Episode 44

Eileen Fisher

Episode 44

Eileen Fisher on the Allure of Timeless Clothing

Interview by Andrew Zuckerman

For 37 years, Eileen Fisher has faithfully followed a particular vision: to create simple, timeless clothes for women that make it easy to get dressed. Soft-spoken, polite, and a self-described introvert, the 70-year-old Fisher is the unlikely CEO of an approximately $500 million fashion company that bears her name. The operation is owned by 42 percent of its largely female staff, and is praised for its longtime environmentalism and progressive business model. Headquartered in Irvington, New York, the brand embodies Fisher’s view of what a contemporary clothing business should be, and acts as her way of giving back to the world.

Though Fisher prioritized natural materials in her designs from the beginning, she didn’t fully understand how making clothes affects the planet until a 2012 trip to China, where she visited the company’s factories and saw the severity of the water crisis firsthand. Upon returning home, she created an internal “Sustainable Design Team,” composed of representatives from key departments, including supply-chain management and production, with the goal of minimizing their work’s environmental impact. 

Today, the brand uses organic cotton and linen almost exclusively, and between 2015 and 2018, it offset all of its carbon emissions when transporting garments between its factories and distribution center. Seventy-nine percent of its wool is responsibly sourced or recycled. The company’s initiative that buys and sells vintage Eileen Fisher pieces, called Renew, has collected more than a million and a half garments, and Waste No More, an in-house studio that uses a felting machine to transform leftover fabric into home decor, accessories, and art, nods toward Fisher’s goal of creating a circular production system. She’s constantly looking for ways to reduce the brand’s environmental footprint. “The whole industry has a very long way to go,” Fisher says of fashion’s contribution to global economic and climate crises. But solving the problem, she adds, is a “huge opportunity.” 

On this episode, Fisher describes her efforts to build a clothing business that serves women and the environment, talking with Andrew about collaboration as a preferred modus operandi, solving the fashion industry’s pollution problem, and the remarkable effects of staying true to one’s vision, and to oneself.


Fisher discusses how the pandemic has allowed her to think about her brand today in relation to its founding mission, and why the experience has given her a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

Fisher recalls growing up with six siblings in Des Plaines, Illinois, and working in restaurants to put herself through college. She also recounts moving to New York in the 1970s and traveling to Japan, where she was taken by the values of timelessness and simplicity in its culture.

Fisher talks about her initial vision for functional, no-fuss garments, and showing her first collection at New York’s 1986 International Fashion Boutique Show, where she had to overcome being tongue-tied in the face of buyers.

Fisher describes the process of expanding her brand and the reasoning behind its collaborative group of CEOs. She also details how she incorporates ideas from Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, a 2004 book co-authored by two MIT professors, into the workplace.

Fisher speaks about the importance of introducing her brand and its ethos to younger generations of women. She also explains why she offers an employee stock option plan, and its impact on her staff’s approach to work.

Fisher talks about a 2012 trip to China that opened her eyes to the water crisis, and how it led to her brand’s Waste No More and Renew initiatives. She also considers the opportunity that lay in resolving the fashion industry’s contribution to climate change.

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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Eileen. Thanks so much for joining us today.

EILEEN FISHER: My pleasure, Andrew. Nice to be here.

AZ: Before we get into all the things I want to talk about—about your life and career, and the way you’ve designed your life and career—where I want to start is: We’re coming up on a year since the pandemic began. We’ve all experienced these massive changes. And what I think I’m most curious about is how this period’s been for you personally.

EF: That’s an excellent question. It’s been intense. I would say the most intense period of my life—in some really good ways, and in some really, really difficult ways. Starting with the business, which is probably the wrong place to start, because I had the fortunate opportunity of spending the first six months with my daughter in my house after she’d moved out years ago. That was kind of a treat for me. Not as much for her, but for me. [Laughs] Anyway, the work was really intense. It started with all the stores [closing], all the department stores canceling orders. The business that I’d built for thirty-seven years was just, like, oh, my God, being destroyed almost in front of me. I was just kind of overwhelmed. 

I have this philosophy that there’s always something good that comes from something difficult, or there’s opportunity in the problem. So I just dove back in, right into the middle of the design work, the product. What were we doing? Why were we doing it? How had we gotten here? We were so big. We were almost a billion-dollar company. Not billion, half a billion. Close to half a billion.

AZ: What’s the difference?

EF: What’s the difference? Honesty, it’s crazy. I certainly learned that bigger is not better, that’s for sure. But let’s see, what else to say?

AZ: I mean, it must have been fascinating to be hit with a crisis, and also be cognizant of how, if you had made certain choices along the way, it would have been much harder to get through.

EF: Well, yes, maybe. And maybe other choices would have made it easier. I don’t know. What are you thinking of when you say that?

AZ: Just the idea of scale.

EF: Oh.

AZ: And being a public company, and a number of other structural issues.

EF: Oh, absolutely. You’re right. Not a public company. Thank God. Oh, my God. Yes.

AZ: You were actually able to make decisions.

EF: So you’re saying I made some right decisions. [Laughs]

AZ: That’s what I’m saying [Laughs].

EF: Why do I always remember the wrong decisions? What is that proclivity to that?

AZ: You do yoga, meditation, breath work, and have often spoken about the positives of therapy and self-reflection. Do you think that background, and that practice, prepared you for this, or allowed you to get through it easier?

EF: Definitely. Saved my life. Oh, I still meditate and do yoga every morning. Yeah. It’s great.

AZ: In terms of the brand, what’s changed?

EF: I think it’s really a real return. It’s like a restart. We’re returning to the real essence of what the brand is. What I think it was really intended to be. And I think, over the years, as it got bigger, it got more, more—more of something. It wasn’t all as true to what the heart and soul of the thing was intended to be. So I think of it as, we’re getting radically simple. Just radically simple. I keep thinking, We’re un-designing. We’re un-designing the company, un-designing the clothes. Just getting really simple.

AZ: Like a deconstruction. Getting all the fat off and all the barnacles that have developed over the years.

EF: Exactly.

AZ: But for some, it’s slowed down, and for others, it’s become hyper-productive, in terms of the team. In these fundamental resets, have you found that you’re actually more productive, and more clear, in certain ways?

EF: Definitely getting more clear. And yes, I think getting more productive. And more fun. The other day I was saying, “Oh, my God, I’m having fun. It’s so interesting.” This is just an example. We moved out of our showroom in New York City, and our four floors and our Fifth Avenue building. Just shut it all down and moved back to our home offices in Irvington, [New York], on the waterfront, which is not exactly where we started, but where I moved fairly soon after the early days of the business. It feels like coming home. 

