Eileen Fisher: Singular Vision, Constant Innovation

More than 30 years ago, Eileen Fisher used just $350 to launch an eponymous fashion line that has launched the careers—and confidence—of millions of American women. But the designer and social innovator is still hustling.

By Sarah J. Robbins October 8, 2015

Known for their quality and simplicity, Eileen Fisher’s fashion designs have evolved so seamlessly, they’ve stayed fresh—and wildly popular—for more than 30 years. Her early focus on the environment, seeking out organic materials long before doing so was cool, has now evolved into her bold, new Vision2020 campaign, which has a company-wide goal of 100 percent sustainability within the next five years. Fisher is also a pioneering social entrepreneur, with a grant program for women-owned businesses that is now heading into its thirteenth year, a girls’ leadership program, and more. But despite all of her successes, she is still most inspired, in the day-to-day, by the countless small opportunities that she and her team of 1,200 have to move the needle.

We recently spoke with her by phone, asking her how she stays true to her original vision amid the frenzied world of fashion and what is still on her to-do list—as a designer and a leader.

Eileen Fisher

The Trep Life documentary series has looked at the life of the entrepreneur in three parts: the Grind, the Hustle, and the Payoff to take an idea to the next level. Your grind, today, is no doubt quite different than it was when you were in the process of opening your first store in New York’s East Village. How are today’s pressures different than those in the beginning? How are they the same?

I think what I’m trying to do is the same in terms of the product—trying to stay true to the original vision of simple clothes that are easy, comfortable, good fabrics, all those kind of things. They’re made the same, but in many ways it’s more difficult today because it’s so complex. We have 1,200 people now compared to the early days, when it was just me and a few others. There are a lot more people to engage with and try to lead. Now, our world feels more complex—although in those days, I had no idea what I was doing, so it felt complex back then too.

The digital world is so different now too, so navigating a completely different landscape is something else that we’re still working on: Trying to understand the Web, and moving from making a product and typing beautiful ads, to actually showing what that means in the digital, 3D, constantly moving world. That’s something that we’re trying to get our arms around.

There’s also the issue of workers, given the scale and size of company that we are. We have 10,000 first-tier workers in our factories that we have longstanding relationships with—and that’s only the first tier. And the huge issues around the environment and sustainability: The fashion business is kind of cracking at the seams, I think; It’s become the second largest polluter in the world. It’s a massive problem, and we’re in the midst of it. I’m driven to do anything we can to change that.

Talking about sustainability, you have long used organic materials and non-toxic processes. How has social responsibility figured into your business over the years, and what are the issues that you feel are most important for your company to be addressing today?

From the beginning, I wanted to create clothes that were timeless—that would last and you wouldn’t throw away, and that didn’t buy into that planned obsolescence idea. I wanted to create simple things that worked, and lasted, and were made from good materials. In those days, I was under the impression that all natural fibers was sustainable because they would biodegrade and that’s a good thing. But over the years, we became more aware of what actually went into producing clothing. We visited the factories and understood more about the dye process.

Years ago—probably between fifteen and twenty years ago—we tried organic cotton, knowing that it would be better than conventional cotton. Maybe personally, I wasn’t as tuned into the vast difference, and as we tried to do things like that, we struggled. If I remember correctly, the prices were about thirty percent more, so when we first started to actually deepen our efforts, we hit some walls. There was a lot of customer resistance to the price. So over time, we hired a Director of Social Consciousness and then we hired a Sustainability Director and a Human Rights Director more recently.

We’ve been sort of behind the scenes, doing what I call “taking baby steps”—making our clothes more sustainable, paying more attention to the workers and bringing in programs to the factories to support the workers, things of that nature. We’ve been quiet about it: We knew it wasn’t good enough because every time we did something, we saw how much more there was to do. For example, making a point about certain things like the dye process, and then realizing well, that one is bluesign certified, but that one is not – what does that mean?

There are a lot of issues around how you do those kinds of things, and I was afraid actually, to be honest, to speak out about the things we were doing. It was partially that —and it was partially that I really hate the kind of halo effect of greenwashing, where a company does one good thing, or they make five organic cotton pieces, and are touted as being a very sustainable company. That really bothers me. For me, the efforts are pretty deep and wide within the company. Even though there are so many places where we would deem ourselves not good enough, we’re on a path every day that ultimately includes everything we touch.

We’ve decided it’s important to get the word out, so in the last couple years, we’ve begun to label our clothes with whether it’s certified dyed or whether it’s organic linen or wool made without chlorine. We are making a much more conscious effort to communicate about what is true and what we’re working on. Now we tell our story with Vision 2020 and talk about all of our goals, all of the massive work we’re doing, and also reporting on it’s imperfections. This is where we are and this is where we want to be—and we’re not there yet. But, like you said, we are in some ways leading the way. We are ahead of many others, and we can share that knowledge and lead by example and also invite others to teach us things we don’t know.

