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Eileen Fisher doesn’t care about fashion per se, getting critical acclaim from the industry or succumbing to the frenetic, sometimes brutal pace of the apparel industry. Instead, over the past 30 years, she has built a company that’s quite the opposite — a serene palette, basic silhouettes, natural fabrics and responsible sourcing, and she starts each meeting with meditation.

This story first appeared in the November 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Fisher likes to say she stumbled into the business, with neither a fashion nor business degree. Starting her company with $350 in her bank account, she today oversees a firm that generated $430 million in volume last year, and is arguably one of the best-performing and socially responsible apparel companies in the U.S.

“I call it organic growth,” said Fisher, in an interview at her Irvington, N.Y., home. “People are always asking me how big I think [the company] will be. I don’t know. It was never about how big it would be or having a real strategy.”

Obviously, her top executives have a game plan, but as far as she’s concerned, it’s more about creating a culture and a work environment where people feel appreciated and passionate about what they’re doing.

As the company has grown, so has its emphasis on social responsibility. It is committed to sustainability, human rights and global initiatives that empower women and girls — key issues that Fisher takes very seriously.

When Fisher graduated from the University of Illinois in 1972, having studied home economics and interior design, clothing wasn’t even on her radar.

“I think I would have been interested in clothes, except that clothes were not fashionable at the time. It was in the Sixties and people were wearing jeans,” said the Chicago-born designer, who grew up in Des Plaines, Ill.

She recalled that one of her art teachers suggested she go into fashion because the teacher had admired a long coat that Fisher wore. After graduation, Fisher moved to New York, where she worked for a Japanese graphic designer. They became partners, both professionally and personally, and they traveled frequently to Japan, often spending lengthy periods there. And she became inspired by that nation’s style.

“I saw kimonos, the wide-crop pants, the simplicity of the whole aesthetic. Everything was very natural,” she said. Fisher had already been drawn to minimalism and simplicity, and that became the basis of her first designs. The box top was the first piece she ever designed. As an interior designer, she had an interest in fabric and the soft side of interior design. It took her about five years before she created her first garments.

Working for a Japanese school, she was asked to create uniforms. She never actually finished the project, but it made her think a bit more about clothing. From that experience came a holistic design concept.

After separating from her Japanese partner, she started doing her own small projects and as she put it, “stumbled around” in New York.

“This idea started forming and I could see the pictures in my mind,” she said. She was living in TriBeCa at the time and friends suggested she present  at the Boutique Show in 1984.

“I didn’t have any fantasies of doing a runway show, or being a designer. I was interested in and wanted to make these simple clothes — a box top, a little crop pant, a simple pullover vest and a shell,” she said. The original group came in four colors — rose, tan, ivory and teal.

Teal?

“It’s so weird,” said Fisher. “I wore teal in those days.”

Today, Fisher dresses exclusively in black, gray and white. “And the funniest thing is, I didn’t do black for many years. And now, we probably sell more black than any other color,” she said. She recalled that in the early days of the company, buyers didn’t want to buy black. They would say, “No, we have black in private label, or we have black basics so we don’t want that from you. We like your colors.”

At that first Boutique Show, Fisher displayed her offerings on an eight-foot wall in a tiny booth way in the back of the exhibition hall. She said buyers weren’t so excited about that first group of colors or the fabric she was using. They seemed to understand the concept, but the grouping was in linen and cotton, and she described them as “architectural and a little clunky and awkward.” She said she was fortunate to get orders from eight stores.

“It was a good thing I only sold to eight stores. I made [the collection] in a tiny factory in Queens, and I cut the first garments on my floor in my loft in TriBeCa,” she said. “What was so interesting was that it was exactly the right amount. If I had done any more, I would have been overwhelmed and not able to get it out.”

She named the collection after herself. “I wanted to call it something else, but couldn’t come up with a name. From the time I committed to the booth, I only had a very short time — like three weeks — to put the first line together,” she said.  Since she had previously done graphics, she was able to whip up a logo using her name.

For her second Boutique Show, Fisher started using French terry, and it was a big hit.

“Buyers stood in line to write orders. I booked $40,000,” she said. “In those days, it was a lot.”

 

She said she listened to the buyers and turned it into a fashion business, offering current shapes, getting the proportions, colors and fabrics right. She added the kimono jacket, a straight skirt, a jumpsuit, a pair of leather pants and a simple dress. Because she sold as much as she did, she needed to find someone to cut them, and couldn’t do the cutting on her floor anymore.

As for the difficulty of living off a company generating $40,000 in sales, she replied, “How did I live off negative $20,000? I needed to buy the fabric and get the sewing done. I was living in TriBeCa in a loft, and clothes were everywhere. I looked at my checkbook the day I started the business and I went, ‘I’m crazy. I only have $350 in my bank account. What am I thinking?’”