Of course, like what you were talking about earlier, it’s my home and my work. I can walk to my office. It’s all there. The [Irvington] space had become very corporate. It was kind of our back office: all the financial pieces, accounting, all the back-office stuff was happening there. Now we’ve brought all the creative work there. So here we are, on the waterfront, doing photo shoots, designing clothes, and just having fun again in a really creative space.

AZ: And it’s all mixed up.

EF: Yeah. And it’s all mixed up. And it’s not just corporate-business stuff. In the city, the showroom was serving the department stores. Now, we’re thinking much more about these clothes and the customers. And we have a store there, too. We have this kind of full experience. It’s great.

AZ: Well, you founded the brand in 1984, which is, like you said, almost forty years ago.

EF: Wow. I didn’t think of it that way. I keep thinking it was thirty-five, but you’re right, it’s more than that.

AZ: Right. It’s almost forty. You had this idea of a sort of functional, sustainable approach. And we’re talking a bit about how that evolved, how that changed. Do you feel like you’re getting back [to where you were in the beginning] now, even closer? From the outside, people look at your brand and they go, “How many fashion brands have maintained this sort of core brand identity like you have?” From the outside, it doesn’t look like it got very—

EF: Too far off.

AZ: Robust. Yeah. It seems like it was pretty close. But I guess for you, personally, it must feel like you’re getting closer and closer to where you were.

EF: This is the same experience with my daughter, when I was saying my daughter was at home. It’s, like, this chance to do it more right. To get it more right. I feel like I was young when I started. Well, I was 33 when I started, so I wasn’t that young. But I was sort of naïve, I think, about what I was trying to do. It was coming through me in a certain way. I was just following my instinct, but I wasn’t as clear about the purpose of what I was trying to do, and why I was trying to do it, and what it meant, and when it was “off.” I let it go off here and there. Now I feel just the need to get it more true, get it more right.

AZ: Yeah. And I imagine you also have a renewed sense of energy moving forward with this reset.

EF: Yeah, exactly. I think you can feel the energy and the passion really coming back. I keep saying, “It feels like the life force is coming back into the center of it all.”

AZ: That’s a perfect segue, because I want to go way back to before you had a business, before you were a graphic designer, before everything. You grew up as one of seven children.

EF: Right. Six girls, one boy.

AZ: And you did everything together.

EF: [Laughs] Yeah.

AZ: Tell me about your childhood, what it was like, and where you were brought up.

EF: I grew up in the Midwest in a suburb of Chicago [called] Des Plaines. Near the airport. Big airplanes going over our house all the time. Tiny house. We lived in a house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and nine people. It was intense. Until I was about 16, 17, we moved to a little larger house with four bedrooms. Did it have four bedrooms? Yes. Right. Yeah. And my mother—how I got into the clothing business maybe—is that my mother sewed, and so….

AZ: Out of love, or necessity? Was she making your clothes?

EF: It was a combination. It was the one thing she sort of did seem to enjoy. She did make clothes, but it wasn’t exactly a necessity. She made us these simple little shift dresses, so that sort of inspired me in some ways. But also she’d grown up during the Depression, so she saved everything. Any piece of fabric that was bigger than about five or six inches, she cut into little squares and saved in this big chest, like a hope chest or something. It was kind of this respect for fabric and the value of, I don’t know, things.

AZ: Yeah. And simplicity.

EF: And simplicity. Well, the little dresses, I guess. The little dresses were pretty simple.

AZ: And you worked. You worked at Burger King and other restaurants when you were growing up. What did you take away from those experiences? 

EF: It was great to have my own money. I felt independent. It was strange, because I felt independent having my own money, but at the same time, I didn’t like the way people treated you. 

AZ: You didn’t want to be the help, but you liked the money.

EF: Right. I liked the money, but I didn’t want to be the hired help. [LaughsWhen I thought about creating my own business, I wanted it to be a place where people were more self-motivated. They weren’t told what to do in the same way, or lorded over. I wanted people to be empowered, and be included, and be a part of it.

AZ: Right. Which you actually created systems, and processes, and structure for. I want to get granular with that.

EF: We tried. [Laughs

AZ: It’s impressive. I mean, you have this largely women-staffed company.

EF: Yeah. Eighty percent, roughly.

AZ: That’s just extraordinary.

EF: Well, we make women’s clothes, so women are attracted to the brand because they like the clothes, and so then that sort of brings them in.

AZ: But, I mean, what a different kind of culture.

EF: Yes. A women’s kind of culture. Right. Yeah, that’s true.

AZ: Yeah. Which is a very different thing.

EF: Yeah. 

AZ: In contrast to say, companies in [Silicon] Valley, which have very few women.

EF: That’s right.

AZ: When I project, or dream about, what it might be like to be at Eileen Fisher, I think there’s a lot of care, there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, and there’s a lot of listening.

EF: Yeah. Listening. [Laughs]

AZ: Which is how it’s sustainable, ultimately, long term. I think, maybe, it may have something to do with how you got through this period.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: A certain calmness about the whole thing.

EF: Yeah. Well, yes. Listening, for sure. Calmness. I would like to say that’s true. [Laughs]

AZ: Well, it was a little frantic, but—

EF: We definitely had our frantic moments, but I think you’re right. I’m probably, compared to others, maybe somewhat different in that we certainly do work together, work hard on our collaborations, and on listening, and trying to treat people with care and all of that.

AZ: Because ideas are precious and they fall apart quickly.

EF: Right.

AZ: So capturing them requires a certain something, I imagine.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: I read when you decided to go to college, it was revealed that your brother would be first in line for tuition, as he would need an education to support his family someday.

EF: That’s right. “Girls don’t need to go to college,” is what I was told.

AZ: Right. But you found another way. Tell me a bit about that.

EF: Right. Well, I worked my way through. I just decided I was going to do it. And so I worked as a waitress, saved the money.

AZ: What did you study while you were in school?

EF: I studied home ec[onomics]. Interior design.

AZ: Did you think you wanted to be an interior designer at the time?

EF: I did. First I wanted to be a math major, because I liked solving problems. And I actually think, today, that’s what I’m trying to do still. My line, the clothes—it’s sort of a problem-solving approach. Simple pieces, and the way they go together. They’re sort of solving women’s problems. Something like that. There’s something about math in it.

AZ: Well, there’s a kind of kit of parts to the brand.

EF: Yeah. Exactly.

AZ: I mean, that’s the idea.

EF: That’s right.

