She Wears It Well

By Barry Boyce

 

Entering her 30th year of business, designer Eileen Fisher wears the mantle of leadership with the ease and flowing style of her clothing. Her company is not only doing well, it’s doing good—for employees, young women, and the planet.

In 1992 Eileen Fisher moved her company from trendy Tribeca in Manhattan to suburban Irvington in Westchester County. She wanted her son, Zack, to have a backyard to play in.

“I could come home and start cooking while he was outside playing,” she tells me. Well, she didn’t exactly cook, she admits, but she was at home. Only recently has she had time to get into cooking. She’s been a little too busy creating the burgeoning clothing empire that bears her name—with more than 60 retail stores, distribution through department stores and boutiques in 90 countries, a thousand employees, and over $350 million in annual revenues. But she’s overseen it all in the same spirit as getting that backyard for Zack. It’s domestic. It’s a family. It’s caring. Nobody lasts at Eileen Fisher, she says, if they aren’t kind.

The fashion industry has a hard reputation, conjuring images of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, undernourished, underaged models, and heavily marked-up products manufactured in Third World sweatshops (including the recent Bangladeshi factory that collapsed, killing more than a thousand people). Fashion is not always pretty.

But Fisher is not in the fashion business. “We’re in the clothing business,” she says. “The word ‘fashion’ connotes fast-paced and planned obsolescence, the throwaway culture. That annoys me.” She winces at the thought. We’re sitting in the company’s design center, three floors on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district. With high ceilings, open spaces, and lots of natural light, each floor brims with fabrics and clothing in various states, patterns, mannequins, pictures of clothing throughout the ages (for inspiration), glowing screens, and lots of people, mostly women. It’s a hive of creative activity.

Fisher settles her lanky, flowing frame into a comfy seat. She sits upright, statuesque, if statues could breathe and laugh. The conference room is glass-walled, and we look out on a spacious kitchen–dining area where employees mill about. A small chime and striker sit on a side table; they’re for signaling the minute of silence that begins all meetings. Award plaques fill the wall outside the door. Eileen Fisher has been recognized as one of the top 500 women-owned businesses and, for nine years running, one of the 25 best small to-medium-sized companies to work for.

Before we talk business, Fisher talks values. For her, the two are inseparable. “That minute of silence may be a small thing, but it creates a little spaciousness. It gives people a little taste of something, and that effect starts to ripple,” she says. “People in all kinds of corporations have been doing it, and they credit us for giving them the idea, even if we never dealt with them directly. You don’t know who might be meditating in a corporate office somewhere as a result of taking that little break.

“I don’t go around saying I meditate, but in my life and work, I try to live those values. Mindfulness means slowing down enough to be thoughtful about what you’re doing. It helps you see the need to get other viewpoints in order to see the whole. It brings more self awareness—of how you feel, how you speak, how you treat others. Over time, it starts to weave itself into everything you do.”

Fisher didn’t set out to create a company. “I started designing clothes that I would want to wear myself,” she says. She grew up outside of Chicago in a Catholic family of modest means, the second oldest of six girls and one boy. Her mother needed to stretch a dollar, so she sewed her children’s clothes. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1972 with a degree in home economics—“what people in clothing or design or textiles did in those days”—Fisher moved to New York. After a stint in interior decorating, she ended up at a graphics design firm in SoHo. During that period she visited Japan and was taken with the kimonos and wide cropped pants. She loved the simple, earthy fabrics, and styles of dress that transcended fashion, that had been around for a millennium.

Fisher also disliked shopping for clothes. She recalled the ease of her school uniform and was miffed that men could put on a suit in the morning and look turned out, while she had to spend an hour deciding what to wear. In 1984, her idea for simple, timeless clothes that offered beauty and ease led to a business, almost by happenstance.

A sculptor friend had to give up a booth at a show, and he persuaded Fisher to use it for her yet-to-be-produced clothing. She was so new to business, she neglected to price the clothes. She had $350 in the bank. Her first retail store, which still exists today, was a tiny space on 9th Street in the East Village that she filled with damaged and sample fabrics. “I love fabrics, and I hate to see them go to waste. The cutting rooms at the big houses, where mountains of material are thrown away, just make me sad.”

As her business grew, these environmental values endured. Eileen Fisher pays attention to the entire life cycle of a garment, from cradle to grave. It’s part of Fisher’s “business as a movement.” You can see that slogan displayed in her stores, which double as community gathering places to spread these values. She believes that “gross national happiness” is the responsibility of every person in business.