Fisher worked out of her home for a while and would ship the clothing from a store basement she rented. A year later, she moved the office out of her loft and into a studio space on 10th Street, between Avenues C and D. It was the loft of her first employee, Sigi Ahl, who still works for the company. “She had a baby and she needed to stay home. I was terrified to lose her so I moved the company to her,” said Fisher.

The staff consisted of just Fisher, Ahl and some part-time helpers.

As is the intention of many designers starting out, Fisher wanted to design for a woman like herself.

“It was me. It was what I wanted, what I saw next, what I was missing and what proportions. It was just the simplest things,” she said.

Sometimes she’d make them skinnier and sometimes wider. “Sigi helped me a little bit. She was making the patterns and they were so simple. The sewer helped me,” she said.

Fisher said she doesn’t sketch at all. “It’s really not my thing,” she said, preferring to tell people what she was looking for through words.

Soon after, she got her first department-store accounts. She sold a little to Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. She also opened a small boutique on Ninth Street, between First and Second Avenues, and then another store on Madison Avenue and 53rd Street.

“The Ninth Street store is still there. It started selling samples and damages. I hate to waste anything. It’s 450 square feet. It’s like a closet,” said Fisher. “People still love that store.”

The person who runs the store buys from the main line, but also sells samples there. Fisher opened the Madison Avenue unit, which also is still operating, about five or six years into launching the business. She said the Ninth Street store was easy because the rent was inexpensive and renovating the store cost nothing.

“I really opened it on a shoestring and started selling clothes the day I opened. The Madison Avenue store was more expensive to open — that was my ex-husband’s idea. He saw the power of the idea and thought it could work on Madison Avenue. I wasn’t so sure. But when we ran the numbers, we thought we only had to [generate sales of] a few thousand dollars a day, and we were almost doing that on Ninth Street, so we figured we could do that on Madison,” she said.

The store opened and they were successful from the first day, said Fisher. Once Bloomingdale’s saw how busy her Madison Avenue store was, it bought the line as well.

“[Bloomingdale’s] saw women standing at the cash register with stacks of clothes,” said Fisher. “They thought we must be up to something, even if they didn’t understand it. Bloomingdale’s thought it should have its own little shop. We were in contemporary at that time, on the second floor.”

 

After that, other department stores became interested. The clothing continued to be made in Queens by the same woman. “She grew her business around my business for quite a number of years,” said Fisher.

The company eventually added another factory in Chinatown and one in the Garment Center.

In the late Eighties, color was key to the collection. “The stores wanted color, for sure, I remember when I wanted more neutrals. When I tried to sell gray, they said, ‘Gray doesn’t look good on anyone.’ They liked the teals, but not the greens,” she recalled.

As the business grew, Fisher expanded to 450 doors across nine department-store chains and more than 300 specialty stores in the U.S., Canada and U.K., as well as 67 freestanding stores internationally, including company stores and units in Canada and the U.K. The company today does the lion’s share of its volume at wholesale — 80 percent — and 20 percent through its own freestanding stores. Its Web site is its largest retail enterprise and is experiencing the fastest growth, she said. Interestingly, the company hasn’t penetrated the European market yet beyond the U.K., nor has it made inroads in Asia.

“We’ve been growing our business here. It’s quite a leap to go that far. We’re still learning — it’s complex with the different languages,” said Fisher.

She said it’s been a struggle getting to understand the business in London and sending people that far “is expensive.”

Retailers have consistently experienced strong sell-throughs with Fisher’s collection.

“Over the years, it’s been the most consistent performer at Bloomingdale’s. It’s an amazing brand,” said Frank Doroff, vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s, which houses Fisher in its New View department. “It’s generally a casual brand that fits a lot of people. There’s great knitwear. They’ve been trying to go to a different fashion level each season.”

He said the customer, who is very loyal, is attracted to the fit, fabrics and the look. “The sell-throughs at full price are one of the best in the store,” he added. Fisher also has a more contemporary brand called The Fisher Project, which is small, he noted.

Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, said that Eileen Fisher has been “a wonderful brand at Saks for many years.

“It appeals to women of all ages and all shapes and sizes. It’s a very democratic collection. It suits so many different types of women,” she said, adding that as women lead more casual lifestyles, a brand like Fisher becomes all the more relevant.

“We’re seeing this whole movement toward ath-leisure,” said Sherin. Fisher’s line “is not trendy, but it will nod to the trends in a way that’s easily understood.”

Another positive is the wardrobe-building aspect of the collection, from season to season. “Customers can mix and match pieces from previous seasons,” she said, noting the customer seeks out the natural fabrics. “It’s important because it affects the way the garment feels, washes and travels. That’s important to the customer. The color palette is fairly neutral.”