AZ: So you had these jobs in school, but eventually you got to New York, in 1973. What brought you to New York, and what was it like at that time?

EF: Well, I always imagined coming to New York, but I actually came because my roommate’s boyfriend lived in New York, or something like that. [Laughs] So she was going to New York, and she wanted me to go with her, and that’s how we ended up here. Actually, we came for the summer, and worked out in the Hamptons, which was fun. And then, I just was very inspired by New York. The creativity, the … I don’t know, energy.

AZ: Were you downtown? Were you trying to permeate the arts culture?

EF: Not consciously, no. I lived on the Upper West Side. I worked on 57th [Street] and 5th [Avenue] for an architect and designer. Then I ended up meeting this Japanese designer. I worked for him for a while, and then we became partners, and ended up getting involved in graphic design and going to Japan.

AZ: What was it like to go to Japan at that time?

EF: I thought Japan was amazing. I was just blown away by Japan. Just … I don’t know. The beauty, the simplicity. The aesthetic was so powerful. The naturalness of everything. The wabi-sabi kind of stuff—I just like that. Kyoto, it blew my mind. And the calmness, that sort of peacefulness. Not Tokyo. [Laughs] But once you get inside a restaurant, even in Tokyo, there’s a kind of quietness, or something.

AZ: And an understanding of proportions, and scale. Sometimes people come back from Japan, and they talk about how little everything is. Things aren’t actually little. They’re just proportioned differently.

EF: Yeah. That’s right.

AZ: How much did you think about that and how much was that affecting your design work?

EF: Oh, God. I was fascinated by everything aesthetically about Japan. Everything from the dishes, to the wood, to the little benches out in front of the restaurants, to the clothes. The kimonos—that really, really inspired me. Just that one shape for all those years. A thousand years or something in Japan, only that one shape. The idea of timelessness, and that kind of simplicity, really intrigued me. How does that work? And that it really looked so different, of course, with all the patterns and everything.

AZ: Yeah, but form.

EF: Shaped form.

AZ: In Kyoto, you could just go into all those shops and look at three-hundred-year-old kimonos, and—

EF: It was amazing, watching people on the streets. You saw more of it then. I’ve been back to Japan lately, and, not as much [now]. 

AZ: How did you decide to actually start a brand?

EF: Well, let’s see….

AZ: You’re working as a designer.

EF: Yeah. I was doing graphic design and some interiors, too. Kind of a hodgepodge of things. Freelancing. Trying to survive in New York. I was living in Tribeca at the time, in a little loft. And somehow I did. I guess because Ray, the Japanese guy, lived in SoHo, so I ended up in SoHo, and that’s how I got involved with designers and artists down there

But I ended up in Tribeca, and I’d had this idea since…. I think it started when I was in Japan. You know, I’d worn a uniform for twelve years, when I was young, and this idea of getting dressed and sort of … I hated the uniform when I wore it, but it was so simple. You get up and you’re dressed in five minutes. No fuss, no muss. I wanted that. I wanted clothes to have that kind of ease and a “no fuss” kind of thing. For women, and for me, trying to be a designer and present like a designer, it was hard to get dressed and hard to find simple clothes. Really hard. And hard to put things together. So I got inspired by this idea, and pictures just started coming to me.

At first, it was sort of based on the kimono. And then these simple shapes, like box tops—little, simple kind of square tops—and flood pants, little, simple wide-leg pants. Everything just simple. It’s just an almost modular, mix-and-match idea.

AZ: And this is at a time when fashion was becoming

EF: Wild. Like, big.

AZ: Four different ideas a year.

EF: Big shoulder pads, and, I don’t even know, it was kind of madness.

AZ: And about sort of tailoring.

EF: Oh, right. Right.

AZ: So it wasn’t about functional use in a way that could work for many different kinds of women.

EF: No.

AZ: Were you thinking about your collections as a response to the moment, or were you thinking about them as how long could they last?

EF: Well, yeah, much more that. I think I was more responding to an inner call, like, “I want this.” Like, “I can’t deal with this. Give me something simple.” I just want something that I can wear easily, that works for me, and functions. That has to do with, of course, the fabrics, and the quality of the fabrics, and how they work, and how they perform, and all those kinds of things.

AZ: But you’d never made clothing?

EF: No. No. No. [Laughs]

AZ: So how does this start?

EF: Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not really a clothing designer. [Laughs]

AZ: [Laughs] I won’t tell anyone. So how did it actually start? What do you do? You just go buy some fabric?

EF: The business question, yeah. How did I do it? Right. Right. Fabric was the hardest. And people—finding some people to help me; I had artist friends—I was just telling everyone this story: “I’m seeing these pictures. I have this idea of the clothing that I want to make, that I want to design.”

I had a friend who had a friend—she was a patternmaker. She worked all day in a clothing company, and she agreed to come and help me a few nights a week to make those first few designs. She was great. Because I had no money. She said, “Well, I trust you. You’re friends with my friend, and so I’ll just think of it as money in the bank. You’ll pay me when you can afford to.” Do people do that today? She came and helped me make the first patterns and the first four garments. I ended up at the [International Fashion] Boutique Show, and I hung up my first four garments in three different colors, so it looked like I had a line. I had a logo, because I knew how to do graphic design, sort of.

AZ: You understood how to package.

EF: I guess I did.

AZ: You understood what businesses needed.

EF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I worked in graphic design, we did design logos and packages and corporate identities—that’s what we were involved in the graphics business. So I understood that. I think that was probably as important as the clothes.

AZ: Yeah. And at the time you must have been a fan of things that were happening. Massimo Vignelli opened his company here, and had come to New York. In thinking about these early days, especially in contrast to what was happening, there was a bubbling community of people who were thinking—

EF: Yes, of minimalism and simplicity. Right, all those things.

AZ: Did you have access to that community?

EF: Through my interior design work, not direct access, but a conversation with other artists and designers around those kinds of things.

AZ: You recognized it was happening. You weren’t operating in a vacuum.

EF: Yeah. 

AZ: Because it is. You think about things Vignelli did, and things that you did, and the core foundational intent is very similar: What’s going to last a long time? And what’s also a functional solution to a problem? As a designer, you recognized an issue and solved it.

EF: It’s that math major in me. Designer. That’s what designers do, isn’t it? 

Fisher, center, shows her inaugural collection at the International Fashion Boutique Show in New York City in 1986. (Courtesy Eileen Fisher)

AZ: So you were wearing the clothes. You’re giving them to friends, I imagine?

EF: Yeah. 

AZ: Trying to get it out there. But no editorial coverage. You just took it to a show.

