Eileen Fisher Meditates on What’s Next

“It’s funny. There’s all this change. All this cultural stuff,” Eileen Fisher says, “and I’m always interested in what’s timeless, or what *doesn’t *change.” She is speaking to me from her patio in Amagansett over Zoom, a week after she’s announced the hiring of a new C.E.O. for her namesake clothing business. I keep trying, and failing, to take her temperature on various cultural shifts—to ferret out any exceptions to the overwhelmingly neutral and timeworn principles that inform her world view. Fisher founded the brand, in 1984, and her clothes have been hailed (or dismissed) as: simple, tasteful, dignified, anonymous, elegant, comfortable, matronly, refined, smart. But the main tenet of Fisher’s design philosophy is timelessness—a stubborn and refreshing aversion to trends. The most whimsical thing Fisher owns is a pair of yellow shoes, she tells me. Her biggest sartorial experiment of late has been a little bucket hat that she wears to the beach sometimes.

And yet, as a business, the story of Eileen Fisher is one of predicting the times rather than transcending them. In a somewhat atypical move, Fisher decided to hire a head of social consciousness twenty-nine years ago, decades before corporate activism became fashionable. Always drawn to the comfort of natural fibres, she was concerned with the environmental impact of her clothing before sustainability became an inescapable buzzword. She launched a clothing trade-in program before resale and “upcycling” were the norms. She has always operated under a more collaborative, nonhierarchical corporate structure that certain Silicon Valley types now claim to aspire to. Aesthetically, Fisher has been prescient, too. Inspired by the architecture and simplicity of the kimono, she set out in the early eighties to make defiantly simple wardrobe basics that would stand the test of time. Today, “elevated basics” dominate fashion from top to bottom, from startup darlings such as Everlane to luxury brands such as the Row.

But, while the clothes that Fisher produces are simple, designing them is not. At seventy-two, Fisher is taking baby steps toward retirement, refocussing her energies on design work and stepping away from the more commercial side of the business. Recently, she announced she would hire a C.E.O. for the first time in the company’s history, appointing the Patagonia executive Lisa Williams. Fisher will spend some of her time insuring the legacy of the brand by teaching young designers at the company to carry on her custom of “undesigning,” as she calls it, or finding the simplest version of a garment that lies underneath all the fuss.

I have to imagine that, when the news broke that you were stepping down from your role and bringing in a new C.E.O., people thought you were announcing your retirement.

I’m not really going anywhere, but just doing more of what I love. It’s a little confusing . . . artists, designers . . . it’s not that you don’t get to retire, but you don’t exactly retire in the same way that others do. It’s in your soul. It’s a part of you.

How will your work change moving forward?

If I think about where I’m headed, I’m passionate about design, but I’m very passionate about the environment. I don’t know exactly what my role is going to be, or what my voice is going to stand for beyond the design and the idea of sustainability in the apparel industry. I don’t know, maybe I’ll just want to go to the beach.

Eileen Fisher is known for its nonhierarchical, unconventional corporate structure. What prompted the decision to bring in a C.E.O.?

I think COVID really shifted something for me in terms of really reorganizing the company. It definitely prompted questions of, Who am I? What am I trying to do? What matters? I have so much pleasure in the days I go in and spend with the designers. And then, other days, I’m doing the business parts—some of it I like, some of it was becoming too much. At my age, it feels like it would be nice to just do the parts I love.

The woman you ended up hiring is Lisa Williams of Patagonia, a company that shares a lot of DNA with Eileen Fisher. What was the hiring process like?

It was about making sure that we got someone who shared the values that we’ve worked hard on. We spent about a year. We hired a search group. It was a really deep process, and a lot of candidates. It’s a unique, collaborative kind of company. It’s not easy to just hire a C.E.O. from out there in the real world—the regular world, the corporate world. When I met Lisa, I felt that we were on the same page in the conversations we were having. Concern around overproduction and consumption. What does it mean, and how do you build a company that works and that is sustainable into the future? I also felt like she was a listener. That’s something I value so much.

Eileen Fisher is so often talked about as a “feminine” kind of company. You’ve always sold clothes to women. Was it important to hire a woman?

We didn’t rule out men, but it was important to me. I was hopeful that it would be a woman.

You said that sustainability is more and more important to you. Has that been a gradual evolution for you, or has there been one specific thing that shocked you into action?

Evolution. You sort of do something and it points you to more. I used to say, in the early days, “Just take baby steps and start.” And it just seems to have momentum. You start to see more. And that’s how I would encourage other companies. Just start, take some steps. I visited factories in China, and the water crisis really hit me. I came to understand that issue, and it was a big turning point. I’m trying to remember the first time I heard the phrase “regenerative agriculture.” It wasn’t all that long ago. To understand that it was possible to regenerate land and draw down carbon—that really moved me.

Obviously, words such as “sustainability” and even terms such as “upcycling” are losing their meaning because everyone uses them now. Is it especially challenging for you to communicate to your customers that your clothing actually is environmentally sustainable?

It’s a huge challenge to communicate, and it’s a challenge to stay true to what we say, and to really walk our talk. It’s not simple to say, “We took all these plastic bottles and made shoes!” There’s a lot to try to communicate to the customer: O.K., cellulose is good and regenerative. Rayon is good, but rayon is also untraceable.

There’s too much stuff in the world, so how do we make sense of creating a good and meaningful business, and, at the same time, reckon with overproduction? How do we make more of the good stuff and less of the wrong stuff? That’s one of the things I think a lot about. There’s just too much of the wrong stuff.

What have you learned from your own in-house resale program, Renew?

When we take clothes back, it’s very interesting to see how timeless our clothes really are and how they really do last, because of good-quality materials and simple shapes and how people are willing to buy them the second go-round. But we also learn things about the design, and what is actually recyclable and what breaks down, where the problems are. Out of that came the Third Life program, our felting initiative, and the upcycling. One thing moves you to the next.

Who’s buying Eileen Fisher clothing these days?

I don’t think it’s changing too much. The middle-aged or older customer is our core customer. We are trying to figure out how to speak better to the next-gen customer. With COVID, we had started a big marketing project, but we had to put a lot of expenses on hold. We were tending to our core customers. But now I think it’s time to ask again, How do we spread our wings a little and reach out once more, in a broader way?

You’ve said you struggled during the pandemic, but did you find in any way that customers were drawn to Eileen Fisher’s clothes because of how simple and comfortable they are?

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