Chief Inspiration Officer

Clothing designer Eileen Fisher’s ambition and compassion took her from rags to riches.



If Eileen Fisher had followed her mother’s wishes, she would be wearing loose, flowing clothes now—only they wouldn’t be loose, flowing clothes that she’d designed herself. “My mother wanted me to be a nun,” Fisher says, “but I didn’t get that ‘calling.’”Alas for her mom, Fisher was “called” to fashion instead.

As a result, she currently employs 846 men and women at 51 Eileen Fisher stores nationwide and offices in Irvington, Manhattan, and Secaucus, New Jersey. Her company expects its 2010 earnings to be $300 million.

“I used to never let a store open without approving it first," says Fisher, the 60-year-old founder, principal owner, and chief creative officer of Eileen Fisher, Inc. (EFI). "Now, I sometimes don’t even know where the stores are being opened.” She stopped designing and giving the thumbs up on garments about eight years ago. “I have a lot of faith that my staff is carrying through with what I want them to.”

Fisher flips through the resort catalogue of her spring 2011 line. “The clothes feel like those I designed in the very beginning," she says. "They’re timely and simple, retro yet updated.” And uniquely her own vision. “I suppose that, years ago, I was inspired by Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and a Japanese designer, but I don’t really watch any of them right now. I’m not all that connected in the fashion world.”
Fisher's customers love her clothes’ clean lines, simple shapes, soft fabrics, versatility, and function (they can be mixed, matched, and layered to create a number of outfits from just a few articles). In 2006, the brand expanded beyond clothes to include the Eileen Fisher Home by Garnet Hill Collection, which encompasses bedding, towels, pillows, rugs, and sleepwear.

The average EFI customer is hardly young—58 years old—but that age is decreasing slightly. When the economy tanked more than two years ago, EFI was already in the process of trying to bring in younger women. New ads skewing to women in their late thirties and forties hit the street in the fall of 2009. “We presented things in a more modern way,” Fisher says, “and the young people really liked it.” EFI’s slick website features photos and videos of women also in that age group. “In a way, it turned out to be a good thing for us,” Fisher says of the economic meltdown. “We had to push forward, try more new things, and stretch ourselves. Some fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds now wear my clothes. My seventeen-year-old daughter, Sasha, wears garments of mine almost every other day, mixing them with her jeans, or making an outfit with one of my short skirts and a top from another brand.” Sasha also raids her mother’s closet for scarves and dresses. “That’s proof that we’re reaching them.”

EFI, of course, doesn’t want to lose its primary consumers. “That’s what happens with fashion companies,” Fisher notes. “They take out the old designers, put in new designers, change their advertising, change their product, and lose their core customers. So what’s the point? You just replace one with another.”

According to Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of Tobe, a company of New York-based fashion-industry analysts and trend-forecasting consultants, reaching a younger demo is not imperative to EFI's growth or survival. “The Boomers are an incredibly powerful consumer group,” Moellering says. “They represent twenty-six percent of the U.S. population and control more than two-trillion dollars in spending power. This is a staggering statistic when you consider that Gen-X consumers control only one-hundred twenty-five billion in spending."

Besides, the return to minimalism, Moellering reports, was a dominant trend in the recent Spring 2011 designer collections shown in New York and Europe. Since simplicity is a core principle of EFI’s design aesthetic, its apparel should do well.

Eileen Fisher grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois, and enrolled at the University of Illinois. But after almost flunking out as a math major, she switched to home economics, a major that included studying interior design. After graduating, she spent the next few years toiling in a variety of jobs, one as a stager for the model rooms with the now-defunct Abraham & Straus and another as design assistant at Earl Everett Ferguson Architect, PLLC. Then, after five years as a graphic designer with a Japanese designer, she became a freelance interior and graphic designer. But the change put her, she says, “all over the place, tumbling around.” That’s when the idea to create her own line of clothes started to form.

Fisher had a paltry $350 in the bank on the day in 1984 that she committed to a booth at The Boutique Show, to display her clothes. Friends helped her find materials, a seamstress, a sewing factory, and a pattern maker. The end result? A tiny show with four garments in four colors. “Still, even though I sold to only eight stores, I knew I had enough passion.” Fisher’s second show, with eight garments, reaped $40,000 in orders. “I wasn’t that confident about myself, but I was confident about the designs.”