EF: No, zero. No editorial coverage for five years, probably. [Laughs]

AZ: Wow. So it’s not like Vogue was looking at you going, “This is great. We’re going to support this.”

EF: No. I wasn’t the latest hot trend or anything.

AZ: And you weren’t going out. It wasn’t a social thing.

EF: No, no, no, no.

AZ: You were working.

EF: No celebrities wearing my clothes. Nothing like that. I was just trying to make things that I wanted to wear, and my friends wanted to wear, that I thought would work for women.

AZ: How did that first trade show go?

EF: The first one was an experience. A little slow. I struggled to speak the first day. I forgot to put prices on my clothes. Buyers were asking, “How much?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. Come back tomorrow. Let me think about that.” Maybe I thought I was doing a design project more than I realized I was starting a business. I don’t know what I was thinking.

AZ: Right, you were doing a project.

EF: I was doing a project that was coming to me somehow.

AZ: As an introvert.

EF: As an introvert. Totally. I was terrified. I remember I just sat there, frozen. I have this thing that comes over me, like, I just sometimes go blank. I can’t think. It’s so crazy. I can’t speak sometimes. Anyway, that was one of those days.

AZ: Yeah, which is common. I don’t think it’s super rare. People go through this. But the idea that an introvert is starting a brand and a whole new idea for fashion—something about it, though, must have given you the confidence to break through that space.

EF: I just saw the picture so clearly in my mind. I was being driven by the vision.

AZ: Which supersedes all the fluff.

EF: Yeah, I guess so. 

AZ: And you’ve now created this incredibly innovative business, years ahead [of its time]. I imagine the early days were hard, but eventually you got press.

EF: They were fun, though.

AZ: Eventually you got orders. As you were scaling up, were you starting to think that the company itself was a design project? Not just the output of it, but the building of the company?

EF: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, that’s interesting, yeah.

AZ: When did you start to think about that?

EF: Oh, gee, I don’t know. 

AZ: Was there a moment of scale, is I guess what I’m getting at. Was there a moment where you’re five people, and all of a sudden, you hire a hundred? Or did it go very….

EF: It was a straight line up, pretty much. A few little blips along the way, but pretty much…. It wasn’t like we were here, and then we had this big plan to grow, or anything like that. It was pretty organic, actually. It was kind of being driven—

AZ: Did you have a desire for growth?

EF: Like the horse was almost driving us. People wanted the product, and so that’s what drove me.

AZ: How much, at the time, were you thinking about slipping into the calendar of fashion? Are you now going to do shows? Are you going to do [collections] seasonally?

EF: I never thought about it quite like that. We started selling to specialty stores in the beginning. There’s a calendar you have to work on in order for them to buy the clothes. So that’s there. For me, I always thought more about shapes and fabrics that I loved, and how to weave them into particular, different moments. But yes, we had to work on a calendar, and we did—

AZ: Right, but you weren’t hitting the seasons in terms of affecting the creative process. You were in a line, developing one simple thing, and hitting the marks.

EF: Pretty much, yes. There did come a time, later, where we hired more designers and we started looking more at trends. I always thought of it more like color trends, and maybe it was necklines, or playing with proportions. Sometimes, wide-leg pants were interesting, and sometimes, everybody just wanted more narrow pants. Just working with the proportions that seemed to be out there, or something. That seemed to be, maybe, a trend, right?

The idea, generally, is that all of the shapes kind of work. Some recede a little bit, and others come forward, or you work with them in different ways. You wear longer pieces over skinny pieces. You just play with it, and sort of build it, over the seasons and over the years.

AZ: I imagine, at a certain point, it became less about, We’re keeping the door open for another few months, and more about, What are we really building here? And that breath you could take.

EF: Definitely. Unlike now [laughs], where we’ve got to be really careful every day. I think we definitely were able to step back, and think about the company that we wanted to create, and how we wanted to be together. We spent a lot of time working on our culture.

AZ: I asked these last few questions because some of the ways you’ve set it up, when you look at your company, are just so different. I mean, you have this collaborative CEO group.

EF: Right.

AZ: Which I’ve never heard of. What is that, and how does that work?

EF: To be perfectly honest, it did really work for a long time. We had co–creative officers, and co–operations officers, and co-CEOs at times. Right now, I’m the CEO, kind of officially, at this exact moment. But it’s just kind of a brief moment. I was co-CEO until December, when my co-CEO retired. But basically, we’ve woven in and out in different collaborative structures over the years.

AZ: Which oftentimes doesn’t work.

EF: Right. People say it doesn’t work. I think we’re proof that it did work.

AZ: Yeah. That’s what I want to understand. Because, it’s kind of like drivers ed. Like, who’s got the gas pedal? Basically, how does it work? Because it seems like it wouldn’t.

EF: I think it’s really a partnering kind of thing. If you think of parents, you could say, Well, is it better to have just one parent? Just one CEO? Or is it better to have two? They might fight, they might have troubles, but I think it’s better to have two. I think that same thing can work with larger teams. We did have eight at one point, and that was too many.

AZ: Eight CEOs.

EF: Well, not CEOs, but a kind of leadership team that were fairly equal. Then it was a little difficult to get decisions made, and that got too cumbersome, so we disbanded that, and went to co-CEOs for a moment, for the last couple of years. Now we have a senior leadership team. How many of us? I always have to count. [Laughs] There’s like six of us. 

AZ: When you applied this, I imagine a lot of business consultants, other people from the outside, said, “What are you doing?”

EF: People say that. They don’t think it makes sense. But I bring forward the parenting idea, or that I think it’s better when you have more voices. I do think that it’s interesting, because you need both. You need people to be responsible and make decisions, and you need structure, and you need clarity. And you need collaboration. You need people to listen, and to work together, and to understand and respect each other, and to know where to step back. To say, “That person is better at that.” 

We’re working right now with the creative teams again, to kind of reorganize the creative teams: Who’s really strong with certain things? Who sees shape? Who sees fabric? Who sees color? In a stronger way, the team works together, and they all see the parts of it. But different people step forward and take the decision in different areas. We did a lot of it in the early days, sort of organically, though we did a lot of workshops, to help us work better together and to understand each other.

AZ: This is now very standard. The consultant workshop to help culture and things.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: At the time. I imagine, this was not-—

EF: We thought we invented it. [Laughs] I don’t know, but I’m sure that that wasn’t true.

AZ: Yeah. But it seems like that. You weren’t hearing about many companies in 1986 even listening to each other, or caring much about the culture inside. It was a bottom line–driven moment, broadly, especially in New York.

