Under the “Who We Are” tab on the Eileen Fisher Web site is a four-minute, 21-second video. A score of violin and staccato percussion plays while brand-concentrated shots fade in and out: the Empire State Building, a rack of ribbed long-sleeve knits, fanned-out look books.
This story first appeared in the November 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Then some text flashes: “Our design strives to balance the timeless with the modern, function with beauty.” The images feature dark-haired or graying female Eileen Fisher employees thumbing through hemp swatches, looking at mood boards or sketching, with either circle scarves or measuring tape strung around their necks. More text: “Ours is an organic system, always evolving, changing, building up what’s come before.”
Two women have been tasked with overseeing that build: Candice Reffe and Rebecca Perrin, the brand’s co-creative officers, installed just over a year ago.
“To a large degree, Eileen created our roles because we can carry her voice,” Perrin said. “Her vision is really in our DNA.”
Perrin and Reffe — wearing the same roomy black cardigan, incidentally — are seated on a plush sofa at the Eileen Fisher corporate offices in the Flatiron District. It looks like the display floor of a West Elm: hardwood floors and tracts of exposed brick; Edison bulbs strung up with ropey yarn and draped in raw linen swatches; mannequins standing on recycled wooden crates (or deliberately tattered wooden crates meant to look recycled); glass hurricanes holding unlit candles; faux succulents and dried flowers sit in glass terrariums.
“I think the reason she chose us was that we see and feel this brand so much the way she does and have for a long time,” Perrin continued. “But there is this constant conversation about where do we push forward, where do we not, what is our essence and how does it evolve so that it looks different from how it might have 30 years ago.
“The brand needs to evolve. Eileen’s always been the chief proponent of that. As she says, ‘Everyone’s eye shifts.’ ”
While fairly new to their positions, Perrin and Reffe are Fisher veterans: Perrin has been with the company for 22 years and Reffe for 30 years. Perrin, a former dancer, started with the company in retail, managing The Eileen Fisher Boutique, the brand’s first store, on Ninth Street in Manhattan. She was brought onto the design team in 2002 and later recruited onto what the company calls its “core concept team.”
“The team was developed to really hold on to the essence of the brand vision,” Perrin explained. At its inception, in 2006, the team consisted of three members: Perrin, Reffe and Kira Denison-Cole, who now leads the team.
Reffe also made her way onto the team via retail. She was a poet — “I was and still am a poet,” she corrected — while her husband owned a small boutique in Provincetown, Mass. He began carrying Eileen Fisher the first year she sold, in 1984. “So I would write poetry and sell Eileen Fisher clothes,” Reffe recalled. Eileen Fisher eventually took over the store and developed it into a larger retail concept. Reffe was brought onto the corporate team, first in a writing capacity, then moving to core concept.
The women have maintained the unique corporate culture birthed by Fisher: nurturing with a touch of hippity-dippity. The office has a distinctly spa-like quality — you kind of expect the place to smell faintly of eucalyptus — and the (predominantly female) employees are offered yoga, Pilates and massages on-site. There are also monthly workshops in the offices, with recent topics ranging from “The Benefits of Hypnosis” to “Mindfulness at Work.”
The culture is also distinctly democratic. Reffe and Perrin operate in an unassuming work space. They’re scrunched into a pair of tiny corner cubicles, in a room lined with them.
“It’s really a culture about the accumulation of voices in service of the design vision,” Reffe said. Meetings are held in circles to reinforce the point. “It’s kind of like [sitting around] the campfire. It’s very, very collaborative because Eileen believes, as do Candice and I, that you can find insight everywhere. It’s very participatory, I’d say, working here.”
Speaking of the company’s collaborative environment, Perrin and Reffe cited that morning’s design-team meeting, a follow-up to their brainstorming session for the resort collection. “We don’t come in and say, ‘This is the design direction,’ and then it flows down to them from there. It’s very much two-way. It’s hearing all voices,” Perrin said. “We see what they present, and if we don’t like it, we don’t just say, ‘No, that’s off-brand.’ We talk about it. We say, ‘We’re uncomfortable, and here’s why.’ We’re thinking aloud, and we articulate why either a silhouette or a direction in a print doesn’t feel right to us. It’s a very iterative process, a healthy back-and-forth.”
Discussions often center around the brand’s evolution: How can the company advance the brand while retaining its DNA?
“It’s a delicate dance,” Reffe noted.
“Sometimes they push us, sometimes we push them,” Perrin added. “We need to survive into the future, and that means surviving beyond Eileen. That’s the difference between us and a lot of fashion brands: It’s more about the person and their singular vision [at other brands, but] this is more about the vision she gave birth to. It isn’t about her — it’s about her design essence.”
Perrin and Reffe communicate with Fisher on a regular basis — they estimate a couple of times a week — but her role is essentially titular: She doesn’t get involved in daily operations but, rather, takes advantage of the direct line she has to the creatives.
“She’s a customer, so when she goes and shops, we hear a lot of feedback,” Perrin said. “What she found, what she couldn’t find, what’s missing, what she loved.”
Reffe smiled, adding, “And we definitely listen.”