Today, Fisher is also confident in her employees—one reason behind EFI’s low turnover rate, which, in 2010, was about 4 percent in its wholesale/retail management area and 8.5 percent in the ranks of its retail and company stores. EFI encourages staff mobility among departments and increase their level of responsibilities based on their talents and passions.

One woman, who spent five years as Fisher’s executive assistant, told Fisher that she loved helping the creative services department and was therefore given time to work in that area. She thrived and expanded her position, where she was promoted to Director of Creative Services and more recently, to VP of Communications. “We work in a unique way,” Fisher says. “It’s really a learning environment, where people can find out who they are and what they love. They come in to do a specific job and they always end up creating their own place. It’s a community.” So then you build trust with people you know, Fisher adds. "You understand their gifts and their talents and they understand what they can contribute."And no one could resist the community's perks: annual $1,000 to $3,000 clothing allowances for full-time wholesale employees to spend on Fisher clothes at wholesale prices; a $1,000 “wellness benefit” for massages, gym memberships, horseback-riding, facials, pedicures, yoga classes, and running sneakers; and yearly education benefits— $1,000 for full-timers and $500 for part-timers. Here’s the topper: after 10 years with the company, an employee is given a service award—$7,500 for full-timers and prorated for part-timers—to use for a trip to anywhere.

Her customers also have good reason to stay devoted. “We try to figure out what people love.” Fisher does a bit of digging herself by visiting her shops, including the LAB Store in Irvington, which offers lower prices than her retail outlets and recycled pieces that are “gently worn” (vetted and professionally cleaned before hitting the selling floor). Seventy percent of EFI’s cotton is organic, meaning that no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are used to grow it. Her line of jeans is at least 98 percent cotton.

Fisher is an ardent supporter of girls’ and women’s issues. Her company is a founding sponsor of Girls Inc. Westchester, which is part of Girls Inc., a national nonprofit organization which helps girls realize their full potential. Why is investing in women’s issues so important? Because women support her company, she says, and thus she wants her company to support women.

The working conditions in Fisher’s overseas factories are also on her radar. Seventy percent of EFI clothes are made in China, and each work location complies with the conditions approved by the non-profit watchdog group Social Accountability International. EFI also supports Fair Trade items from Peru and India.

Her company’s success allows the soft-spoken fashion designer to sit back a bit at her Irvington home, from where she conducts some of her business. “I like to work here so it doesn’t feel like working,” she says. There’s a small office—with files, a computer, and a fax machine—on the second floor, but her boardroom, on the first floor, is far from traditional: it has a farmhouse table with eight comfy chairs, two large, white couches, and four wicker chairs. On one side, sliding doors lead to Fisher’s backyard, which includes a badminton net, an expanse of lush, green lawns, a small orchard, manicured gardens, and a killer view of the Hudson River. A door on anther side of the room leads to a pool, a hot tub, and a pool house.

Her house is 8,400 square feet on almost three acres. She shares it with Sasha, a high-schooler. She and her ex-husband discovered Irvington when he was looking for office space on the Hudson. In 1992, they relocated the corporate office into space that was a warehouse and factory. Fisher and her husband also moved themselves from TriBeCa to Irvington. And while she loves the county, Fisher doesn’t go out and about much. “I entertain here,” she says. Local friends include actress Jane Alexander and author Sylvia Nasar (A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash). She does frequent Red Hat on the River, a restaurant that’s a stone’s throw from the EFI offices.

No matter what Fisher does and where she goes, she’s always wearing EFI clothes. It’s the only brand she wears. She can’t remember wearing anything else. “It’s easier,” she says. Which is no big surprise, since easy is what Eileen Fisher and her company are all about.

Jenny Higgons has been writing for consumer magazines for more than 20 years. Known for her eclectic (if not questionable) fashion style, the Hastings-on-Hudson resident was tickled when Fisher complimented her on her black-and-white saddle shoes.