EF: I was just flashing on one of the first ones that I’m remembering that we did. It was quite some time ago. Fifteen, eighteen years ago. I remember what came out of that workshop: We gathered the key leaders and the key creative teams, and we spent probably three days together visioning the future. One of the things that I remember coming out of that is the concept of presence. That we wanted to be present. We wanted to have presence in our organization. We were inspired by Otto Scharmer—I don’t know if you know who he is—from MIT.

AZ: What about his work was inspiring you?

EF: He wrote this book with a group of people called Presence: [Human Purpose and the Field of the Future]. It was about being present for what’s happening for the emerging future. And not thinking that you know. Showing up to the meeting, and listening to all the stakeholders, and seeing what emerges, what comes out of the middle of that. It’s a very powerful concept. 

My dad used to always say, “We can’t just plan our lives and figure it all out, because if life went as planned there would be no point to live it.” Everybody thinks you’re supposed to have this road map, and all this strategy, and organize, and figure out where you’re going. But I’ve always felt that if you have a vision, and you’re present to what’s happening, to what’s coming up, then you work with that and things shift as you go, and you form it together, with a group.

AZ: Which is very Japanese.

EF: Which is very Japanese. You’re right.

AZ: I mean, there’s a military strategy that—

EF: So interesting. Yes. I spent a lot of time in meetings in Japanese companies. Very interesting.

AZ: You did?

EF: Yeah.

AZ: Because you were working for Japanese companies?

EF: Yes. 

AZ: I wonder how much of that informed how you thought about your own.

EF: I’m sure it did, now that you’re mentioning it. They sat in groups, and just talked about things. It was very interesting.

AZ: And the ego was recessed during the meeting.

EF: Definitely. In fact, it’s so interesting, because around that time, I wrote down ten principles about what I wanted for my company—the sort of culture aspects. And one of them was “no ego.” Just show up with no ego.

AZ: Which is hard.

EF: Which is really hard.

AZ: The only way I imagine you, or how I’ve seen that, is that from leadership, the expectation is that you’re hired because of who you are.

EF: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And you don’t have to have all the answers, and you can make mistakes. And actually, I feel that, certainly with design work, to look at what’s not working is as important as looking at what’s working. And that willingness to be transparent, and to say, “Oh, my God. Maybe I got that one wrong. How do we fix it? How do we rethink it? What are we learning?” That’s the other thing. It’s like, I’m really learning. Everyday, learning. I mean I’ve been doing this for, you say, almost forty years now [laughs]. Is it thirty-seven, really? No. But every day is just learning. It’s like, all new again. It’s so interesting.

AZ: Yeah. And it’s honest. Because when you make something, you don’t know what you just made.

EF: Right. You don’t know. You might be really excited and think it’s wonderful, and then something else over here is the thing that everybody wants. You’re like, “Oh, that’s so interesting. I was so attached to that shape or to that idea.” And then that’s the other thing that just sort of emerged over here.

AZ: Yeah, and keeping your response system open seems like something that’s been very important to you. How you respond to something that isn’t a reflection of self, but a reflection of this current moment. There’s this great military strategy called the OODA loop that people use.

EF: I don’t know it.

AZ: Observe, orient, decide, and act. And then back to observe. If you fall out of the OODA loop, you’ve acted and you’ve stopped observing. Or you’ve oriented to something, but you can’t decide. You decide something, but you haven’t been able to act.

EF: Ooh, I have to write that one down, so I remember it. That sounds really good.

AZ: People think about it in terms of military strategy, because things change all the time. In design, it’s kind of a battle, too. You’re in the trenches with your people. How have you applied this same sort of thinking to keeping everyone on the same page? Because, as you grew, internal communication has got to be the toughest thing to solve.

EF: The toughest. It’s really tough.

AZ: And this is before Asana, and Slack, and technologies that help us now. But at the time, how were you keeping it all together with such clarity of vision? It’s not surprising in companies that shift every season. But how were you doing it, and keeping the tip of the spear just flying right through it?

EF: Wow. Well, I think…. Yikes. I would say, not so well. [Laughs] To be perfectly honest. Maybe I’m too tough on myself, and us. But I do think there was a general holding of the picture. I do think that people had a felt sense of where we were going. People were drawn in to the brand. They came into the stores. They liked what they saw. They wanted to be a part of it. Partly, we just attracted people that saw it. 

But I think the communication thing is a struggle today. We were just talking about it yesterday. All the tools, all the technology. We were talking about how we used to do it. We didn’t use all the technology. We used line sheets and paper until, like, five years ago, or eight years ago. All of the design work was… You could just look at drawings and paper, like that, and garments. Well, now we’re working in the virtual world, so that’s not so easy. We need all these different tools. So, we’re learning.

AZ: Learning, but maybe not necessarily better. I mean, oftentimes technology creates problems.

EF: Maybe not necessarily better. I think that it created a lot of problems for us. I do. Yeah. We could leave it at that. No. Actually, we’re learning to work with technology. It’s a good thing. It’s just that it created a lot of problems.

AZ: Yeah, I’m sure.

EF: Because you lost the feel. The intuition. It became about the numbers. It became about the specs, and the numbers, and all of that, instead of the feel for the product and the fabric.

AZ: Well, it’s not phenomenological. You’re not being in it. You’re looking at a representation of it.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: In looking at what you’ve done and how you’ve done it, it just makes me curious about how, at the beginning—you’re in Japan, you’ve come out of Japan, and you’ve had a completely sensorial experience. Senses have been just sparked up. You wanted to apply that to a vision you had. Then it becomes a business. Then it becomes more and more and more. How do you keep your hands on the creative, and the business, and then, at the same time, what I’m really getting at, being a mother and starting a family?

EF: Oh God. Oh, my God. You’re just reminding me of how many areas I’ve failed in my attempts to do it. [Laughs]

AZ: I don’t want to stress you out. [Laughs]

EF: That’s why just some days, I wonder, like, Oh my God, how did this all work? Because it was a lot. It was a lot. I would say, again, I don’t think I did it that well. I don’t think I kept my arms around it in the way I wish I had. And I think that it did just kind of snowball a little too much. Which is why this time of Covid has been a strange blessing in disguise. It’s been this opportunity to stop and go, “Is this really what we wanted to do? Did we really want this big business with all this data and technology? Or weren’t we just trying to make beautiful, simple, comfortable clothes for women? Make their lives easier? Make life a little simpler, a little more comfortable? Where did we go?” I’m stumbling around here, because I’m not sure where I’m going. Ask me another question.

