Eileen Fisher, the queen of slow fashion, charts a slow exit
“Being a boss is not my strength,” said Eileen Fisher, shifting awkwardly from a seat in a sleek boardroom inside the headquarters of a company she herself started there is almost 40 years old.
That might seem surprising, given the extent to which Ms. Fisher, 72, has proven herself as a leader with stamina in an often brutal industry defined by relentless change.
After all, she’s a designer who’s built a fashion empire providing modern women with comfortable yet empowering designs in natural fabrics that simplify busy lives. In an industry in which, by some metrics, a truckload of clothes is burned or buried in a landfill every second, she was an early pioneer of environmentalism as a core brand value. She is the founder of a company that, in 2006, decided that instead of taking her company public or being bought out, she would instead transfer ownership to her employees.
But center stage has never been Ms. Fisher’s style. For most of its history, Eileen Fisher (the brand) has rarely had a CEO, opting instead for “collaborative teams” of varying shapes and sizes. Only in the past 18 months or so has the company even had a single CEO, in the form of Eileen Fisher (the wife). She stepped in to stabilize the ship after the mark, as she put it, “kinda got lost”.
Now the slow fashion queen is ready to step down from that role (albeit slowly), part of what she described as a “responsible transition” away from the bar. This final stage of stepping back would allow her, she explained, to focus on formalizing her design philosophy so that the brand could eventually exist without it.
“Being a general manager was never really part of who I was – it was never something I felt comfortable with,” Ms. Fisher said. “I like to think I’m leading the idea.” Her signature bucket hat shone like a pearly helmet, bouncing against her dark glasses as she spoke. She was cocooned in one of the sleek, roomy knits on which she made a name and a fortune, creating what The New Yorker called a “cult of the interesting plain.”
“I have a vision for how this business should go forward, but I know I’m not the person to execute it,” she added. “Not alone, anyway.”
After more than a year of searching, Ms Fisher said she was delighted to have found a successor. In early September, Eileen Fisher’s new general manager will be Lisa Williams, the current chief product officer at Patagonia.
On paper, at least, Ms. Williams seems to fit. Patagonia, which donates 1% of its sales to environmental groups, is another atypical retailer, also with a visionary founder and similar ideals to Eileen Fisher about how products should be made, worn and, ideally, made and worn. again.
A decade ahead of many of her competitors, Ms Fisher launched her Renew line in 2009, which sells second-hand clothes, while the Waste No More initiative takes damaged clothes and turns them into fabric. Patagonia was also an early adopter of organic materials, has a long history of political activism, and once ran an ad telling people not to buy its products.
“The fashion industry is in a terrible conundrum, with too much going on and rampant overproduction and overconsumption,” Ms Fisher said. “How do we start making sense of it? How can we develop our brand without increasing our carbon footprint? I just discovered that Lisa and I were so in sync when it came to scratching the surface of these complex conversations.
Ms. Fisher noted that both women were also fully aligned on not being solely driven by financial results. (Similarly, Eileen Fisher has been profitable for almost two years since its inception, the company said, with sales of $241 million last year.) And few are as knowledgeable or connected as Ms. Williams when it comes to relates to complex functioning. of the fashion supply chain, a murky global ecosystem in which many brands have little or no knowledge of who makes their clothes.
“We both agree that one of the most important ways to be sustainable is to reduce,” Ms. Fisher said. “Do less: buy less, consume less, produce less. This is a very difficult line to cross when trying to run a business, and you measure your success by what you sell. But I needed someone who was totally okay with that.
A 20-year Patagonia veteran, Ms Williams said in a phone interview this week that she feels “a familiarity and admiration” for the Eileen Fisher brand and its way of doing business.
“The unconventional leadership structure doesn’t make me nervous – I’m actually in my comfort zone when things seem unorthodox,” said Ms. Williams, who has never held a chief executive role before. “I think the idea of co-creation and collaboration can absolutely work in a business.”
