2 Bridge Street
Our Mission. Purpose: To inspire women to celebrate who they are. Product: To create products that simplify life and nurture the spirit. To design clothes that work together, guided by these principles: Simplicity. Beauty. Comfort. Ease. Function. Versatility. To invite every woman to express her own style. To produce only what we love. Practice: To work as a reflection of how our clothing works. Simply, and in connection. Individual Growth and Well-Being. Collaboration and Teamwork. Joyful Atmosphere. Social Consciousness.
Eileen Fisher Inc. makes women's business and casual clothing, specializing in loose-fitting garments that change only slightly from year to year. Suitable for most body shapes, the company's easy-to-wear, easy-to-wash styles have been described as "sophisticated suburban." Comfortable knit pants and boxy jackets in neutral colors are considered easy to mix and match. Eileen Fisher's customer base consists of women aged 35 to 55.
Getting Started: 1984-92
Eileen Fisher grew up in a suburb of Chicago, creating outfits that her mother translated into patterns and sewed into clothes. She later recalled that when she found something she really liked, she would try to go back to buy the same thing, only to find that the store had replaced its merchandise with newer goods. Interviewed in 1994 by Julie Szabo for Working Woman, she said, "I felt angry about all the time and energy spent fussing. It isn't fair to me that men can wear a suit for five years without feeling out of fashion, but women--it seems like every year shapes change, colors change, fabrics change. God, it makes me crazy! Especially when you've found something that works for you."
Her attention to fashion waned, however, while attending the University of Illinois in the countercultural 1960s, a period in which college students all seemed to be wearing jeans. She received a degree in home economics and moved in 1973 to New York City, where she became an interior and graphics designer. Interviewed by Merri Rosenberg for the New York Times, she recalled, "Just dressing in the morning was overwhelming. Shopping would turn my stomach. I felt a longing for my [parochial] school uniform, a tweed jacket and textured skirt--even though I hated it because my uniform didn't make me feel special." In retrospect, she described the tale of her company as "a school uniform story. ... What we do is keep what's good about the school uniform, but not that limited."
Fisher's dormant interest in designing clothes was revived in 1984, when a friend asked her to take over a booth he had rented at the New York Fashion and Boutique Show. She bought a dozen yards of linen and got a friend to help pattern and sew four articles of clothing: a vest, boxy top, sleeveless blouse, and flowing crop pants. "If I had really known what it meant to start a business, I probably would have been too scared to go ahead," she recalled in a 1994 Forbes article. She received $3,000 worth of orders and advice to try another type of fabric instead. Opting for a softer knit material, she returned several months later with a new dress, jacket, skirt, and trousers and won another $40,000 in trade.
Eileen Fisher was now in business, with two part-time helpers. With no capital other than loans from friends, she had to confine production to actual orders. "I put the pieces together one day at a time, one step at a time," she later told Donna Fenn for Executive Female. "I still find that's an important way to do things." Her company doubled its first $50,000 in annual revenue during the second year, then doubled its revenue again in the third. Then, in 1987, its textile supplier delivered a knit fabric lighter in weight than in the past. Pressed for time and money, Eileen Fisher felt she had to accept this material. Deliveries of the revamped designs were late, and orders were canceled. But the experience ultimately proved a blessing, because Fisher decided it proved that her product line had to be diversified. Soon the company was winning an entirely new customer by producing the same basic styles in dressier fabrics such as silk and wool jersey.
Revenues reached $1.3 million in 1988. That year Eileen Fisher married David Zwiebel, a client who stocked her garments in his Ithaca, New York, boutique. He became vice-president and convinced her to open her own stores. By 1991 the company had more than $7 million in annual sales. The following year it owned three stores in Manhattan and one in Chicago and was also selling in numerous other retail stores in the United States. Eileen Fisher now was also receiving orders from department-store chains for the first time, among them Marshall Field, Saks, and Nordstrom. That year Fisher, who now had two children, moved her company from Manhattan to Irvington, New York, in suburban Westchester County.
Expanding Its Foothold: 1992-97
Eileen Fisher boosted its sales to about $25 million in 1993. The company continued to create simple, fluid separates in silk, linen, cotton, rayon, and various knits. Boxy tops, tunic tops, crop pants, long wrap skirts, and short skirts continued to be the staples, with styles varying only slightly from season to season. "We've found there's a customer out there who doesn't follow fashion in a traditional way," Eileen Fisher told WWD's Janet Ozzard. "She's a therapist, a teacher, an art director. She's busy, she doesn't have time to deal with fashion, yet she wants to look good and pulled together." For the first time her company had an advertising budget and marketing plans beyond the mailers it had been sending its customers.
The rapid expansion of Eileen Fisher's business resulted in its second setback. Because it had to double its production run with little margin for time, the company ordered $1 million worth of a wool tweed even before it made a garment. These items bombed in the marketplace, and as a result Eileen Fisher had to sell about 20 percent of its line at a loss. Chastened, Eileen Fisher's founder brought in key buyers early the next season to show them samples and get their opinions on what would sell. She also sent a staff member to the factory for preproduction sampling in order to reduce approval time on fabric quality. Sales passed $50 million in 1995, when about 750,000 units were shipped, about 40 percent from China and Hong Kong rather than domestic manufacturers. The company's number of stores rose to 12, and it opened boutiques in a few department stores, including Seibu in Tokyo. By the fall of 1996, it was operating 28 in-store shops.