AZ: You built a business during a time of incredible scale and growth. Outside of you, as an individual. The eighties, and the nineties, and the 2000s. Eileen Fisher could have been born in 1930, 1940. It could have been at any time in history. But it was in the eighties, nineties, and the aughts. And you can claim failure on this, but there are very few companies that, for almost forty years, especially in fashion, have maintained such clarity of vision as a brand.

EF: I’m glad it comes across that way. That’s very good.

AZ: I’m sure on the inside, you see the difference between one brown and another. But from—

EF: One shade and another. Right.

AZ: But from an outside perspective, Eileen Fisher has brand and social equity like very few brands, in terms of the ability to maintain a core sensibility and a core kind of person. 

EF: Nice.

AZ: And people have grown with you. Your customers have grown with you. How do you think, now, about providing for the 35-year-old now? Which hasn’t changed since you were 35.

EF: No. I think that is part of what’s happening, and why we’re being almost forced in this time to reassess and reinvent ourselves. Because we built the customer along with us, and just kept adding and building, and adding and building, to the point where a new customer couldn’t see the whole as easily. She couldn’t find the concept as clearly. A core customer, one who’s been with us and following us, could know, Oh, that’s the fabric I love. That’s the shape I love. Oh, I’ll just add that to my wardrobe. But to bring in a next-generation customer who doesn’t know you…. I keep saying that we have to re-create the stores, and re-create the experience online, so that she sees it in the way those early customers came in and were hooked. They were, like, “Oh, I get it. I see how that goes with that, and that goes with that. And then I can put the jacket over it and I can.…” 

AZ: To sort of reintroduce the idea of a kit of parts.

EF: Exactly. It’s like a starting over. And we’re trying to do it now, digitally. It’s harder in the stores. Well, right now the stores are still struggling, you know?

AZ: Yeah.

EF: It’s an interesting opportunity to try to tell the story in a new way.

AZ: The reason I ask is because it’s incredibly relevant today.

EF: Yeah, it is.

AZ: I mean, we’re coming out of a year when, do people really care that much about clothing? They’ve been in sweatpants for a year, for the most part. But here’s a moment where I feel like Eileen Fisher is the representation of essentials. We’re coming out of a year where “essential” is everything.

EF: Right. Exactly.

AZ: So there’s this crack, this opening.

EF: We’re ripe for filling that spot. For being relevant today. I do feel that. And I think the secret for us is to tell the story to this next-generation customer.

AZ: For people to understand. I mean, we had—and she’s a dear friend of ours—one of our early episodes, with a fashion designer, Jesse Kamm.

EF: Jesse Kamm. I don’t know her.

AZ: All the women, all the girls under 40, around 40, love these pants she made. These sailor pants. These high-waisted sailor pants. They call them “Kamm pants.” And she has this very small business that’s very much like what you started. Which was, I make three or four things. The collection’s very small. I really understand the women I design for, and this is their uniform. And the women who wear her stuff, those are the pants they wear. That’s it.

EF: Nice.

AZ: She’s designed her business, in a way, to be sustainable from an environmental perspective. And many things that you pioneered, these ideas, are very much in this business. People love her work right now in the same way that Eileen Fisher—it’s the same core intent. I was curious if you’re thinking about this as this opportunity to reestablish, and sort of put a stake in the ground, raise a flag, and say, “This is what we believe in,” in very clear terms.

EF: It’s time. We’re trying to do that. We really are. 

AZ: Back to some of the structure of the company. Forty percent of the company is owned by its staff through an employee stock-option plan—an ESOP.

EF: Right.

AZ: This is very novel. How has this approach affected the company’s relationship with its employees, and their relationship with each other, in and out of the office?

EF: I think people feel like owners. They are owners. They participate in the upside, and they participate in the downside. They care in some way. They’re not just working for the boss. They’re working for themselves. It’s a different mentality.

AZ: But overall, it’s worked quite well for you.

EF: I think it’s definitely worked well. There are interesting things I’m struggling with about it now, but that’s because we’re down the line, and now we have ESOP owners who’ve been there longer, who have more ownership. So you start to have the same problem. That then the new people come in, and don’t have as much ownership. There’s a sense that something gets unfair then. I’m a big believer in fairness, and yet it just seems impossible to make things fair. [Laughs] I don’t know what that is.

AZ: Yeah, what is “fair”?

EF: My mom used to say, “I’ve got seven kids. It’s like, it’s not fair! Sorry. It’s never going to be fair.” She was, like, cutting the cake just exactly equally, so everything would be fair. That was her big thing. And I feel the same way. I’m trying hard to make it fair, because, I don’t know, somehow something’s not fair in this world. It’s so unequal. And I think businesses can do more to share profits, and to help alleviate the inequality in this world. I don’t think it’s helpful to have the rich, rich people, and the poor, poor people. There’s something wrong.

AZ: Fairness and equality are different.

EF: Well, fairness and equality are different. That’s a good point, too.

AZ: I mean equality…. 

EF: Yes.

AZ: And the idea that early investment should be rewarded. That’s fair, too.

EF: I agree. That’s fair, too. Right. And risk-taking, and so on.

AZ: Yeah. And retention. I mean, one of the things—

EF: Yeah. People who’ve been there longer deserve more—that’s fair. Absolutely.

AZ: Yeah. There’s a system there.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: And I imagine that part of this program has been a big driver in retention.

EF: Definitely. We had a very low turnover rate for a very, very long time until, basically, Covid hit.

AZ: And then everything changed.

EF: And then everything changed.

AZ: Yeah.

EF: That’s okay. Covid will go away.

AZ: Covid may go away. Covid in its current state will go away, but these sorts of moments, these resets, can become opportunities in huge ways for people that are willing to be present. 

EF: Definitely. 

AZ: I think the people who, at least as we’ve seen, who haven’t done well with it, are still talking about, “Why can’t it be like it was?”

EF: Oh, God. We don’t want it to be like it was. I mean, we’re talking about sustainability. To me, I was so delighted, honestly. When I heard that the air was clean over Beijing and over L.A., I was like, “Oh, this is exactly the wake-up call that the world needs. We could change this climate situation in a heartbeat if we all just stopped, for a while.”

AZ: Yeah. And coordination. What couldn’t have been made more visible in the pandemic was that global coordination is necessary.

EF: Oh, that’s for sure.

AZ: For any of this. Whether it’s forced, or not.

EF: We’re all connected. Yeah.

