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Eileen Fisher is an eco-friendly, experimentation-minded, socially aware, change-driven powerhouse with 67 company-operated stores worldwide and a $430 million business.

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

But even after 30 years, the company is testing a variety of retail concepts.

A new Eileen Fisher Lab in Irvington, N.Y., offers full-price merchandise, samples, Green Eileen products and shoes.

 

“It’s Eileen’s little experimental store,” said Karen Gray, vice president of retail and global development. “It’s a fun lab environment.”

Two Green Eileen stores operate in Yonkers, N.Y., and Seattle, selling gently worn Eileen Fisher apparel collected from customers and dry-cleaned, with profits going to organizations supported by Fisher, such as groups devoted to environmental consciousness and human rights. Fisher’s own social-consciousness team awards grants to programs supporting women and girls.

A boutique called The Eileen Fisher Boutique at 314 East Ninth Street — the site of Fisher’s original store — is an under-the-radar shop featuring samples, one-offs and liquidated products, along with full-price styles.

A new retail concept in Manchester, Vt., has been outperforming its siblings. “It’s 60 percent over plan,” Gray said of the hybrid store. “It’s technically a company store, or outlet, but it also has full-price merchandise, shoes, luxury wardrobe basics and favorites — classic styles we bring back. The customer loves it because she can shop the high-low thing and walk out with a big bag of merchandise.”

Another experimental store, on Fifth Avenue, features third-party jewelry and handbags as well as unique samples from the Eileen Fisher line that were never produced. “It’s been doing extremely well,” Gray said. “We’re looking at bringing elements of that store into new units we’re renovating and building.”

A store on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles is called The Fisher Project, after a capsule collection that experiments with luxurious basics and dramatic proportions. For example, there’s an angle-front cropped leather jacket ($798), a long sheered alpaca jacket with leather sleeves ($748), a pleated leather skirt ($578) and a racer-back dress ($198).

“The collection is a bit more edgy and fitted and pushes us forward a little,” Gray said. “We’re actively working on building a bridge to the next generation. Our new customer is as connected to our core values as our current customer. She’s very invested in clothes that give a woman confidence and engage her creativity in dressing. We’re learning about that new customer and how to connect with her. Our future customer is even more concerned with the environment. We’re speaking in a louder voice in stores about our sustainability work.”

Eileen Fisher’s store expansion in the U.S. will echo the company’s trademark organic style. “We don’t set specific growth targets,” Gray said. “We’re looking for interesting opportunities and places where the customer will find us. We’re handpicking these locations. We could probably open another four or five stores over the next few years.”

Fisher operates 51 full-price locations in the U.S. and five units in Canada and the U.K.

Last year, Eileen Fisher hosted 120 events — at department stores and company-owned stores, in the U.S. and internationally. The goal of the events, which vary widely, is to connect with local communities while underscoring the values of the brand.

“We’re doing events that resonate with local customers,” Gray said. “Our store in Chestnut Hill, Mass., did an event with MassArt where students displayed their sustainable designs. Those are the kinds of things we like to do in our stores and will be doing more of. We’re investing in our store experience quite heavily with new concepts, and we’re experimenting actively.”

Eileen Fisher is also investing in technology. Web shoppers account for 29 percent of overall revenue, Gray said, adding, “Younger customers will shop more heavily online. Our core customer is shopping online, as well. The future generation is very time-pressured. She wants things to be very easy.”

Within the past year, Mark Goulet joined the company to lead visual merchandising, store design and brand experience. Goulet has been adding interesting furniture, signage and unique displays to stores. “He’s shifting our store design a little bit,” Gray said. “He’s helping to make the shopping experience clearer and the design of the clothes easier to see. We rolled out mannequins, and it really makes a difference.”

Niche buying or tailoring assortments to different markets and types of stores is also being implemented.

 

“For an urban store, there would be pieces with more polish and more go-to-work options, versus a store such as one in Mill Valley, Calif., which is looking for something really unique.

“We’re refining our global strategy,” Gray said. “We’re looking for nice steady growth rates — but good growth, taking into account social consciousness and our impact on the environment. We look at more than just the dollars. It’s a big conversation now.”

Gray described the company’s Canadian business as “extremely successful and highly profitable. Canada is going to become the focus of our retail expansion. We expect to move into Toronto in 2015 or 2016. We’re looking at Ottawa, Montreal and maybe a second store in Vancouver. It’s really significant growth for us. We’ll also be selling to Nordstrom in Canada.”

Fisher’s U.K. business is growing by double digits. Stores are located at Covent Garden, Wimbledon and Marylebone. “We’re opening another store in London in the spring on Kings Road,” Gray said. “It will have a small showroom and office area for our London team.”

Entering other countries on the Continent is close on the horizon. “We believe strongly that we have a customer in northern Europe,” Gray said. “We want to find ways to serve her. The European woman loves the quality, timelessness and elegance of the brand. We feel we’re going to get there.”

On the wholesale side of the business, Eileen Fisher works primarily with key department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Belk and Dillard’s. An in-the-field merchandising team of 30 tailors buys for specific regions of the country. Next year, the company expects to have its first $1 million account with a specialty store.

Mariclare Van Bergen, vice president of sales, said The Fisher Project is being incorporated into major store presentations or housed within its own section in certain stores.

“Our goal is to stimulate existing customers and bring in new customers,” she said. “We’re also using it to tell a story online.”

The edgy Fisher Project helped the company boost its Bloomingdale’s online business by 60 percent. “They cater to a contemporary customer,” Van Bergen said. “There’s so much crossover for our customer. She can be traditional and polished, layered with artistic and whimsical [touches].”

 

The Eileen Fisher customer who shops at Lord & Taylor tends to be a little more traditional, Van Bergen said. The brand allows retailers to cherry-pick its collections to tailor an assortment to its customers.

“We’ve seen progressive growth in wholesale sales,” said Anthony LoRusso, director of sales. “In the past five years, wholesale has grown over 80 percent and Web sales shot up 200 percent. Web, which was once 13 percent of our total business, now equates to 29 percent.”

Eileen Fisher is dipping its toe in global wholesaling. “We’re looking at Germany,” LoRusso said. “It’s very interesting to us, but there are no conversations yet. We’re interested in broadening our base in London.”

 

The brand, which entered Canada in 1998, is sold at Holt Renfrew, The Bay and Nordstrom in Calgary. “We exceeded [Calgary Nordstrom’s] expectations,” said LoRusso. “It’s one of the top 10 doors. Eileen Fisher launched at Fenwick of Bond Street in London and exceeded sell-through expectations there, as well. Harvey Nichols launched the brand on Nov. 1 online and in the Edinburgh store.”

Eileen Fisher, which has opened hard shops at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship and Macy’s Herald Square, wants to control the image it presents to customers.

“We have a tremendous amount of input in department stores,” Van Bergen said. “We send a directive to all stores. In some, we have more carte blanche than others.”

The brand also sponsors events at wholesale partners. “We have an opportunity to engage and excite the customer,” Van Bergen said. “They want to know what inspires Eileen’s designs and how to wear them. They’re excited about sustainability.”

A new showroom and branding center is opening in L.A., and the Eileen Fisher University will bow in March, as a day when store owners and buyers attend brand-education workshops in New York.

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