Eileen Fisher moved its shipping and distribution center from Irvington to a larger, upgraded Secaucus, New Jersey, facility in 1996. The company also installed a CAD system to make style adjustments easier. Eileen Fisher's four designers were receiving regular input from the merchandising team with the purpose of assuring that customer favorites remained in the product line from season to season, even while new colors and fabrics were introduced. "The customer wants to feel it's the same," Fisher explained to Staci Bonner of Apparel Industry. "A wrap skirt might be offered in three new fabrics, but consistency has to be maintained. The fabric may drape differently or have a different weight, so you can't just use the same pattern--your specs have to be different." The CAD system made it easier for the company's designers to make subtle adjustments in a style when changing the fabric. It also made it easier to issue the petite line introduced in the fall of 1995 and the large-size line added in the fall of 1996.
Eileen Fisher Inc. was in many ways a model employer. When its founder, who promoted from within and knew everybody by name, decided to move to the suburbs, she selected a site convenient to public transportation. The company paid for the commute, and only a few staffers quit. Employees received 10 percent of the profits in the form of year-end cash bonuses. They were also provided with $4,000 ergonomic chairs. When a fabrics cutter developed carpal tunnel syndrome, the boss paid for physical therapy out of her own pocket because the firm's health-insurance plan did not cover it. Fisher also encouraged community involvement. Even some employees who continued to live in Manhattan joined the Irvington volunteer ambulance corps, interrupting work to go out on calls. The company donated 3 percent of its pretax profits to charitable organizations, many of them based in Westchester County. Fisher herself promoted the county as a desirable business location in television commercials. Eileen Fisher hired a manager of social accountability in 1998 to address human-rights issues in the factories of its suppliers, including the ten plants in south China. The company committed itself to meeting the guidelines developed by Social Accountability International for child labor, compensation, working hours, and health and safety. Fisher offered aid to her suppliers in meeting the SAI's certification standards.
Higher-Priced Goods: 1998-2003
During the fall of 1996 Eileen Fisher introduced a limited line of gift-oriented menswear in the form of a Merino wool polo shirt and a silk herringbone classic shirt. For the spring 1998 season it unveiled a higher-priced "bridge" line--the name given in the industry for goods priced just below designer level--featuring sweaters, sweater dresses, and jackets in doubleface wools from Italy, cashmeres, and silks, with a color emphasis on berry, burgundy, and purple. The items wholesaled from between $100 to $400 and were shipped to upper-end department stores and some of the company's own stores. At the same time Eileen Fisher introduced a more structured knitwear look for the standard line. "People are just beginning to understand the possibility of knitwear, the washability, the comfort of it all," she told Anne D'Innocenzio of WWD. "What's driving the trend is the relaxed dress code in the workplace. ... You can pack five knitwear pieces in a suitcase, and you don't have to worry about them wrinkling."
In an article published in the Toronto Star on the first day of 2002, Fisher offered some style tips for the women her company typically served. She said that for relaxing at-home wear she started with a pair of slim pants with stretch fibers, almost always in black. Then, she said, she usually added a turtleneck sweater on top. She recommended soft merino wool because it is not "itchy" and lets the skin breathe. "When you're trying on clothes," she recommended, "dance in the dressing room. Sit. Walk. Stretch. Make sure they move." She added that a sweater coat or duster, fleece pants, and the layered look successfully blend style and comfort and can conceal a few extra pounds gained during the year-end holidays. In this respect she recommended Lycra as "our friend during the holidays because it's forgiving. It's not too tight, it adjusts to your shape and it requires little maintenance." She also recommended well-concealed elastic waistbands. However, she warned readers not to wear any of these styles too big. "Baggy will make you look heavier," she said. "A good option is a thick-gauge ribbed turtleneck because its clings enough."
Eileen Fisher's expansion raised 1998 sales volume to about $100 million. Some $77 million came from sales to about 360 department stores and about 600 specialty stores. The retail division, which was operating 15 stores, accounted for the remainder. About a quarter of sales came from petite and large sizes. For the fall of 1999 Eileen Fisher moved its entire production into the higher-priced bridge line, which was wholesaling at between $38 to $188 as opposed to between $20 and $78 for the signature, or contemporary, collection. The new bridge collection featured textured sweaters, structured mandarin jackets, and Italian wool jackets, with about 40 percent in knitwear. As always, the clothes featured simple shapes such as kimono jackets, sleeveless shells, loose tunics, elastic-waist skirts, drawstring pants, and empire-waist sun dresses. Fabrics included Irish linen, silk crepe, and velvets.
Eileen Fisher's sales increased 11 percent in 2002, to $143 million. An advertising campaign for the spring of 2003 featured 15 women ranging in age from 24 to 72, including a choreographer and contemporary dancer; an obstetrician-gynecologist who had founded the African Women's Health Center; a charter school principal in New York City's borough of the Bronx; a civil rights lawyer; a producer of documentary films; a professor of architecture; and a professional boxing judge. The company now owned 26 Eileen Fisher stores and was planning to open two more in 2003: one in Manhattan's AOL Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, and the other in Walnut Creek, California. Fisher owned more than 80 percent of the company in 2000.
Principal Competitors: AnnTaylor Inc.; Donna Karan International Inc.; Jones Apparel Group Inc.; The Leslie Fay Company, Inc.; The Talbots, Inc.
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: