The queen of slow fashion on the art of a slow exit

“Being a boss is not my forte,” Eileen Fisher said as she shifted awkwardly in her seat in a posh meeting room inside the headquarters of a company she founded nearly 40 years ago.

That may seem surprising, given the degree to which the 72-year-old Fisher has proven herself 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 built a fashion empire that offers modern women comfortable yet empowering designs in natural fabrics that simplify busy lives. In an industry where, by some measures, a truckload of clothing burns or is buried in a landfill every second, she was an early pioneer of environmentalism as a core brand value. She is the founder of a company that, in 2006, decided that instead of taking her company public or being acquired, she would transfer ownership to her employees.

But front and center has never been Fisher’s style. For most of his history, eileen fisherman (the brand) has rarely had a CEO, opting instead for “collaborative teams” of assorted shapes and sizes. It was only in the last 18 months or so that the company has had a single CEO, in the form of Eileen Fisher (the woman). She stepped forward to steady the ship after the mark, as she put it, “got a little lost.”

The queen of slow fashion on the art of a slow exit FISHER EXIT 5 FILE Ñ The Eileen Fisher store on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan on July 14, 2005. Fisher, who went from fashion industry outlier to godmother of a movement, is preparing to pass the torch. (John Marshall Mantel/The New York Times)

Now, the queen of slow fashion is ready to step down from that role (albeit slowly), part of what she described as a “responsible transition” away from the helm. This last step in taking a step back, she explained, would allow him to focus on formalizing her design philosophy so that the brand could eventually exist without her.

“Being a CEO has never really been part of my identity; It’s never been something I’m comfortable with,” Fisher said in a video chat. “I like to think of myself as a leader through the idea.” His trademark bob gleamed like a pearly helmet, bouncing off his black glasses as he spoke. She was wrapped in one of the elegant, airy fabrics in which she has made a name and a fortune, creating in the process what The New Yorker called a “cult of the interestingly simple.”

“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 on my own, anyway.”

just do less

After searching for more than a year, Fisher said she was delighted to have found a successor. In early September, Eileen Fisher’s new CEO will be Lisa Williams, Patagonia’s current chief product officer.

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On paper, at least, Williams seems like a good fit. Patagonia, which donates 1% of its sales to environmental Groups, is another atypical retailer, also with a visionary founder and Eileen Fisher-like ideals for how products should be made, used and, ideally, made and used again.

A decade before such efforts by many of its competitors, Fisher launched its Renew line in 2009, which sells secondhand garments, while the Waste No More initiative turns damaged garments into fabric. Patagonia was also a pioneer in adopting organic materials, has a long history of political activism, and once ran an ad telling people not to buy its products.

“The fashion industry is in a terrible conundrum, with too much stuff and rampant overproduction and overconsumption,” Fisher said. “How do we begin to make sense of it? How do we grow our brand without growing our carbon footprint? I found that Lisa and I were so in sync when it came to scratching the surface of these complex conversations.”

eileen fisherman The designer Eileen Fisher in the offices of her company in Manhattan. (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

Fisher noted that the two women were also fully aligned in not being guided solely by financial results. (Still, Eileen Fisher has been profitable for nearly two years since its inception, the company said, with sales of $241 million last year.) And few are as knowledgeable or as connected as Williams when it comes to the complex workings of the fashion supply chain, a murky, global ecosystem in which many brands have little or no knowledge of who makes their clothes.

“We both agree that one of the biggest ways we can be sustainable is to scale back,” Fisher said. “Just do less: buy less, consume less, produce less. That’s a really hard line to walk when you’re trying to run a business and measure your success by how much you sell. But I needed someone who was totally on board with that.”

Williams, a 20-year Patagonia veteran, said this week that she felt “familiarity and admiration” for the Eileen Fisher brand and its way of doing business.

“The unconventional leadership structure doesn’t make me nervous; In fact, I’m in my comfort zone when things seem unorthodox,” said Williams, who had never held a CEO role before. “I think the idea of ​​co-creation and collaboration can absolutely work in a company.”

