Fashion

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 chief product officer Lisa Williams, starts next week.

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

It’s true that Fisher never quite reached the size of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein (her brand’s sales topped out close to $500 million in the mid-2010s, and revenue totalled $241 million last year). But she can claim to have left her mark on the fashion industry, and the culture. That’s true both for the clothes — she was creating minimalist capsule collections well before “elevated basics” and “coastal grandma” 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 an industry buzzword.

In an interview, Williams said Eileen Fisher’s biggest opportunity lies in integrating its main line with its Renew business, which collects, repairs and resells worn garments (launched in 2009, the programme is one of the first of its kind by a major fashion brand, but is currently sold 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 reasonable growth,” she 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’s the approach to it that we’ll 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 was percolating in luxury circles — minimalist capsule wardrobes made popular by Japanese designers and Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces — and make it accessible to a broader group of people. Today, brands at every price point tout their tightly curated collections of elevated basics, but Fisher was there on the ground floor.

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

That unwavering approach hasn’t made her cool exactly, even during periods when minimalism was driving trends. But it’s 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 Cut’s Molly Fischer termed 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 over the decades has been adopted by wave after wave of brands specialising in unflashy, “timeless” clothes, from The Row in the luxury space to contemporary labels such as 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, de-growth into a virtue.

“For me, growth isn’t about hitting a number. It comes from doing things the right way — making clothes that really function in people’s lives, that work together and simplify our customers’ closets, being responsible and transparent about our successes and our struggles, and learning how to do more with less,” Fisher said. “With a more purposeful and efficient business model, we can be more profitable without needing to grow to be profitable.”

That’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 was 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 payoff with consumers — and to weather periods where sales were in decline — in large part because she has not taken outside investment (the brand, profitable in all but a handful of years since its founding, is employee-owned). This is perhaps why there are about 60 Eileen Fisher stores instead of 600, and why sales topped out at $500 million instead of $5 billion.

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

She also isn’t looking to import Patagonia’s more strident environmental activism — Eileen Fisher Inc. won’t be filing lawsuits to protect federal lands anytime soon (“the quiet leadership that Eileen and the company have taken over the years has been very effective,” Williams said). The new CEO does see the brand and its founder playing a more assertive role behind the scenes, such as by leading multi-brand efforts to adopt more responsible supply-chain practices.

But for the most part, the brand is betting on foundations built over nearly 40 years of consistent and quiet effort to support growth, leaning into the places its 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 engineering into sustainability,” Williams said. “Making sure that our message and our nearly 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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