Eileen Fisher, founder and chairwoman of Eileen Fisher Inc., has taken an unorthodox approach to building her clothing business which generates close to $500 million.
Designing effortless clothes that are known for their simple shapes, never staging a fashion show, giving employees stock ownership in the company, beginning every meeting by ringing a bell, and being a leader in sustainability are some of the features that distinguish the firm’s unusual culture.
Speaking with Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week, author and industry consultant, at the 92nd Street Y Tuesday night, it was disclosed that Fisher heads the largest women’s fashion company to be certified a B Corporation that voluntarily meets high criteria for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. In fact, her company is the largest B Corp. in the state of New York. In spring 2015, Fisher disclosed Vision 2020, the company’s ambitious five-year plan that addresses sustainability and human rights.
Mallis and Fisher, who coincidentally showed up wearing the exact same black Eileen Fisher Italian cashmere side-tie poncho, (“This is a first for me on this stage,” said Mallis) went down memory lane. They discussed Fisher’s life growing up in Des Plaines, Ill.; traveling to Japan, where she fell in love with the kimono and timeless, effortless clothes; starting her business with $350, and showing at the Boutique show. Fisher’s company, in business 33 years, has 68 freestanding stores, two Renew outlets, sells 1,042 wholesale doors (909 are domestic and 133 are international) and has 1,200 employees.
It hasn’t always been easy. With the help of therapists, analysts, yoga instructors, a Japanese cook and housekeeper, the 67-year-old Fisher has managed to keep it all going while raising a family and growing a successful business.
Mallis, who likes to discuss astrology with her guests, pointed out that Fisher is a Gemini, and her element is “air.” Some of her characteristics are that she’s curious; mentally active; witty; has creative abilities, a wide appreciation for the arts, history and natural science, and is a thinker. As for her negative traits, she said she is indecisive, anxious, unstable (“I work hard on that,” said Fisher), lazy and untidy (“you should see my closet,” said Fisher). Told that Donald Trump is also a Gemini, Fisher responded, “That’s a bit depressing, or should I say, that’s terribly depressing.”
Fisher grew up in a family with seven kids, six of whom were girls. Her father, a systems analyst and accountant at Allstate, felt that only her brother needed to go to college. She noted that her mother was very busy doing laundry, cooking and cleaning and didn’t really focus on bonding with her kids, and Fisher needed to figure out her own destiny on her own.
Fisher went to Catholic school, where she had to wear a uniform. For the first eight years, she wore a burgundy jumper, which had an influence on her designs. “I wouldn’t do the color burgundy for so many years. I hated it,” she said. Fisher was traumatized in Catholic school and was a very shy student. “It’s been a long, hard road to find my voice,” she said. Her mother, who was more known for “ranting and raving,” led to the designer’s decision never to be someone who yells.
Fisher worked as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant to pay her college expenses and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1972. Interestingly, during high school she worked at Burger King and a local diner and when she first came to New York one summer, she was a waitress at The Lobster Inn in Southampton, N.Y., which elicited a huge laugh from the audience. “I made a ton of money,” she said. What she learned from her restaurant experience servicing people was to be kind. “You got better tips if you were nice to people,” said Fisher.
She began college as a math major (“I’m sort of a problem-solver,” she said) and shifted to home economics.
Hopping around to different jobs after graduating college, Fisher worked at Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the models rooms area in the home furnishings department, and then did graphics and interior design. She worked at a printer and met a Japanese man and became his assistant. They established a professional and personal relationship. He was doing corporate identity and packaging design, and they traveled to Japan — a life-changing experience.
“Japan was amazing. I was completely out of my realm. It was like fantasy. Everything was magical, the simplicity of the design, the materials, kimonos, the little flood pants and rice paddies,” she said. From the kimono, she gained an appreciation for uniform dressing. “In Japan, they wore that one shape,” she said. She made four trips to Japan.
Those trips inspired her designs. “I always felt the need for comfortable clothes, but couldn’t find what I wanted. I wanted to feel like a Japanese designer or that I could belong there. Shopping was hard and it took too much time getting dressed. I was looking for something simple,” she said. She had this idea about clothes, with nice fabrics, in simple shapes, and being comfortable.