“We’re looking at any way we can change ourselves, influence this industry, and effect positive social change,” she says. “Operating with attention to all inputs and outputs at every stage makes the product a bit expensive, so we’re fortunate to have a sophisticated customer who understands the value of our clothes. There’s a price for lasting quality and sustainability. It should be industry standard, but it isn’t by any means. We have a lot more work to do; we are on it every day.”

“Business as a movement” is also about how people work with each other. Fisher is shy, yet she exudes boundless energy. It’s a combination that makes her a perfect collaborator. She listens well and gives others room but will execute forcefully when the group has coalesced. That approach is built into the company’s culture, resulting in a creative tension between getting things done and talking about them.

“It can be chaotic,” she acknowledges, “but just the right amount of chaos is what breeds creativity. We insist on hearing voices from lots of different people. They’re engaged, give their opinion, then move on. A small team hears it all and makes the decision. It’s a balancing act. We often leave meetings with decisions unclear and just sit with them. We definitely err on the feminine side—more intuitive, less linear. We consciously work on the collaborative process. I have a deep sense that I didn’t create this business alone. I listened, I heard, and we worked together. It would have been something different if I hadn’t worked in a collaborative way. That made it so much better.”

Irvington is less than an hour from the design center in Manhattan, yet it’s a world away. You pass through the mad rush of Grand Central Station, and before too long, you’re released from New York’s high tension. Clickety-clacking along, you see the Hudson River out the window to the left. In 45 minutes you’re in the village of Irvington. Crossing under the tracks, you’re in the parking lot of the Eileen Fisher Lab Store, where retail ideas are played with and tested. Next door, at 2 Bridge Street, sits the headquarters.

I meet Cheryl Campbell, managing director of the Community Foundation, whose main projects are a leadership institute, which operates a program to “foster leadership attributes” in teenage girls, and Green Eileen, a recycled-clothing initiative. Both are housed a few blocks uphill in a rundown building with three-story columns designed in 1895 by Stanford White as the headquarters for Cosmopolitan.

First, Campbell shows me around the headquarters, which is loose and flowing, like the design center—and Eileen Fisher clothing. It has lots of open spaces where business can be done on the fly and eavesdropping is permitted. It’s where architects design the look and feel of the retail stores, where the highly successful web store is run, and where a miscellany of core functions and garment-industry specialties occur that are too arcane for my untrained eye to sort out.
Glass-walled “duck-in” rooms with names like Delight and Creativity line the work areas. The large café space by the river is used by a local meditation group for weekly gatherings and special events. Wellness is central to the Eileen Fisher mission. Everyone has a wellness account they can use for massage, proper work wear, acupuncture, yoga, and so forth. We pass a yoga/meditation room, a lactation room, massage rooms, and a patio where you can sit and watch the river roll by. At the same time, it’s clear that people are working very hard. The sense of ease does not breed a lack of commitment.

Over at the Stanford White building, Campbell and I visit the leadership institute, a warren of rooms where a 12-day training session for high-school girls is going on. In the first room, a dozen girls are intently working on creating a journal using digital publishing tools. I see topics like “how to let go of an unhealthy relationship” and “gratitude” on the pages they’re poring over. Nicole Pressly Wolf, a longtime publishing-industry professional, tells me it’s a delight to work with people whose ideas of life are still forming.

That’s Fisher’s mission here: to catch young women before they’re locked into conventional ways of seeing and being seen. “Women have so much to contribute, yet often lack confidence,” she says. “When I created the program five years ago, I asked myself, ‘What do I wish someone had told me when I was young? What extra help do girls need to move into leadership roles?’ It’s different for women today than when I was coming up, but the world is still fast-paced, with lots of verbal stuff thrown around. If you want to move through it with feeling and intuition, you need to be empowered to feel that it’s fine to do things that way.”

In another room, three groups of five girls each are cutting images out of magazines and making collages. They’re led by Leigh Thomas, who just finished her junior year at Brown and went through the program herself. The exercise is about stories, Thomas tells me. “They’re paying attention to what stories they’re told about themselves by the media. They’ll also be looking at what expectations are put on them by stories their peers tell them, as well as what expectations they place on others. Finally, they’ll consider what stories they want to tell the world about themselves and what steps forward they can take to make that happen.” The irony that this exercise is happening in the former headquarters of Cosmo is not lost.

