A recent post about a spring collection release from the Eileen Fisher Instagram page states “In 1984, Eileen started our line with four pieces: a box-top, a wide-leg crop pant, a shell and a vest. Her vision was to build a system of shapes that would work together seamlessly.”
From that small line of simple pieces, Eileen Fisher has not only built a multi-million dollar brand that is the godmother to a whole new generation of minimalist designers, but also a philosophy of life and business worth examining.
Here are some takeaways I’ve gleaned from the queen of the capsule wardrobe.
Start Where You Are With What You Have
In Eileen’s interview with Guy Raz on How I Built This, Eileen reveals that her business has been profitable from day one. It’s a fascinating testament to starting lean and an especially poignant interview for anyone that is planning on dropping tens of thousands on a product launch. She sums up the origins of Eileen Fisher collection more succinctly in another interview.
So how did you start the company?
It was some kind of bizarre synergy and synchronicity of events. I had $350 in my bank account when I decided to start the business. But this pattern maker came and helped me. I cut the pieces on the floor in my loft, carried it all out on the subway in garbage bags to a little factory in Queens. People were kind, people helped. Then at a boutique show, I sold $40,000 worth of clothes.
Collaboration at the highest levels is possible (and a perfectly sound business model)
In an NYT interview, we learn that Eileen Fisher is not the CEO of Eileen Fisher the brand because Eileen Fisher, the brand, does not have a CEO. Though she does have final say in all decisions, she instead sees herself as a collaborator. She explains:
[Eileen] As a family we were sort of fluid. We shared, we did things together. And then work was like, “Do this. And when you finish that, do this.” I hated it. I hated it. I had a definite authority problem.
[NYT] Is that why you’re your own boss now?
[Eileen] I wanted to create a place where people weren’t powering over people. Where people were kind, and people were together and shared.
Embrace The Resale Market
Eileen Fisher is committed to reducing the environmental impact of the brand by creating a circular product lifecycle. With Eileen Fisher Renew, the brand both creates new pieces from old garments and resells mended Eileen Fisher pieces directly through its website. It’s a refreshing approach, especially in the context of the recent Chanel lawsuit against luxury re-sale site The Real Real which is being called an effort to maintain the perception of exclusivity of the brand. And even while other brands are embracing the secondary market by using it to create hype around previous collections, Eileen Fisher Renew is simply trying to make the world a better place by giving the clothes a second life.
Give Back. Give Often.
From the four piece collection she sold in 1981 as an ingenue, Eileen Fisher has gone on to build the brand into quite the success by any metrics- there are 60 brick and mortar stores and annual sales revenues are at $400 million. And with that success, the company has committed to doing a lot of good. In 2017 grants totaling $125,000 were given to ten organizations and the company’s donations that same year amounted to $1.47 million.
Beyond the financial support, Eileen supports others by highlighting women-owned businesses on her site as well as hosting Women Together events promoting growth in all areas of life. The space where the events are held is also available for your event. Eileen Fisher is literally and figuratively creating space and conditions in the world for women-owned businesses to thrive.
It’s Not All About The Money
Eileen talked to INC.com about her decision to make the employees of Eileen Fisher- the people who loved and put their blood sweat and tears into Eileen Fisher the brand- owners of the label. When talking about the future of Eileen Fisher the brand after she is gone, there was an initial exploration of an IPO, but she decided against it after “looking out from the stage and seeing men in suits, no women wearing [her] clothes, no conversation about clothes- it was all about the numbers.” There was also consideration of selling to Liz Claiborne but after realizing that acquisition would also be merely a growth strategy without regard for the clothes themselves, it too was abandoned and instead, the new owners of Eileen Fisher were the people that had been growing it for years.
Directly from their 2018 Financial Report is the Eileen Fisher Philosophy on Life and Business
We make life the center of business.
We do business di erently. Purposefully. Consciously.
Pro t is important. It sustains us. But doing business purposefully takes more than pro t. It takes new ideas, new practices.
It means that we place people before profit.
That we seek to empower women through our business, because they are our business.
Ultimately, for me, the success of Eileen Fisher (both the woman and the company) is a model for building a business on intuition, solid partnerships and trust and growing it by leading with feminine energy, sharing knowledge and resources and being guided by core values above all else.
It is possible to do right by people and our planet and look good doing it.