“Being a boss is not my forte,” said Eileen Fisher as she shifted awkwardly in her seat in a sleek meeting room inside the headquarters of a company she started nearly 40 years ago.
That may seem surprising, given the degree to which Fisher, 72, has proven herself as a leader with staying power in an often brutal industry defined by relentless change.
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After all, she is a designer who has built a fashion empire that offers modern women comfortable yet empowering designs in natural fabrics that make busy lives easier. In an industry where, every second, a truckload of clothes is incinerated or landfilled, he was an early pioneer of environmentalism as a core brand value. He is the founder of a company that decided in 2006 that instead of taking his business public or being acquired, he would transfer ownership to his employees.
But front and center was not Fisher’s style. For most of its history, Eileen Fisher (the brand) has rarely had a CEO, opting instead for “collaborative teams” of various shapes and sizes. It was only in the last 18 months or so that the company had a single CEO, in the form of Eileen Fisher (female). He stepped forward to steady the ship after the brand, as he said, “kind of lost its way.”
FILE Ñ The Eileen Fisher store on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan on July 14, 2005. Fisher, who became the godmother of a movement from the fashion industry, is getting ready to pass the torch. (John Marshall Mantle/The New York Times)
Now, the queen of slow fashion is ready to relinquish that role (albeit slowly), part of what she described as a “responsible transition.” This latest step back, he explained, will allow him to focus on formalizing his design philosophy so that the brand can eventually survive without him.
“Being a chief executive was not really part of my identity; It was not something I was comfortable with,” Fisher said in a video chat. “I like to think of myself as leading through ideas.” His signature bob shines like a pearl helmet, jumping against his black glasses when he speaks. He was cocooned in an elegant, elaborate weave upon which he built a name and fortune for himself, in the process creating what The New Yorker called a “charmingly plain cult.”
“I have a vision for how this company should move forward, but I know I’m not the person to execute it,” he added. “Not my own, anyway.”
Just do less
After searching for more than a year, Fisher said he was glad to have a successor. Beginning in September, Eileen Fisher will replace Lisa Williams, Patagonia’s current chief product officer, as the new CEO.
On paper, at least, Williams seems like a good fit. Patagonia, which donates 1% of its sales to environmental groups, is another atypical retailer, with a visionary founder and Eileen Fisher-like ideals of how products should be made, worn and — ideally — made and worn again.
A decade before many of its competitors attempted such, Fisher launched its Renew line in 2009, which sells secondhand clothing, while the Waste No More initiative turns damaged clothing 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 the product.
“The fashion industry is in dire straits, with too much stuff and massive overproduction and overconsumption,” Fisher said. “How do we begin to understand it? How do we grow our brand without increasing our carbon footprint? Lisa and I were so in sync while scratching the surface of this complex conversation.”
Designer Eileen Fisher at her company’s office in Manhattan. (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)
Fisher noted that the two women were also completely united about not being driven purely by financial results. (Similarly, Eileen Fisher has been profitable in all but two years since its inception, the company said, with sales of $241 million last year.) And few are as knowledgeable or connected as Williams when it comes to its complexities. The fashion supply chain, a global and murky ecosystem where many brands have little or no knowledge of who makes their clothes.
“We both agree that one of the most important ways we can be sustainable is to reduce,” Fisher said. “Just do less: buy less, eat less, produce less. It’s a really tough line to walk when you’re trying to run a business and you’re measuring your success by how much you’re selling. But I needed someone who was totally on board with it.”
A 20-year Patagonia veteran, Williams said this week that he felt “familiarity and admiration” for the Eileen Fisher brand and its way of doing business.
“The unconventional leadership structure there doesn’t make me nervous; I’m actually in my comfort zone when things look unconventional,” says Williams, who has never held a CEO role before. “I think the idea of co-creation and collaboration can absolutely work in a company.”
“The past few years have been pretty tough for anyone in retail, let alone those trying to change the fashion paradigm,” Williams added. “And I have enormous admiration for all that Eileen and her team have done through the chaos to bring the brand back to its original values.”