She said it was a strong business at Saks and is carried in Modern Collections at the flagship.

Mary Turner, executive vice president of merchandising at Hudson’s Bay Co. DSG,  said that the line performs very well at Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor. She explained that six years ago they decided to reinvigorate the better business at Hudson’s Bay, and the first brand they called was Eileen Fisher, which had been absent from the store for six years. “As the staff was unpacking the boxes on the floor, all of the Eileen Fisher customers came out of nowhere. It demonstrates the incredible resonance and loyalty Eileen Fisher has with her customer,” she said.

“Her clothes really let the woman’s personality and style come through. It offers a fairly democratic fit without compromising the look of the garment,” she added.

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Five years ago, Fisher began to change her role at the company. “I’ve been trying to pull away, almost moving toward retirement,” she said.

She became more involved in the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation, the recycling program, girls’ leadership and the Happiness Project. Now, she wants to start a learning center focused on leadership.

But as she began to pull away from her business, she had a change of heart.

“Though I can have a lot of impact through the foundation, I can actually have more impact through the company,” she said.

She explained that she’s been thinking holistically about how the company can be a force for change in the world, and that’s what’s intriguing to her these days: “Sustainability, women and girls, the fact that we have over 1,000 employees, and getting everyone in the company lit up about what their purpose and passion is.”

For years, Fisher said she worked on a woman’s “outer self,” with clothing. But more significant, she says, she wants to “help from the inside out.”

From the start, she said, women have told her that they feel a little better about themselves when they’re comfortable in their clothes and they like what they’re wearing. “I never think the clothes should take over the person. The clothes should support the person and help her find her own style. They’re so simple that you make them your own.”

One of the big challenges these days is getting a new generation of consumers interested in the clothing. Fisher said she has been trying to develop a younger customer, while continuing to cater to her loyal clientele, a strategy that appears to be working. There is no denying that Fisher has been categorized as a Boomer brand, but she believes there’s a lot more to it. “We’re more than that. We transcend age. It’s who I am, I can’t completely disassociate from them. We do have a lot of younger designers and merchandisers who are dressing themselves, as well as hip, older designers,” she said.

These days, Fisher still finds herself immersed in all areas of the business. She’ll attend leadership meetings and drop in on advertising meetings. But she doesn’t get too deeply involved in the product. “They haven’t run [product] by me for 10 to 12 years,” she said. “I’m championing sustainability. We’re making a huge effort to try to be a leader in the fashion world.”

Fisher has only been to China once, but has employees who visit the factories several times a year. The company has a sustainability department with a human rights manager who is responsible for overseeing the company’s supply-chain relationships, and it has had long-standing relationships with its China factories. The firm is working toward its Sustainability 2020 vision, including the use of all-recycled polyester or nylon, all-organic cotton and linen, all-sustainable wool and Bluesign-certified dyes for five of its top-10 volume fabrics.

The company made the move overseas more than 20 years ago when it started producing silks. That category was followed by making fine knits, cashmeres and merino wools overseas. But lately, it has been moving more production back to the U.S. Fisher manufactures its jeans and other cottons in California. At present, 20 percent of Fisher’s production is domestic. The company has been researching opening its own factory in the Bronx or Queens.

What separates Fisher from many other fashion companies is that the employees have an ownership stake in the business. Eileen Fisher herself owns 60 percent of the company, while the employees own the rest.

“It was gifted to the employees,” said Fisher. “They didn’t have to buy in. We keep people for a long time and we also have profit sharing,” she said.

Over the years, Fisher has been approached by people who have wanted to buy the company. “We’ve been very clear that we’re not interested. We looked into going public and didn’t like the idea. I didn’t want to be controlled by outside forces. I like to be in a place where the people who do the work are owners. It’s a different sense of belonging and participation,” she said.

Despite the lack of a formal business background, Fisher appears to have picked up best practices of running a company. “It’s kind of common sense for me,” she said. “Ever since I was 12, I pretty much supported myself. Anything I wanted, I had to buy. I put myself through college.”

She said her father was saving his money for his only son, who ended up not going to college. Then he put his younger daughters through college. Fisher is the second-oldest of seven children, with an older sister, a younger brother and four younger sisters.

“I learned the value of money. I’m very practical about money and understand it on some simple level,” she said.  She stressed that when she started the company, it was a tiny operation. “Day by day, I built it from the ground up. I got good people to help, people who were knowledgeable about different areas,” she said.

The company’s current executive structure comprises two co-chief operating officers running the business, a chief financial officer and a vice president of wholesale.

While each of the company initiatives is important to Fisher, perhaps the most meaningful is the recycling program.