“The last few years have been pretty tough for anyone in retail, let alone those trying to change the fashion paradigm,” added Williams. “And I have great admiration for all that Eileen and her team have done in the midst of that chaos to re-anchor the brand to its original values.”

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Part of getting things back on track involved removing some of the bolder colors and prints that had crept into the collections, instead re-emphasizing the hallmarks Fisher is known for. The latest clothes on her website come in a muted color palette of hues like ecru, cinnabar and rye. shapes, like kimono jackets and sleeveless tunics and cropped palazzo pants in soft cottons or Irish chiffons and linens are understated and designed to flatter.

The key now is to find a way to serve those looks to the next generation.

A longing for simplicity

As the “coastal granny” TikTok trend and the success of high-end luxury brands like Jil Sander and The Row suggest, minimalist capsules, clothing collections made up of interchangeable items, thereby maximizing the number of outfits that can be create, are having a renewed fashion moment. There seems to be a collective longing for simplicity, something that Fisher has been consistently offering since the mid-1980s, and her earliest designs were inspired by kimonos she saw on a trip to Kyoto, Japan.

A stereotype persists that the brand primarily caters to a middle-aged, upper-middle-class demographic looking for a particular air of quiet elegance. Fisher emphasized that this was no longer entirely true.

When she started in 1984, Fisher was a recent University of Illinois graduate. The second of seven children who grew up in Des Plaines, a suburb of Chicago, she had originally come to New York to become interior designer. (He had $350 in his bank account and he didn’t know how to sew.) But she did want to liberate women by giving them a formula.

The simpler something is, she thought, the more things it goes with, the longer you wear it and the longer it lasts in your wardrobe. It was an approach that she thought could also resonate with young women, who are aware that they can vote with their wallets if they believe in the way their clothes are made, even if that makes them more expensive.

“It’s hard to convince people to buy less with the promise that it will last longer, but I want them to see that they have a choice when they buy our pod system,” Fisher said, noting that he had found common ground between seniors and seniors. . younger shoppers in her favorite pieces (boxy tops are a big hit, she said). And it’s an approach that is influencing not just young buyers, but young designers as well.

“Eileen was one of the few industry leaders who made me feel like the success of my company was possible,” said Emily Bode, a menswear designer, who added that Fisher had been “incredibly inspiring” to her as she laid the groundwork. for your own brand.

“When I was going through growing pains with Bode, I visited Eileen and her team,” Bode said. “Their dedication to retail, slow growth, staying privately owned, and of course creating an unconventional but successful business model around reuse and sustainability has certainly shaped my strategy and accomplishments for me. business”.

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Looking back on previous interviews, it’s clear that Fisher has been struggling with how to separate himself from his brand for some time. She has spoken frequently over the years about how she felt like she no longer needed to be there; she has talked about the idea that the company had developed beyond her. And yet, here she is, still far from letting her go.

“Those quotes were true at the time,” he said. “But I think over time I realized that the idea of ​​simple clothing and design, and how we spend money here, hadn’t quite landed with the company the way I thought it had. I had to go back to the center and rearrange things so that people knew exactly how things should work. It’s an important part of my legacy and what I leave behind.”

not done with work

With Williams’ arrival imminent, Fisher faces the prospect of a little more time off. She doesn’t want to travel, she said, but prefers to spend more time doing kundalini yoga and meditation, playing mahjong with friends and learning how to cook good Japanese food after the recent retirement of her longtime chef. She also has two grown children, Emily and Zach, who she wants to spend more time with.

eileen fisherman Designer Eileen Fisher. (Source: Vicente Tullo)

But it’s clear Fisher isn’t done with the job. For one thing, outside of her office, she wants to continue to focus on education through her philanthropic organization, the Eileen Fisher Foundation. She has also been fantasizing about opening a design school.

And you want to make sure your employees — the 774 co-owners of your brand — are prepared for what comes next. Remaining a private company and giving their employees a piece of the business has been a big part of their success.

“I hope that what we’ve been building here in Irvington is an identifiable concept, that 30 years from now, the prototype of what we’re building is what other people might try to build as well,” 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 haven’t been a conventional CEO,” she said with a small smile. “But then again, I guess I was never really a mainstream fashion designer.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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