Part of getting things back on track involved cutting out some of the bold colors and prints that had crept into the collection, instead re-emphasizing Fisher’s familiar hallmarks. The latest clothes on her website come in a muted color palette of shades like ecru, cinnabar and rye. Shapes like kimono jackets and sleeveless tunics and cropped palazzo pants in soft cotton or gauze and Irish linens are uncomplicated and designed to flatter.
The key now is to find ways to serve up those looks to the next generation.
A craving for simplicity
As the “beach grandma” TikTok trend and the success of high-end luxury labels like Jil Sander and The Row suggest, minimalist capsules — clothing collections made up of interchangeable items, thus maximizing the number of outfits that can be made — are new fashion moments. There seems to be a collective desire for simplicity — Fischer has been offering it consistently since the mid-1980s, and his first designs were inspired by the kimono he saw on a trip to Kyoto, Japan.
A stereotype remains that the brand caters mainly to a middle-aged, upper-middle-class demographic seeking a certain air of edgy elegance. Fisher insists that this is no longer entirely true.
When he started in 1984, Fisher was a recent graduate of the University of Illinois. The second of seven children raised in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, she originally came to New York to become an interior designer. (She had $350 in her bank account and didn’t know how to sew.) But she wanted to free the women with a formula.
Something simple, his thinking goes, is that the more stuff it goes with, the more you wear it and the longer it stays in your wardrobe. It’s an approach she felt might also resonate with young women, who remember that they can vote with their wallets if they believe in the way their clothes are made, even if it makes them more expensive.
“It’s hard to convince people to buy less on the promise that it will last longer, but I want them to see that they have a choice when they buy into our capsule system,” Fisher said, noting that he found common ground among seniors and seniors, noting that younger buyers prefer them. on choice accessories (boxy tops are a runaway hit, she says). And it’s an approach that’s influencing not only young shoppers, but young designers as well.
“Eileen was one of the few industry leaders who made me feel like my company’s success was possible,” said Emily Bode, a menswear designer, who added that Fisher was “incredibly inspirational” to her as she laid the foundation for her own brand. .
“When I was going through growing pains with Bode, I visited with Eileen and her team,” Bode said. “His dedication to retail, slow growth, being privately owned and of course creating an unconventional but successful business model around reuse and sustainability has undoubtedly shaped my strategy and achievements for my business.”
Looking back at past interviews, it’s clear that Fisher has been wrestling with how to distance herself from her brand for some time. He spoke frequently over the years about how he felt as if he no longer needed to be there; He talks about the idea that the company has grown out of him. And yet, here he is, still some way from letting go.
“These quotes were true in their moment,” he said. “But I think, over time, I realized that the general idea of clothing and design and how we spend money here, didn’t quite come across in the company the way I thought it would. I had to go back to the center and reorganize things so that people knew how things should work. It’s an important part of my legacy and what I’m leaving behind.”
Not finished with work
With the impending arrival of Williams, Fisher faces the prospect of having a bit more free time. He doesn’t want to travel, he says, preferring instead to spend more time practicing Kundalini yoga and meditation, playing mahjong with friends and learning how to cook good Japanese food after the recent retirement of his longtime chef. He also has two grown children, Emily and Zach, with whom he would like to spend more time.
Designer Eileen Fisher. (Source: Vincent Tullow/The New York Times)
But it’s clear Fisher’s work isn’t done. For one thing, outside of the office, she wants to continue focusing on education through her philanthropic organization, the Eileen Fisher Foundation. He also envisions starting a design school.
And he wants to make sure his employees — all 774 part-owners of his brand — are ready for what comes next. Being a private company and giving its employees a share of the business is a big part of its success.
“I hope that what we’re building here in Irvington is a relatable idea, that in 30 years, what we’re building is a prototype that other people can try and build,” Fisher said, referring to New York City. on the Hudson River where he lives and works.
“I don’t do trends, I don’t do runway shows, I’m not a conventional CEO,” she said with a small smile. “But then again, I guess I wasn’t really a conventional fashion designer.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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