AZ: In the beginning, you were mostly about simple clothes made from natural materials. Where did the idea of the brand being able to give back to its employees—like we talked about, and its suppliers, also—like, the full system and the planet? When did this start to become a reality, and not just something that would be nice?

EF: When we first made a commitment to hire Amy Hall, who’s our head of social consciousness, twenty-five years ago.

AZ: Wow.

EF: I think we were the first to pioneer that kind of work, and that kind of thinking. She really took up the challenge around sustainability.

I always thought natural fibers were sustainable, because they break down in the environment. I didn’t really understand the problems with dyes, and the problem with conventional cotton. The whole process of making and selling clothes. The level of impact it has on the planet.

AZ: Massive.

EF: Massive. Once we began to really become more aware of that, twenty-five years ago, we started with the materials. Understanding the materials we were working with, and leaning into beginning to design into organic cotton and more sustainable materials. Eco-preferred kinds of things. We did our Vision 2020 commitment. We’ve been just plodding along, going deeper into things. It’s right now quite embedded throughout the company. Part of our workshopping was, we started doing workshops around sustainability. Getting everybody engaged in the work.

AZ: I mean, in the last year, Gucci pops up [its first sustainable fashion collection]. These different programs pop up, and the immediate, cynical view is greenwashing and whatever. This is a marketing effort. But it’s all great.

EF: But it’s a good thing. It makes me happy, whatever it needs to be. It’s like, finally, great. Start. Yes. Now.

AZ: But you must have been very much alone in this.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: In the mid-nineties.

EF: Oh, yeah. [There was] Patagonia. We were involved with Patagonia in a lot of things and different organizations.

AZ: They were an informing part of your policy.

EF: Yeah. Back and forth. We partnered with people on their teams. But they’re not in our world. They’re in a different kind of world. There are some smaller designers that are just focused on jeans, organic cotton, and are sustainable in that way. [Editor’s note: We recommend listening to Ep. 39, with fashion designer Angel Chang, as an example of a small-scale approach to sustainable fashion; Jesse Kamm, who Andrew interviewed for Ep. 20, is another.] People doing recycle programs, taking back clothes, things like that.

AZ: Which, you have an amazing one that I want to get into. Even before you hired someone for sustainability, even before any of it, don’t you think at the core of your brand, it was about: Make something really well and nice?

EF: Right. Timeless design. Things that last. Quality materials. Style that doesn’t go out of style.

AZ: Yeah. What does that mean? People say “timeless”—what does that really mean? I mean, we hear that, you know what I mean?  But what does it mean?

EF: What does it mean?

AZ: Yeah. How do you approach the idea of timelessness?

An exhibition about Waste No More, one of Eileen Fisher's textile recycling initiatives, during Milan’s Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair in 2019. (Courtesy Eileen Fisher)

EF: Oh. Well, I have a general theory that the simpler a thing is, the longer it lasts, the more ways it can work, the more it can kind of disappear and be something else. Like I was saying, I’m un-designing. Just making it really, really simple. Then there’s the idea of quality sustainable materials. Always, you start with fabric. We’re always studying the farms it comes from, the way it’s made, the way the sheep are herded and cared for, and all of those things are a part of it. We just keep diving deeper, starting with the first tier—the sewing factories and how they operate, and with the materials—and then the dye houses, then the fibers, and the farms, and just getting far into the process, all the way to packaging. Every place we can find our way to make a difference and make an impact

What’s really exciting me, actually, now that you’re asking these questions, is the idea that not only can we take the nasty chemicals out of conventional cotton—no pesticides. If you go organic and things like that, that’s all good. But that you can actually make a positive difference through things like regenerative agriculture. That you can actually draw down carbon in the way you work with agriculture. Or that you can clean the water as you go, in closed-loop technology. That’s amazing, because we’re going to run out of water to produce clothing.

AZ: In 2012, you took this trip to China to visit suppliers, and that’s, I think, when you first started to see the water crisis.

EF: That’s when I really became personally aware of how serious the water crisis was.

AZ: Tell me about that trip.

EF: I met with several of my team, and they were just at a conference. They were really freaked out about what’s happening with the water crisis, and how close it is. At that point, they were saying ten years. What year was that? [Laughs]

AZ: 2012.

EF: Yeah. Ten years. So we’re getting there.

AZ: And you went to China to see it for yourself?

EF: Well, no. I went to China just to see the factories for myself. We had done so much work in China. A lot of people don’t like the idea that we produce in China. And we produce much less in China today than we ever have, but we did a lot of good work in China. Getting into the factories, working with the workers, teaching them to speak up. Fair pay, and all kinds of things. It was good.

AZ: You realize that the clean water [crisis] is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s also a business crisis.

EF: That’s true.

AZ: When you came home, you developed the sustainability design team, which we were talking a bit about.

EF: Right.

AZ: You didn’t meet all the goals of your Vision 2020 plan. But it’s okay. How did that shift over time, and are you setting new goals? And have you developed a new plan?

EF: Right. Well, definitely we didn’t meet all the goals. I know we wanted to be a hundred percent sustainable. We wanted to have all our materials be eco-preferred. And I think we’re, maybe, in the mid-seventies now, with those materials. We’re not at a hundred. But we’ve really been focused on what positive impact we can have. There are places we maybe aren’t going to get to a hundred percent, but we strive and continue to move everything forward. 

AZ: Three years before, you founded your first recycling project.

EF: Oh, yeah.

AZ: The famous Green Eileen. Tell me about what it is, how it’s changed, what the original idea is.

EF: Yeah. Well, it kind of started—we all just had so many clothes in our closets, because we work in the business. We don’t want to throw them away. They’re good. That’s what these clothes are about.

So we were opening a store in Irvington, and we thought, What if we sell our vintage clothes? We started gathering employees’ old clothes, and selling them. It went over so well that the customers said, “Can I bring my clothes in?” We were, like, “Okay.” We started taking the clothes back, and we gave the customers five dollars for every garment they brought. And over the years … was that ten years ago, did you say, or eight years ago?

AZ: 2009.

EF: 2009. Oh, more than ten years ago. Right. So, we’ve taken a million and a half garments back. We have warehouses full of clothes. Basically what we do is, we clean them, and we resell them, and then, of course, a lot of pieces are stained beyond repair or whatnot, so then we remake them into other things.

AZ: And you’ve developed specific processes to do that.

EF: Right.

AZ: Can you tell me about that?

EF: My favorite one is we have this—we call it our Tiny Factory, in Irvington. And it’s not so tiny, twenty thousand square feet. But we have machines, these felting machines. It’s really cool. We take the fabrics and cut them up and literally make…. Oh, I’ll show you my coat on the way out. Mostly we make little bags, and pillows, and wall pieces, and things like that. And yes, we’re developing a little side business [called Waste No More] with this—

AZ: Of needle felting.