Snaking through hallways and up a rickety elevator, we come to a set of gray metal double doors. While we’re walking, Campbell has been telling me about a talk she attended almost a decade ago by William McDonough. He’s the author of Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle, which promote the principle of treating what we’ve already manufactured as a vital resource, rather than always looking to extract more from a depleted Earth.

“What he was saying really turned me on,” Campbell told me. “I came back and excitedly shared with Eileen how I thought an upcycling effort would be a good fit for Eileen Fisher.” Eventually, Green Eileen was born. Loyal customers were asked to return garments they no longer used, with the knowledge that reselling them would support programs to “improve the lives of women and girls in our local and global communities.”

As the doors open, the fruits of that effort nearly tumble out into the hallway. Thousands of pieces of returned clothing jam the room. Emerica Du Jesu and Janet Goyzuetta, who heads up the collection operation, patiently sort through, evaluate, and classify the pieces. (Zack also works here—like mother, like son.) Many articles of clothing will be tagged and find their way to the Lab Store and two other outlets in Westchester. Some will be donated to shelters, and some are too threadbare for use. Their fate is under consideration. A second collection center in Seattle now supplies a Green Eileen store there, and more outlets are planned.

“Sales increased almost 50% this year,” Campbell tells me. “It took 33 months for Green Eileen to earn its first million, a year for the second million, and we just hit the third million after eight months. That’s a lot of up cycling!”

Eileen Fisher has known hard times.
Hurricane Sandy inundated the company’s headquarters, which is still being restored, but Fisher is philosophical about what was lost in the flood. “It’s just stuff,” she said at the time. The company is not immune from the harsh world of the marketplace either. While the designs are timeless, the core Eileen Fisher customer is aging, and that’s challenging the company to find younger customers while still adhering to the “timeless design” principle. Fisher feels confident they can continue to “make design that belongs to this moment but transcends the moment” and appeal to a new generation of customers. There are early positive signs, but only time will tell.

People who work at Eileen Fisher generally share the company’s values and often apply to work there for that reason, but as the company grows, changes, and adds new employees, it’s making a robust effort to foster the culture and help people work and live well. Yvette Jarreau, director of leadership, learning and development, described to me the recent evolution of Eileen Fisher. “About a decade ago, we had roughly 400 people who had grown embryonically around Eileen. People were doing multiple roles—when you’re small, you wear a lot of hats. Now there’s more complexity to manage.”

As the company grew to a thousand employees, Susan Schor, the chief culture officer, started a program to create more organization while maintaining collaborative values and to help people develop the leadership skills they need to make that work. While the conventional manager takes pride in knowing the answers, Fisher advocates not knowing, which “makes it easier to learn from others.”

Leadership at Eileen Fisher is looser, more open to ambiguity and uncertainty. “It’s always moving and changing.” Jarreau tells me. “We say, ‘We’re in the river.’

“Managing ambiguity is a tough thing for many people, who tend to want things more black and white. We don’t rely on a lot of policies and rules here, which is challenging. Our thrust is to help people cultivate good judgment, so they don’t have to use rules.”

When the 2008 financial collapse hit, sales dropped precipitously, which tested the mettle of the tight-knit, family-style business. Some people took unpaid leave, while others’ jobs had to be eliminated. “One of the first things we had to do was help people over the loss and grief. The whole organization was saddened,” Jarreau says. The tough times occasioned a tightening-up and made leadership skills—from the practical level of setting agendas to the bigger level of fostering trust—even more important.

Fisher feels that difficult period created a healthy sense of renewal, and it set the stage for her current emphasis on “personal transformation.” That’s a new initiative, Jarreau says, based on the notion that “a culture of trust, good judgment, well-being, and purpose is central to people flourishing in their work and their life. Personal transformation is a deep dive,” says Jarreau. “It could involve a variety of experiences, depending on the person—a regular meditation practice, workshops to explore your personal history and how it affects you today, or looking at what you really value in life, at what it means to prosper. We don’t know the path forward exactly, but we’re sampling and exploring. In the end, we want to support people’s personal growth as part of their work life and try to measure how well we’re doing that.”

Amy Hall is director of social consciousness. How many companies have one of those? Her mission is to help Eileen Fisher become the most socially and environmentally responsible company possible. It’s a many-tentacled effort that includes initiatives such as the development of an organic cotton supply chain in Peru, helping a Chinese silk dyer use fewer chemicals and less water, and investing in two windmills in Iowa through Native Energy. Many of these efforts are chronicled through the Ampersand marketing project. When a customer sees the “&,” she knows she can go to a website and learn more about how Eileen Fisher products come into being and what the company is doing to be responsible and innovative by watching videos or reading interviews and journalistic-style reports from the front.