Eileen FisherYour designs are known for their elegant minimalism. In an industry where flash and fast changes are often prized, how do you manage to maintain a competitive advantage? Has doing so gotten easier, over the years, or more difficult?

Well, I think this is the lesson for all entrepreneurs: how you stay true and stay relevant. One of the things we do is we try to watch fashion, and we try to look at our clothing and where we’re headed, and we try to link it, up so to speak. In our archives of all the work that we’ve done, everything is related, but you change the way you put it together—you shift some proportions or you bring in a new fabric or layer a sheer piece over it or put the same pieces with another shape or a different texture of fabric. So we follow the trends around texture and fabric, to some extent, or color. We tap into that and at the same time stay true to the essence of the concept of simplicity and ease.

It’s a fine line that we walk all the time. In everything, there is monitoring of it’s new, but is it us? Is it true to us? There are things, for example, that I would have never put on a line a few years ago that have been pushed in, which actually ended up feeling like us. For example, prints and stripes: That was just a no-no with my line for so long. Before, we didn’t see how it would work in terms of timelessness. You know, working with different designers and finding ways in to actually bring in prints that were so true to us, they just feel like us. They’re not too loud, they’re part of our ethos. I rejected stripes flat-out 10 to 15 years ago, and today, I wear them. You can’t be totally rigid, and you have to sometimes try feel your way – some things go off, and then you pull them back. It’s kind of a daily effort.

While you lead your company, you have also cultivated leadership among your staff, at every level. How do you encourage entrepreneurship among your direct reports and on down the organization?

That’s a huge question. I go through different phases, where it feels like the line is sort of moving and on track and I sit back, and then it feels like sometimes it goes a little off and I step in a little. It’s a back and forth. Right now I’m more in a place of, like you’re saying, cultivating leadership: trying to create more of a structure that will hold the concept into the future. I think there are a lot of deep philosophies about what this is and what makes it right or not. But, it’s also about the people who are there and how to get the right people. I’m just thinking about where I am in my own place with this. I’m living in place I call “leaning in to let go” because at 65, I can’t be here forever. I have a lot of other passions.

Eileen FisherWhat are you hustling to make happen right now? What could go wrong?

We’re trying to use the company to make the world a better place. That sounds grand, but actually it’s a hustle: We do it every day. There are so many things that people are passionate about, from starting a local factory, worker happiness projects, sustainability, to all of the women’s initiatives we support: There’s our girls’ leadership program and a learning lab I’m trying to start. All these other things balance the business of making and selling clothes everyday. Making conscious choices about what we invest in and whether we put money over here or over there is really the hustle every day. That’s the difficult part: Keeping an eye on the business and what’s selling and what’s working—and why is it working, and why is it not working? It’s back to the first thing you were talking about: Being fresh but staying true.

We have to balance letting ourselves take some risks and make some mistakes. People always say “Oh my God, you must be such a risk taker.” But actually, I’m really not because I always think of everything in sort of baby steps. You can take a little risk but check it out; take another little risk, check it out. “Oh, that didn’t work, let’s come back over here.” So, you know, that’s the daily grind: Some days it does feel like a grind and some days it feels interesting and inspiring to try to make those kind of choices and try to be centered and present with all the many things that are going on and keep in touch with what’s important and with what matters today.

Thinking more big-picture, what is the biggest payoff of being an entrepreneur?

Well, my favorite thing is when people say things like, “These clothes have changed my life,” and “I feel so ‘me’ in these clothes, and I’m so comfortable.” I just love that. I also love hearing from people that this company has changed their lives, whether it’s feeling like they can pursue their passions or feeling like they are being treated fairly or that people noticed when their daughter was sick and they helped them out. There are a lot of ways we support each other. It’s all imperfect, but it’s what we try to do, to be that kind of learning, growing environment.

Then, of course, being able to actually use the business. Like sustainability: When we take another step, I always feel so proud. The work that we try to do supporting nonprofits or just watching some of the girls coming out of the girls program. How different they seem from the beginning to the end: They’re confident and they can speak on a video and feel empowered. Those kinds of things are very touching to me to see: The power our business can have to make a difference.

They’re all, in their own kinds of ways, changing the world. That is a grand idea for sure, but just thinking about that girl who’s now able to speak in public: Her world is forever changed.

Forever changed. To stand up to her boyfriend about something, or somebody at work; learning to treat someone more kindly or being aware of how they impact a team. That changes them, but it also changes their relationships at home. In many little ways, we can make change. That’s what keeps me motivated.

Sarah RobbinsSarah J. Robbins is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor and the co-author of Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman—90,000 Lives Changed. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Newsweek, Glamour, and Marie Claire, among other publications.

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