EF: Of needle felting. It’s like a new craft. 

AZ: Yeah. Needle felting’s amazing.

EF: It’s so amazing. Do you know of it? 

AZ: Yeah, I do. I’m fascinated by that.

EF: You’ll have to come and see our machines. We’ve got this big machine.

AZ: It’s so cool because it’s like, this stabbing and pulling.

EF: It kind of gathers the fibers and pulls them together, so you get these interesting patterns. Each one is different, because you’re working with these garments. We’re the first people we know of to take recycled garments and needle felt them. Mostly, needle felting is used for making felt—like polyester felt. People do it with wool, too, but they start with virgin material, not recycled. But it’s really interesting what’s possible.

AZ: It’s sort of like an outsider-art craft, generally. Making small sculptures and things.

EF: Oh. Yeah. That’s sort of, like, hand–needle felting, right?

AZ: Yeah.

EF: This is with the big machine. It’s really fascinating.

AZ: Amazing. It’s interesting when you get a gift for having this other intention, and then something like needle felting comes out of it and inspires something else.

EF: Magic. Magic happens. That’s the presence piece. Like, Whoa, what is that? My very first employee—she’s an artist. She’s the one who started the recycle program in the first place. She came to me, and she got so excited about it, and she found needle felting, and she made, I think, a little vest or something out of needle felting. She said, “Eileen, I want to buy this little machine that costs twenty thousand dollars. I think we can use all of that leftover fabric and actually make things out of it.” So I said, “Sure.” I’m thinking, twenty thousand dollars. Sure, definitely, do it. See what happens. And it’s turned into this whole little factory making all these little things.

AZ: Unreal.

EF: It’s just incredible.

AZ: That you’re then selling?

EF: That we’re selling. Yeah.

AZ: Incredible. How do you think about the concept of recycling in the fashion industry at large?

EF: Oh, my. It’s just so much in its infancy. It’s so big. It’s so hard. We’ve been at it for ten years, and honestly, we have a long way to go. The whole industry has a very long way to go. It’s important, though, and it’s a huge opportunity.

AZ: Yeah. And it’s not quite being done.

EF: It’s not being done, no. I would say we’re ahead of what most are doing. I mean, other people are taking synthetics and melting them down and remaking fibers out of them, and that’s a thing. People are doing some things with cotton. Mostly people are downcycling, so making insulation and things like that. Which there’s only a limited market for. I’m really interested in upcycling. Like, taking these materials, and making something better.

AZ: Which you presented to the world at Salone [del Mobile furniture fair in Milan, in collaboration with the trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort, in 2018 and 2019], and it was well-received.

EF: Right. Definitely.

AZ: Tell me about that.

EF: Oh, I’m sad I wasn’t there, but it was magical. We got a ton of press. People loved it. They wanted to buy everything, which was really cool.

AZ: Is this when you premiered the felted work?

EF: Yeah. People were so excited about the possibilities. We got some interesting clients. Architects, that kind of thing. Have done some nice, big commissions.

AZ: Amazing.

EF: Yeah. Pretty cool.

AZ: What’s next for the Renew program, the Waste No More program? Where’s it going?

EF: I think we’ll have to presence that and see! [Laughs] But we’re making bags. We want to tell a story. We want to look at how to scale it. Because I think this is a very artisanal project. We’ve been working with some partners to try to take it to the next level. To actually figure out how to get the materials out to the big factories, and actually make our coats, and they’ve been starting to make some materials. We’re not there yet, but that’s one thing we’re trying to do. 

AZ: But you’re expanding it.

EF: We’re expanding it. We’re still inventing, playing.

AZ: You’ve been reluctant to speak about all these things. I mean, in doing research for this, it’s hard. You should be out more talking about these things. You obviously received a phenomenal [2019 Positive Change] Award from the CFDA, and you’ve been recognized by your peers. But do you now, at this stage—and I know you’ve got your own company to take care of. You’re not responsible for the fashion industry. But do you feel now a sense that you’re an elder of that community? Do you feel a responsibility to share this knowledge and this perspective?

EF: Yeah. Actually, that’s true. I have a foundation, and I’m starting a research project to figure out how best to share what we know. Amy Hall, whom I mentioned, is helping with that project. Trying to think, What can we do to share what we know? To share the knowledge of the felting and teach others how to do it, and to share what we’ve built and what we know about sustainability, and get it out into the world, and partner with others.

AZ: Which you’ve always been very good at. I mean, there’s this relationship that’s known between you and Rose—

EF: Oh, [Rose] Marcario. Rose, [the former CEO] from Patagonia.

AZ: Yeah. From Patagonia. These are the sort of alliances that you don’t hear about a lot in the industry, but inspire great change. And how much of that story gets out is part of what needs to happen.

EF: Right. Yeah, Rose is a very important advisor to me.

AZ: How did you meet her?

EF: She came to visit. She saw the Tiny Factory. We made connections somehow through our teams because they work together, some of the people on our teams.

AZ: And eventually came together to start working on things.

EF: Yeah. She came to visit, and then I was out in California, and I visited her. I’ve been talking to her weekly since Covid started, and she’s been a really unbelievable support.

AZ: I’m sure it was a moment where you really needed to find a crew you could lean on.

EF: Yeah.

AZ: Do you think about the brand beyond your lifetime? Do you want it to live beyond you? Do you care? And I mean the brand, not the people, to have jobs. They’re two separate things.

EF: I want the concept to live on. I don’t care if it holds my name. It’s so funny, because when I started the business, I didn’t want to call it Eileen Fisher. I thought it should have a name like Clothes, or something. I don’t know. I was looking for a name, and I couldn’t find one, and I had to get to the Boutique Show, so I just called it Eileen Fisher for lack of a name.

But I’m not attached to the name living on. I think the idea has a lot of power, and I think the idea lives in service of women. And I think it’s meaningful. It’s clothes, but it’s meaningful. I’d like to see it live on. I’d like to see the ethos, and all the important ideas that are there. And it would be wonderful for the teams. Of course, I dream my daughter would one day be interested, but that may not be, and that’s okay if not. She should find her path, and this idea will find its path, too. Maybe it will land in someone else’s mind the way it landed in mine.

AZ: Amazing. Well, I think we’ll finish up there. Thank you so much.

EF: Oh, wonderful, Andrew. That was a great conversation. Thank you.


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on February 12, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.