Why Eileen Fisher’s approach to sustainable fashion works

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 down. Her successor, Patagonia product director Lisa Williams, will start next week.

Fisher has lived through the dream scenario for 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.

It’s true that Fisher never reached the size of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein (his brand’s sales topped $500 million in the mid-2010s, and revenue totaled $241 million last year). But she can claim that she has made her mark in the fashion and culture industry. That’s true both for the clothes (she was creating minimalist capsule collections long before “elevated basics” and “coastal granny” 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. it became a buzzword in the industry.

In an interview, Williams said Eileen Fisher’s biggest opportunity lies in integrating her main line with her Renew business, which collects, repairs and resells used clothing (launched in 2009, the program is one of the first of its kind by a major fashion brand, but is currently sold through 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 and reasonable growth,” he said. “This has been a business that has done the right thing for the [brand] and for the consumer, and growth has been a natural byproduct of that. And I think that is the approach that we will continue to have.”

Being ahead of the curve is different from being fashionable

Eileen Fisher’s first and most important innovation was to take a concept that was seeping into luxury circles (the minimalist capsule wardrobes popularized by Japanese designers and Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces) and make it accessible to a broader group of people. . Today, brands of all price points tout her handpicked collections of elevated basics, but Fisher was there downstairs.

“The two things that anchor Eileen Fisher [the brand] they are good design and they are a force for good,” Fisher said in an email. “In the design space, I am, in many ways, doing what I have always done: focusing on refining and evolving our simple, timeless pieces in ways that ensure they work together as a system, to make life easier for our clients. … The desire to create beautiful clothes in a way that makes things better has been with me since I started this journey.”

That unflinching focus hasn’t exactly made her cool, even during periods when minimalism was driving the trends. But she helped build an enduring image around her; the “Eileen Fisher look,” almost transcends the fashion cycle (in a 2014 essay titled “I Cannot Lie: I Love Eileen Fisher,” The cutMolly Fischer of ‘s called it “the irresistible comfort of familiarity”). When the culture shifts in the brand’s direction, an endorsement from Lena Dunham at the height of her fame, or this year’s “Coastal Grandma” TikTok meme, the brand gains new acolytes.

It’s a strategy that has been adopted for decades by wave after wave of brands specializing in inconspicuous, “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 entrepreneurial approach, making a virtue of slow growth and sometimes decline.

“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 our customers’ wardrobes, being accountable and transparent about our successes and our struggles, and learning how to do more with less”, Fisher. he said she. “With a more useful and efficient business model, we can be more profitable without having to grow to be so.”

That’s the mantra of a brand that was an early adopter of sustainability with moves that now seem prescient. Eileen Fisher launched Renew in 2009, two years before The RealReal or Poshmark was founded and more than a decade before major brands began engaging in mass resale.

Fisher had the luxury of spending so much time on circularity before there was an obvious payoff with consumers, and weathering periods when sales were declining, largely because it hasn’t taken outside investment (the brand, profitable in all except a few years since its founding, is owned by the workers). This is perhaps why there are about 60 Eileen Fisher stores instead of 600, and why sales were over $500 million instead of $5 billion.

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

Nor does it seek to import Patagonia’s most strident environmental activism: Eileen Fisher Inc. won’t be filing lawsuits to protect federal lands any time soon (“the quiet leadership that Eileen and company have assumed 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, for example, by leading multi-brand efforts to adopt more responsible supply chain practices.

But for the most part, the brand is banking on the foundations built over nearly 40 years of steady, quiet effort to support growth, leaning on the places it’s earned in the popular psyche.

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

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Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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