“The last few years have been tough enough for anyone in retail, let alone trying to change the fashion paradigm,” Ms Williams continued. “And I have tremendous admiration for everything Eileen and her team have done in the midst of this chaos to re-anchor the brand back to its original values.”
Part of getting back on track was removing some of the bolder colors and prints that had started to creep into the collections, instead of re-emphasizing the features Ms. Fisher is known for. The latest clothes on her website come in a palette of soft colors like ecru, cinnabar and rye. Shapes, like kimono jackets, sleeveless tunics and cropped palazzo pants in soft cotton or gauze and Irish linen, are simple and designed to flatter. The key now is to find a way to serve those looks to the next generation.
“I was never really a conventional fashion designer”
As the TikTok “coastal grandmother” trend and the success of high-end luxury brands like Jil Sander and the Row suggest, minimalist capsules – clothing collections made up of interchangeable elements, maximizing the number of outfits that can be be created – have a renewed fashion moment. There seems to be a collective need for simplicity – something Ms. Fisher has consistently offered since the mid-1980s and her early designs inspired by kimonos she saw on a trip to Kyoto.
When she started in 1984, Ms. Fisher was a recent graduate of the University of Illinois. The second of seven children who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, she had originally come to New York to become an interior designer. (She had $350 in her bank account and couldn’t sew.) But she wanted to free women by giving them a formula.
The simpler something, she thought, the more it goes with it, the longer you wear it, the longer it lasts in your wardrobe. It was an approach she said could also resonate with young women today, who are aware that they can vote with their wallets if they believe in the way their clothes are made, even though this makes them more expensive.
“It’s hard to convince people to buy less on a promise that it will last longer, but I want them to see they have a choice when they shop in our capsule system,” Ms. Fisher said, noting that she had found crossover between older products. and young shoppers on their favorite pieces (the square tops are a smash hit, she says). And it’s an approach that not only influences young buyers, but also young designers.
“Eileen was one of the few industry leaders who made me feel like the success of my business was possible,” said Emily Bode, a menswear designer, who added that Ms. Fisher had been ” incredibly inspiring” for her when she laid the groundwork for her own brand.
“When I was going through some growing pains with Bode, I visited Eileen and her team,” Ms Bode said. “His dedication to retail, slow growth, private ownership and of course creating an unconventional yet successful business model around reuse and sustainability has undeniably shaped my strategy and accomplishments for my business. .”
Looking back on past interviews, it’s clear that Ms. Fisher has been struggling to break away from her brand for some time. She has often spoken over the years of how she felt like she no longer needed to be there; she talked about the idea that the company had developed beyond her. And yet, here she is, still far from letting go.
“These quotes were true in their moments,” she said. “But I think over time I realized that the idea of simple clothing and design, and how we spend money here, hadn’t fully landed in the business like I I thought so. I had to go back to the center and rearrange things so that people knew exactly how things were supposed to work. It’s a big part of my legacy and what I’m leaving behind.
With the imminent arrival of Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Fisher faces the prospect of a little more free time. She doesn’t want to travel, she said, preferring to spend more time doing kundalini yoga and meditation, playing mahjong with friends and learning how to cook good Japanese food after the recent homecoming. retirement of its longtime leader. She also has two adult children, Sasha and Zach, who she wants to spend more time with.
But it’s clear that Ms. Fisher isn’t done with the job. For one thing, outside of the office, she wants to continue to focus on education through her philanthropic organization, the Eileen Fisher Foundation. She also fantasized about starting a design school.
And she wants to make sure her employees — all of her brand’s 774 co-owners — are ready for what’s next. Remaining a private company and giving its employees a share of the business have both been a big part of its success.
“I hope what we’ve built here in Irvington is a relatable concept, that 30 years from now the prototype of what we’re building is what other people might try to build as well,” Ms. Fisher said, making reference to the city. on the Hudson River where she lives and works.
“I don’t make trends. I don’t do parades. I haven’t been a conventional CEO,” she said with a small smile. “But then again, I guess I’ve never really been a conventional fashion designer either.”