“Baby steps first. Then you can walk, and then you can run!” Eileen Fisher, fluttering her hands excitedly, advises a fledgling entrepreneur during a recent retreat in California. The founder of the eponymous clothing brand, Fisher started out in 1984 with $350 and a desire for simple, timeless women’s clothing. Drawing inspiration from history, she was intrigued by the kimono, the only garment shape worn in Japan for 1,100 years. A graphic designer who could not sew, Fisher’s first four pieces at the New York Boutique Show garnered $3,000 in orders; the next show brought in $40,000.
Ideas and contacts started flowing. “Little by little, day by day, I kept going, asking myself, ‘What’s the next thing?’ and simply doing the best I could,” she recalls. Enjoyment added energy, and she routinely ran up the 83 steps to her Tribeca loft those first years.
Nearly 30 years later, the intentions of simplicity and timelessness inspire her 1,000-person clothing company to pioneer new models of social conscience. Core values of caring, wholeness and collaboration govern relationships with staff, customers and global suppliers. Last year was the company’s most profitable to date.
Eileen Fisher Inc.’s organizational chart is a circle, populated by intersecting circles of teams. Rebecca Kleister, a team leader based in a store in Washington, D.C., participates in an internal circle leadership team to, “…broaden and deepen circle practice within our company,” she reports.
The process is derived from the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, of PeerSpirit, in their book, The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair. Each company meeting has a clear intention and begins with a moment of silence. Everyone has a chance to speak, and all ideas are welcomed. The group tracks which ideas manifest the most energy. “Circles foster rapid decision-making, while retaining all the creativity that flows from a peer-based group process,” Kleister explains.
Within a store is where customers most readily experience the community and encouragement fostered by this company-wide culture of collaboration. The staff works as a team to help individuals find what looks good, fits well and complements an existing wardrobe.
Sold in department stores, 61 retail outlets and online, the clothing line is multigenerational, ranging from skinny tops and jeans to angled hemline tunics and handkerchief linen blouses. The company’s regular retail stores feature a sales rack year-round, and the Eileen Fisher Company Store is a seasonally current outlet.
Company leadership continually asks what it means to be socially and environmentally conscious while selling clothes, and they turn to their core values to find solutions to tough problems. During the recession, for example, they tackled the question of how to make their funding support for women and girls sustainable. A circle process generated the idea to recycle their brand’s clothing and donate the proceeds. The Green Eileen program, a project of the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation, allows customers to turn in gently worn pieces at their retail locations and receive a tax receipt and $5 Eileen Fisher rewards card. The clothes are re-sold and to date have added up to $1.3 million donated to nonprofit groups.
The same collaborative approach nurtures supplier relationships for textile and clothing manufacturing. On a visit to China, Fisher hit a turning point in understanding the environmental problems there. Aware that much of the harm in textile processing is caused by dyes, she asked how the company could, “…stop taking baby steps and start running,” to change the production process.
The company began a three-year initiative with the dyehouse to create strict guidelines. They cut chemical use by 45 percent and water use by 25 percent. The dyehouse is the first in the world to earn bluesign certification, a standard that ensures its processes are harmless to people and the environment.
“Business as a movement” is now Fisher’s greatest passion. It is a case of bottom-line success affirming holistic leadership in every participant.
For more information, including store locations, visit EileenFisher.com.
Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, a transformational events and consulting business based in Washington, D.C. Connect at 301-445-6771, GGogden@gmail.com or GraceProductions.co.