Why Eileen Fisher’s approach to sustainable fashion works

After 40 years at the brand she founded, Eileen Fisher announced earlier this week that she was stepping aside. Her successor, Patagonia product manager Lisa Williams, starts next week.

Fisher has lived the dream scenario of many designers – start your own brand, find success and cultural relevance without straying from your original vision, then exit gracefully, leaving the business in the hands of a successor who promises to build on that legacy .

True, Fisher never quite reached the size of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein (the brand’s sales peaked near $500 million in the mid-2010s, and revenue was $241 million last year). But she can claim to have left her mark on the fashion industry and culture. This applies both to the clothes – she created minimalist capsule collections well before “elevated basics” and “coastal granny” had entered the lexicon – and the brand’s devotion to a slow fashion business model that embraced the idea of ​​reuse and resale long before circularity became a buzzword in the industry.

In an interview, Williams said that Eileen Fisher’s biggest opportunity lies in integrating the main line with the Renew business, which collects, repairs and resells worn garments (launched in 2009, the program is one of the first of its kind by a major fashion brand, but sold currently via a separate website).

Getting sales back to pre-pandemic levels is of secondary importance.

“It’s not the highest priority, the highest priority is responsible growth and affordable growth,” she said. “This has been a business that has done the right thing [brand] and for the consumer, and growth has been a natural by-product of that. And I think that’s the approach to what we want to continue to have.”

Ahead of the curve is different than being trendy

Eileen Fisher’s earliest and most important innovation was to take a concept that permeated luxury circles—minimalist capsule wardrobes popularized by Japanese designers and Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces—and make it accessible to a wider group of people. Today, brands at all price points show their tightly curated collections of elevated basics, but Fisher was there on the ground floor.

“The two things that anchor Eileen Fisher [the brand] is good design and is a force for good,” Fisher said in an email. that they work together as a system, to make life easier for our customers… The desire to make beautiful clothes in a way that makes things better has been with me since I started this journey.”

That unflinching approach hasn’t exactly made her cool, even during periods when minimalism drove trends. But it has helped build a lasting image around her; The “Eileen Fisher look” almost transcends the fashion cycle (in a 2014 essay titled “I Cannot Lie: I Love Eileen Fisher” CutMolly Fischer called it “the irresistible comfort of familiarity.”) When the culture swings in the brand’s direction — a Lena Dunham endorsement at the height of her fame, or this year’s “Coastal Grandma” TikTok meme — the brand picks up new acolytes.

It’s a strategy that has been adopted over the decades by wave after wave of brands specializing in unflappable, “timeless” clothing, from The Row in the luxury space to contemporary brands like Nili Lotan and direct-to-consumer brands like Ayr .

Lead by example

The brand has taken a similar approach to business, turning slow growth, and at times decline, into a virtue.

“For me, growth is not about hitting a number. It comes from doing things the right way – making clothes that really work in people’s lives, that work together and simplify customers’ closets, being accountable and open about our successes and our struggles, and learning to do more with less,” Fisher so. “With a more targeted and efficient business model, we can become more profitable without having to grow to be profitable.”

It’s the mantra of a brand that was early to embrace sustainability with moves that now seem prescient. Eileen Fisher launched Renew in 2009, two years before The RealReal or Poshmark were founded and more than a decade before mainstream brands began entering resale en masse.

Fisher had the luxury of devoting so much time to circularity before there was an obvious win with consumers—and to periods of declining sales—in large part because she hasn’t taken outside investments (the brand, profitable in all but a handful of years since the foundation, is employee-owned). This is perhaps why there are about 60 Eileen Fisher stores instead of 600, and why sales peaked at $500 million instead of $5 billion.

Williams said there was no need to change that dynamic anytime soon.

Nor is she looking to import Patagonia’s more strident environmental activism — Eileen Fisher Inc. isn’t going to file a lawsuit to protect federal lands anytime soon (“the quiet leadership that Eileen and company have taken over the years has been very effective,” (Williams said).The new CEO sees the brand and its founder playing a more assertive role behind the scenes, such as leading multi-brand efforts to adopt more responsible supply chain practices.

But for the most part, the brand is betting on a foundation built over nearly 40 years of consistent and quiet efforts to support growth, leaning into the places it has earned in the popular psyche.

“We’re certainly in an environment where consumers themselves are rewarding … the brands that had an authentic position and have been rooted in this for a long time and are not reverse-evolving in sustainability,” Williams said. “Making sure that our message and our almost 40 years of history and doing this the right way is heard, I think growth comes as a result of that.”



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Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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