“We’ve been collecting these stories for quite a while,” Hall says, “but Eileen was reluctant to share them. She wants us doing good things for the right reasons, not to overstate our goodness in order to sell clothes. But now we see that many customers, particularly those age 40 and under, are value-driven and want to know the story behind the products they buy.”

Hall is focused now on two major projects. The first is to create a publicly available map of Eileen Fisher’s entire supply chain, an enormous undertaking. “Where we encounter social and environmental problems,” Hall says, “we will actively work with our suppliers to help rectify them—through relationship-building, investment, and partnership.” If a serious problem can’t be resolved, they’ll halt production until something can be worked out.

The other initiative is even more ambitious: a sustainable way to bring clothing manufacturing back to the U.S. It starts with a proposal to develop a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the Bronx. It would rely on used fiber for its feedstock (including clothes from the Green Eileen collection project), employ and empower at-risk women, be employee-owned and led, and be housed in sustainable buildings.

“This would not be an Eileen Fisher facility alone,” Hall says. “We’re seeking industry partners to collaborate with us in a facility that would create raw fiber, spin it into yarn, weave it into fabric, and sew it into garments. We want to bring the garment-making arts back to the United States in a way that benefits local communities. If the prototype in the Bronx works, the idea can be replicated in communities across the country.”

Next year marks Fisher’s 30th year in the clothing business. She says she’s “in a letting-go phase. I give people my blessing. I feel like I work less, but I guess I’m still doing a lot in places I choose to put energy. I enjoy being on the periphery, gently holding something rather than being in the center of it all.”

She has also started to transfer ownership to her employees. The company has long shared at least 10% of its after-tax profits (and often much more) with all staff. In 2006 Fisher started an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that passed almost a third of the company to employees.

Some day, Fisher says, the plan may be used to turn over the entire company to its employees.

She also loves spending time with her children. She took both of them with her to China to visit factories and see how the workers there lived. Her 20 year-old daughter, Sasha, is a window into a younger world, and perhaps the next generation of loyal customers. “She goes through my closet and digs out old things and does new fun things with them I wouldn’t have thought of,” Fisher says.

As we leave the conference room, Fisher invites me to accompany her to a dinner with people from the meditation group that uses space in Irvington. As we’re walking out, there’s a lot of hubbub. It’s market week, when buyers come to look at the new line. Fisher has seen it for the first time that day. She gives it her blessing. As we pass by dozens of women looking at the new clothes, she quietly slides by on the periphery, almost unnoticed. When she is spotted, warm hellos are shouted. She stops briefly, smiles broadly, and moves on, not wanting to become the center of attention.

No entourage accompanies us as we leave the building. In the elevator, Fisher and a coworker share stories about their children. On the ride to the restaurant, her attention is on her companion, not her iPhone, even though she’s been out of touch for hours.

In the restaurant, someone mentions one of the latest fashion trends, something about T-shirts. Everyone looks to Fisher for comment. “I don’t know,” she says, setting off a shockwave of laughter. But it’s no surprise. Eileen Fisher has never been about the latest fad. Her fad is timelessness, and for many people, it couldn’t come at a better time.

This article was originally published on Mindful.org, a non-profit dedicated to inspiring, guiding, and connecting anyone who wants to explore mindfulness.

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  • Kay Fuller says:

    It sounds like Eileen is a bit of a mystic like myself; knowing that there is a spiritual connection with our sisters all over the world–regardless of race or spiritual beliefs. That means that we have a responsibility to be the best woman we can possibly be to inspire those women coming along behind us. To be our unique selves expressing who we are and not stand by and do nothing when others are being harmed. Sometimes we only get one chance and if we blow it we will regret it the rest of our life. We are powerful and remind others of their choices so we continue to push against our sense of limitations. The recycling bit that Eileen does is genius.

  • Jennifer H. says:

    What a wonderful article, highlighting a business model built on personal conviction, concern for the world and the people in it, and spreading a loving perspective by personal example. I applaud Eileen Fisher, the individual and the company and staff, for this commitment. It’s why I love Eileen Fisher and Green Eileen, in addition to the design aesthetic and quality. I also benefit from the LifeWork site by viewing videos and content relating to mindfulness, which I think is something many people should bring into their life as a philosophy. Thanks Eileen for having the courage to take and spread an unconventional approach in the business world which benefits all of us.

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