EILEEN FISHER SEES ROOM FOR GROWTH
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Although a lot of firms have been aggressively going after knitwear for the past year, contemporary designer Eileen Fisher, who is known for her knitted sportswear, says she doesn’t see saturation in that category any time soon.
“I feel we are at the beginning phase of knits,” said Fisher, who has a new bridge line called Eileen Fisher Collection due in stores for spring ’98, and a more structured knitwear look for her signature line. She’s also developing her special size business — a petites line, which was shipped to stores in December, and a plus-size line.
“People are just beginning to understand the possibility of knitwear, the washability, the comfort of it all,” she said. “What’s driving the trend is the relaxed dress code in the workplace.”
She added, “There’s a real system. You can pack five knitwear pieces in a suitcase, and you don’t have to worry about them wrinkling. You can dress it up or dress it down.”
Fisher, whose office is in Irvington, N.Y., and who’s been in business for 12 years, wound up with a wholesale volume of $47 million and a retail volume, from her 12 stores, of $19 million last year. For 1997, she expects her firm’s wholesale volume to increase to $70 million and her retail to top $25 million.
Fisher is moving into a 15,000-square-foot showroom at 530 Seventh Avenue here in mid-April. It’s more than four times the size of her current showroom, at 214 West 39th Street.
As reported, design problems caused the company to delay the debut of Eileen Fisher Collection at upscale department stores from this fall until next January. It features double-face wools from Italy, cashmeres, silks and knits, which will account for 30 percent of the line. The line, which is in keeping with her fluid signature style, wholesales from $100 to $400.
Fisher projects a first-year wholesale volume of $8 million to $10 million from the new collection.
“It feels a bit more serious,” she said. “It all started with what I wanted, what was missing from my wardrobe.”
Fisher, however, maintains that the bulk of her business will come from her contemporary line. She is expecting a 35 to 40 percent sales increase in that line this year. She’s given it a more structured look that she expects to appeal to working women whose jobs are in a relatively conservative environment. The knitwear portion of the line has increased from last year’s 30 percent to 50 percent for fall.
Woven fabrics such as wool crepe, velvet and silk account for the remainder and work back to the knits, she said. For example, for spring, the line featured silk camisoles that are being merchandised with knit pants and skirts.
To give the line a more structured look, Fisher is using wool and interlock knits, instead of just cotton knits. As a result, the average wholesale price for fall will be about $70, instead of $55.
“There was a layer of customers that I wasn’t reaching. These were customers who worked in conservative environments like banking and law, and they were only wearing my clothes on the weekends, not to the office,” she said. She added that customers can use the wool knit cardigans as jackets.
Ann Kasper, vice president of sales, noted that Fisher’s 25 in-store shops have also helped boost business. Sales have doubled where the in-store shops were added. Another 25 will be added this year.
The signature line is in 1,200 doors, including such key accounts as Dayton Hudson, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. About 60 percent is in department stores and the remainder in specialty stores.
Fisher said colors like soda green and coral drove the business for resort. For fall, her better line features berry, burgundy and purple.
Fisher said that she is testing knee-length hemlines for fall.
She added that Eileen Fisher Woman is in 20 percent of the department store doors that carry the signature label. Eileen Fisher Petites, which was first shipped to 50 Bloomingdale’s doors last December, will be rolled out to about 150 other department store doors this year.
Eileen Fisher’s combined special size business is expected to reach a wholesale volume of $8 million, said Kasper.
Fisher is negotiating for a store on West Broadway in SoHo. It would be her fifth in Manhattan.
The store will be about 4,000 square feet — about twice the size of her average store. She declined to give the exact address, since the deal has not been signed.
“My goal is to keep my store business at about 25 percent of my overall business,” she said.
Fisher said she has lots of other plans, including the development of licensed products for such categories as children’s wear, underwear and men’s wear.
She also wants to take the company public, but not right now.
“I feel like I am still in the early creative phase of my business,” she said. “I don’t think I am ready to have someone look over my shoulder — not just yet.”