“Being a boss is not my forte,” says Eileen Fisher, awkwardly moving from a sleek boardroom inside the headquarters of the company she started herself some 40 years ago.
At 72, this may seem surprising given that Fischer has maintained leadership positions in an often brutal industry defined by constant change.
After all, she’s the designer who built a fashion empire, offering modern women comfortable yet empowering designs in natural materials that simplify their busy lives. In some way, in an industry where a truckload of her clothing is being burned or buried in landfills every second, she was an early pioneer of environmentalism as a core her brand value. She is the founder of the company, and in 2006 she decided to transfer ownership to her employees rather than take the business public or buy it.
But the front and center have never been in Mr. Fisher’s style. For most of its history, Eileen Fisher (Brand) rarely had a CEO, instead opting for a “collaborative team” of various shapes and sizes. Only 18 months ago, the company had a single CEO. She stepped up to stabilize her ship after Brand.
Now the slow fashion queen is ready (albeit slowly) to relinquish that role. Ultimately, she explained, the brand could exist without her.
“Being CEO was never part of my identity. It wasn’t comfortable for me,” Fisher said. “I like to think I’m leading an idea.” Her signature bob glowed like a pearly helmet, and she crashed into black glasses as she spoke. . She wrapped herself in one of her elegant, spacious knits and made a name for herself and her fortune in the process of creating what New Yorkers called an “interesting plains cult.”
“I have a vision of how this company should move forward, but I know I’m not the one to execute it.
just do less
Fisher said he was happy to find a successor after searching for more than a year. As of early September, Eileen Fisher’s new CEO will be Lisa Williams, currently Patagonia’s chief product officer.
On paper, at least, Williams seems like a good fit. Patagonia, who donates 1% of his sales to environmental groups, is also a visionary founder who, like Fisher, tells Eileen how his products are made, worn, and idealized. I have an ideal that should be manufactured and worn again.
A decade ahead of many of her competitors, Fischer launched her Renew line to sell used clothing in 2009. Meanwhile, the Waste No More initiative turns damaged clothing into fabric. Patagonia was also an early adopter of organic materials and has a long history of political activism, once running ads urging people not to buy their products.
“The fashion industry faces a terrible challenge: too much stuff, overproduction and overconsumption,” Fisher said. “How can we start to understand that? How can we grow our brand without increasing our carbon footprint? I found that it was synced with
Fisher said the two women are also perfectly matched in not being driven by purely financial results. (Just like Eileen Fisher has been profitable for all but two years since its inception, with her $241 million in sales last year.) are abundant, and few are connected. It’s a global, dark ecosystem where many brands have little or no idea who makes their clothes.
“We agree that one of the most important ways to be sustainable is to cut back,” Fisher said. “Just do less. Buy less, consume less, produce less. But I needed someone who was totally on board with it.”
Williams, a 20-year Patagonia veteran, said in a phone interview this week that he feels “affection and admiration” for the Eileen Fisher brand and the way it does business.
“The unconventional leadership structure there doesn’t make me nervous. I’m actually in my comfort zone when things look unorthodox,” Williams said. I think the idea of collaborating with will definitely work for the company.”
“The last few years have been very difficult for everyone in retail, let alone anyone trying to change the fashion paradigm,” Williams continued. “And I have huge admiration for all that Eileen and her team have done in that chaos to reestablish the brand to its original values.”
To get things back on track, she had to cut out some of the bold colors and prints that had begun creeping into her collection, and instead re-emphasize the traits for which Ms. Fisher is known. The latest clothing on offer is a palette of muted shades such as ecru, cinnabar and rye. Forms such as her kimono jackets, her sleeveless tunics, soft cotton and gauze, her linen cropped palazzo her Irish trousers, are designed to be simple and flattering. The key now is finding a way to bring these looks to the next generation.
“I was never really a conventional fashion designer.”
As suggested by the “coastal granny” TikTok trend and the success of high-end luxury brands like Jil Sander and Lowe, minimalist capsules—clothing collections made up of interchangeable items and of clothes you can create. Maximize numbers — is the new fashion moment. Since the mid-1980s, Fisher has steadily pursued simplicity. Her first design was inspired by a kimono she saw on her trip to Kyoto.
Fisher had just graduated from the University of Illinois when he joined the company in 1984. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, her second of seven siblings, and originally came to New York to become her designer of interiors. (She had her $350 in the bank account, and she didn’t know how to sew either.) But she wanted to free her woman by giving her prescriptions.
In her view, the simpler something is, the more things it goes with, and the longer you wear it, the longer it lasts in your wardrobe. The approach she felt could resonate with young women today, she felt.
“It’s hard to convince people to buy less with the promise of longevity, but we want them to understand that they have a choice when they buy our capsule system,” Fisher said. rice field. And young shoppers are wearing their favorite clothes (boxy tops are a runaway hit, she said).
“Irene was one of the few industry leaders who made me feel that my company’s success was possible,” said menswear designer Emily Bourdet. The cornerstone of her own brand.
“I visited Irene and her team when I was struggling with growing pains with Bode,” Bode said. “Her dedication to retail, slow growth, remaining privately owned, and of course creating an unconventional but successful business model around reuse and sustainability is without a doubt my passion. has shaped the strategy and results of our business.”
Looking back at past interviews, it’s clear that Mr. Fisher has been working on ways to separate himself from his brand for some time. Over the years, she has often spoken about how she felt as if she no longer needed to be there. She spoke of her thoughts that her company has evolved beyond her. Even so, she’s still far from letting go.
“Those quotes were true in that moment,” she said. I had to go back to the core and reorganize things so people could understand exactly how things should work It’s an important part of my legacy and what I leave behind.”
With Williams’ arrival imminent, Fisher faces the prospect of a little more free time. He doesn’t like to travel, but instead prefers to spend time doing Kundalini yoga and meditation, playing mahjong with friends, and learning how to make delicious Japanese food after his longtime chef recently retired. She also has her two adult children, Emily and Zach, who she wants to spend more time with.
But it’s clear that Mr. Fischer’s work isn’t done. For one thing, outside of her office, she wants to continue to focus on her education through her charity, the Irene Fisher Foundation. She also dreams of starting a design school.
And she wants to make sure her employees—all of her brand’s 774 co-owners—are prepared for what’s coming next. Both remaining privately held and giving her employees a piece of the business have been a big part of her success.
“I hope that what we’ve been building here in Irvington is a concept that resonates with us, that in 30 years the prototype we’re building will be something other people will try and build. ,” Fisher said, referring to the town. On the Hudson River where she lives and works.
“I don’t do trends. I don’t do runway shows. I wasn’t a conventional CEO,” she said with a small smile. “But again, I don’t think I was really a conventional fashion designer either.”