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Mindful : December 2013
December 2013 mindful 45 business down enough to be thoughtful about what you’re doing. It helps you see the need to get other viewpoints in order to see the whole. It brings more self-aware- ness—of how you feel, how you speak, how you treat others. Over time, it starts to weave itself into everything you do.” Fisher didn’t set out to create a company. “ I sta rted desig ning clothes that I would want to wea r myself,” she says. She grew up outside of Chicago in a Catholic fa mily of modest means, the second oldest of six girls a nd one boy. Her mother needed to stretch a dolla r, so she sewed her children’s clothes. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1972 with a degree in home econom- ics—“ what people in clothing or desig n or textiles did in those days”—Fisher moved to New York. After a stint in interior decorating, she ended up at a g raphics desig n firm in SoHo. During that period she visited Japan and was taken with the kimonos a nd wide cropped pants. She loved the simple, ea rthy fabrics, a nd styles of dress that transcended fashion, that had been a round for a millennium. Fisher also disliked shopping for clothes. She recalled the ease of her school uniform and was miffed that men could put on a suit in the morning and look turned out, while she had to spend an hour deciding what to wea r. In 1984, her idea for simple, timeless clothes that offered beaut y a nd ease led to a business, almost by happenstance. A sculptor friend had to give up a booth at a show, and he persuaded Fisher to use it for her yet-to-be-produced clothing. She was so new to business, she neglected to price the clothes. She had $350 in the ba nk. Her first retail store, which still exists today, was a tiny space on 9th Street in the East Village that she filled with da maged and sample fabrics. “I love fabrics, and I hate to see them go to waste. The cutting rooms at the big houses, where mountains of material are thrown away, just make me sad.” As her business g rew, these environ- mental values endured. Eileen Fisher pays attention to the entire life cycle of a garment, from cradle to grave. It’s part of Fisher’s “business as a movement.” You can see that slogan displayed in her stores, which double as community gath- ering places to spread these values. She believes that “gross national happiness” is the responsibility of every person in business. “We’re looking at any way we can change ourselves, influence this industry, and effect positive social change,” she says. “Operating with attention to all inputs and outputs at every stage makes the product a bit expensive, so we’re fortunate to have a sophisticated cus- tomer who understa nds the value of our clothes. There’s a price for lasting quality and sustainability. It should be industry standard, but it isn’t by any means. We havealotmoreworktodo;weareonit every day.” “Business as a movement ” is also about how people work with each other. Fisher is shy, yet she exudes boundless energy. It’s a combination that makes her a perfect collaborator. She listens well and gives others room but will execute forcefully when the group has coalesced. That approach is built into the company ’s culture, resulting in a creative tension between getting things done a nd talking about them. “It can be chaotic,” she acknowledges, “but just the right amount of chaos is what breeds creativity. We insist on hearing voices f rom lots of different peo- ple. They’re engaged, give their opinion, then move on. A small team hears it all and makes the decision. It’s a balancing act. We often leave meetings with deci- sions unclea r a nd just sit with them. We definitely err on the feminine side—more intuitive, less linea r. We consciously work on the collaborative process. I have a deep sense that I didn’t create this business alone. I listened, I hea rd, and we worked together. It would have been something different if I hadn’t worked in a collaborative way. That made it so much better.” Irvington is less than an hour from the design center in Manhattan, yet it’s a world away. You pass through the mad rush of Grand Central Station, and before too long, you’re released from New York’s high tension. Clickety-clacking along, you see the Hudson River out the window to the left. In 45 minutes you’re in the village of Irving ton. Crossing under the tracks, you’re in the parking lot of the Eileen Fisher Lab Store, where retail ideas a re played with and tested. Next door, at 2 Bridge Street, sits the headquarters. I meet Cheryl Campbell, manag ing director of the Eileen Fisher → 3 Things That Matter to Eileen Fisher Timeless Design “I do love clothes,” Eileen Fisher says. “I love the way clothes feel. I love fabric. I always have, since I was very young.” Fisher began in 1984 designing a small line—jacket, skir t, trousers, top—inspired by her love of simplicity and her appreciation of timeless garments like the kimono. She created pieces she would like to wear, thinking there might be others who would want the same. There were. Many. A business was born. Fisher didn’t star t out with a blueprint for the Eileen Fisher brand and culture, but “in order to pass this on to a new generation” of employees and customers, the company arrived at a list of core values: simple, sensual, beautiful, timeless, func tional. “And to that, we’ve added ‘ease,’” she recently said. “I always wanted things that took less time and hassle.” “Timeless” is probably the most significant and the trickiest of the core values. “We follow trends—color, fashion, texture—and we incorporate aspects of them into our way of doing things,” she says. “The result is something that feels of the moment. Yet the customer may be surprised to discover that five, ten years down the road, it’s still a good thing. Timeless doesn’t mean stuck in the past. Good design stays relevant. Classic doesn’t simply mean old.” → 1