, Fisher has an advertising budget and is working on some marketing plans that will go beyond the mailers the company has been sending its customers. Art director Valentine is developing a new product-oriented ad campaign that will make its debut this fall.

And there are still more projects simmering. "I'd love to do footwear, but that may have to be a licensing arrangement. I'm also interested in underwear, in kids' clothes, in a lot of things," said Fisher.

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