While she didn’t want to have to bring her designs to stores and risk rejection, she could set up a booth at a trade show and have people stop by if they were interested. A friend of a friend helped her make her first few pieces, which included a wide pant, box top, shell and pullover vest, in linen/cotton blend. The colors were teal, rose, white and sandy, and they sold the collection to eight stores. She made 100 pieces and made $3,000.
In her second collection, she doubled the amount of pieces and offered the clothing in French terry looped cotton. “The style worked much better in cotton knit and people stood in line to write orders.” She did $40,000 in orders. She described how she cut everything on the floor of her TriBeCa loft and would carry it down in garbage bags and go to a factory in Queens.
Fisher opened her first retail store on 9th Street in the East Village in New York and worked out of a loft on 10th Street, between Avenues C and D. She said she moved her business into her first employee’s loft because she had a baby (and Fisher needed her to keep working), and it was a bigger space. “I rented space from her,” said Fisher.
She then met her husband, David Zwiebel, who had three small stores in Ithaca and had stocked her garments. “I had no time to meet anybody else,” she said. They were going back and forth between New York and Ithaca. “My business was going crazy, and he liked retail,” she said. He moved to New York and needed something to do and wanted to open more Fisher retail stores. They had a son together and opened a store on Madison, between 53rd and 54th Streets, which they still have. Meantime, department stores said the designs were too simple and they would get lost in their stores. But people were lining up in the early days buying stacks of clothes at the cash register at her specialty stores. People came in from Bloomingdale’s and saw what was going on and thought, “We don’t exactly understand these clothes. But maybe we have to create a department.”
Fisher moved her home and business to the waterfront in Irvington, N.Y., which was just beginning to become developed. They had a second child, but then the couple got divorced.
“That was a really hard time, and some blessings came out of that,” said Fisher. After the divorce, she had some time for herself, because her ex-husband took the kids every other weekend. She started to do yoga and meditate. Fisher recalled meeting a woman at a party who helped her create the culture part of the company. She suggested there might be ways to guarantee that things she wanted to happen would happen. In 2005, Fisher sold her $300 million in revenue company to her 875 employees through an employee stock ownership plan. In 2012, each employee received an extra 12 weeks of salary. “Everyone is a part owner,” she said. Forty percent of the company belongs to employees.
Asked what the future of the company is, Fisher said she hasn’t figured it out yet. One idea is to sell it all and give it to the employees. Another idea is having half of the company be some sort of charity.
In 2009, Fisher launched the Green Eileen program, where they offer customers $5 off their old Eileen Fisher clothes. The ad campaign read, “We’d Like Our Clothes Back. Thank You Very Much.” Since it began, they’ve taken back 800,000 garments. Some 2,000 pieces are brought in weekly to Irvington and there’s another center on the West Coast. To date, the reselling of the clothes from Renew has generated more than $2 million for causes supporting women, girls and the environment.
Mallis and Fisher turned to the damage that Hurricane Sandy caused the brand’s Irvington offices in 2012, when the water came in and destroyed the store and the offices. It took a year to renovate all the spaces. Mallis noted that $1.5 million was lost, $500,000 worth of samples, sewing machines and furniture, and $350,00 lost in sales.
Describing some of the company’s perks, Fisher gives her employees five garments a month and $1,000 in wellness benefit a year, for such activities as massages, acupuncture, therapy and yoga. As for the company’s unusual culture, Fisher said they start every meeting with a moment of silence and then they ring a bell. She said it gives people a little space in between meetings and personal problems. She said it also gives people a chance to stop and step back “and it makes us little more thoughtful and a little more conscious of the choices that we’re making.”
Fisher explained her Vision 2020 campaign, where the goal is to have a 100 percent sustainable company. “This is a daunting thing we’re trying to do,” said Fisher, citing using organic cotton, testing materials that are sustainable and “becoming more aware that our industry is one of the worst polluters in the world.” She said they’re not 100 percent sustainable yet, but they’re taking steps.
They would like 100 percent of their materials to be eco-preferred, such as using organic cotton, dyeing with safer chemistry, and using no chlorine in the wool. Today, 60 percent is eco-preferred, whereas four years ago it was 13 percent. “We’ve made huge strides. We’re going to get there,” she said.