“The recycling thing is huge,” said Fisher. There are two Green Eileen stores, in Yonkers, N.Y., and Seattle. Customers can return their gently worn clothes at any Eileen Fisher retail store and receive $5 for each returned garment. The company then sends those garments to one of its recycling centers in Irvington, N.Y., and Seattle to be mended and cleaned. They then sell those garments for a lesser price in their Green Eileen stores and the money goes to support women’s and girls’ charities.

She explained that when she launched Green Eileen, she was afraid she would see all her mistakes from the past. “Actually, what’s been really fascinating to me is to see how relevant they still are,” she said. Half of the returned garments can be resold, but half are in bad shape, with stains or pulls and can’t be sold. They are now starting an upcycling program, where they make quilts and rugs with the fabric and they unravel the sweaters.

Fisher also gives each of the employees $1,000 for an education benefit, and $1,000 for a wellness benefit. The education benefit, for example, can be used for whatever they want, such as cooking, yoga or music classes. Employees often use the wellness benefit for on-site massages.

 

As the workplace in general has become more casual, Fisher’s company finds itself in a strong position. “Our clothes have gotten more casual, which is more in sync with that. Sometimes I think we’re missing that ‘go-to-work’ category,” said Fisher. She said it often depends on what kind of job a person holds. For example, Hillary Rodham Clinton wears Fisher’s clothes — but on the weekend. In the early years, Fisher found that women in professions like therapists, professors and artists were gravitating toward the collection. One misconception was that the clothes were geared exclusively to full-figured women, which Fisher said isn’t the case.

“I think we’ve worked hard on that. We have sizes XXS and XS and it took us a long time to add that to our line. Our clothes are easy and tend to be on the looser side. We have XXS to 1X, 2X and 3X to serve every woman,” she said. 

Interestingly, Fisher has kept the business focused on apparel and footwear and hasn’t expanded like many of its competitors into a host of categories, such as eyewear, outerwear and watches. The company licenses Chainson for footwear, produces bedding through Garnet Hill and makes leather goods in-house with various vendors. Fisher has no fragrance. “I’m not a fragrance person,” she said.

Fisher’s work culture is really what makes the company unique. For example, meetings are conducted in a circle. Attendees take turns checking in and talking about something personal or something going on in their area. There can be three, four, five or 40 people in a meeting; 80 percent of employees are women.

Meetings start with a moment of silence and a chime, to allow people to take a breath, collect their thoughts and be present. Fisher, who said she meditates, noted she likes starting meetings this way.

“I’m not sure we’ve totally combatted stress in our organization. It helps people calm down a little bit and it gets them to focus. It makes for more thoughtful, conscious decisions,” she said.

Fisher described her management style as more of a gatherer of information. “I’m a listener. That’s why I like the circles,” she said. “I like to hear everyone. I might have an idea, but try to always check it out. Does it resonate with other people? I’m not aggressive or pushy, maybe not very decisive. But I’m feminine in the way of gathering information and listening to everyone and modeling that for others. Great ideas come from every corner of the company.”

At the company, they adhere to a concept called “Good Growth” and try not to get stressed out. “We really do believe that less is more sometimes. We want to do it right. It’s not so much about doing it fast and doing it big. Small is the new big,” she said.

The company has been growing at an annual rate of 10 to 13 percent over the past five years. While the company continues to be on a growth trajectory, one of the biggest challenges right now is future leadership.

“A lot of us are coming to a certain age,” said Fisher. “How are we grooming the next generation of leadership? That’s the big challenge. I’m 64. I was pulling out, and now I’m back in there. I’m more enlivened by it than I’ve been in a long time. It got me to see what I really wanted to do, and how I could make  a difference.”

Fisher has two children, 25 and 21, but isn’t grooming them to take over the business. “There could be a role for either of them in the business. I’m kind of letting them find their own path a little bit,” she said. She said her son worked in the recycle program and in Web design for a while.

To celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary, Fisher developed The Icons collection, a small group recalling some of the original designs, tweaked for today. “It’s gotten me reenergized. It wasn’t my idea, but I just think it’s so brilliant. It’s making me see the relevance of the design concept. And really wanting to make sure that it’s held and the next generation really understands the essence of what it is,” she said.

The Icons consist of the coat (freshened up, shorter, lighter-weight wool), the box top (simple, easy top, now in cashmere), two long cardigans, a little black dress and a shell. Every store that carries the line took The Icons, which says “30th anniversary” on the label — and stores are reordering it. It comes in mostly black, red, gray and gold/green.

After doing this for 30 years, Fisher isn’t looking for any accolades from the fashion industry. “I don’t care about that. It’s not what I do or why I do it. I’ve always been about real clothes that really work for real life. It’s not about an art project for me. It’s real design, vision, solving problems — that’s what fascinates me.”

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