The queen of slow fashion about the art of a slow exit

“Being a boss is not my strength,” said Eileen Fisher, shifting awkwardly on a seat from an elegant meeting room inside the headquarters of a company she herself started nearly 40 years ago.

This may seem surprising given the degree to which Ms. Fisher, 72, has proven himself a leader with stamina in an often brutal industry defined by relentless change.

After all, she is a designer who built a fashion empire offering modern women comfortable yet empowering designs in natural fabrics that simplify busy lives. In an industry where by some measures a truckload of clothes is burned or buried in a landfill every second she was an early pioneer of environmentalism as a core value for a brand. She is a company founder who decided in 2006 that rather than take her company public or be acquired, she would transfer ownership to her employees instead.

But front and center has never been Ms. Fisher’s style. For most of its history, Eileen Fisher (the brand) has had rarely had a CEO, opting instead for “collaborative teams” of various shapes and sizes. It was only within the last 18 months that the company has ever had a single CEO, in the form of Eileen Fisher (the woman). She stepped up to steady the ship after the brand, as she put it, “kind of lost its way.”

Now the queen of slow fashion is ready to relinquish that role (albeit slowly), part of what she described as a “responsible transition” away from the helm. This latest step in stepping down would, she explained, allow her to concentrate on formalizing her design philosophy so that the brand can ultimately exist without her.

“Being a CEO has never really been part of my identity — it’s never been something I’m comfortable with,” Ms. Fisher said. “I like to think of myself as a leader through the idea.” Her signature bob shone like a pearl helmet and bounced against her black glasses as she spoke. She was draped in one of the elegant, roomy knits on which she’s made a name and fortune, creating what The New Yorker called. a “cult of the interesting plain”.

“I have a vision for how this company should move forward, but I know I’m not the person to execute it,” she added. “At least not on my own.”

After searching for more than a year, Ms. Fisher said she was happy to have found a successor. From the beginning of September, Eileen Fisher’s new CEO will be Lisa Williams, the current chief product officer at Patagonia.

On paper, at least, Ms. Williams seems like a good fit. Patagonia, which donates 1 percent of its sales to environmental groups, is another atypical retailer, also with a visionary founder and similar ideals to Eileen Fisher about how products should be made, worn and – ideally – made and worn again.

A decade ahead of many of her competitors, Ms. Fisher started her Renew line in 2009, which sells used clothing, while the Waste no more initiative takes damaged clothing and turns it into fabric. Patagonia was also an early adopter of organic materials, has a long history of political activism and once ran an ad tells people not to buy its products.

“The fashion industry is in a terrible conundrum, with too many things and rampant overproduction and overconsumption,” Ms. Fisher said. “How do we begin to understand that? How do we grow our brand without increasing our carbon footprint? I just found that Lisa and I were so in sync when it came to scratching the surface of these complex conversations.”

Ms. Fisher noted that the two women were also completely aligned on not being driven solely by financial results. (Similarly, Eileen Fisher has been profitable for all but two years since its inception, the company said, with sales of $241 million last year.) And few are as knowledgeable or connected as Ms. Williams when it comes to the complex workings of the fashion supply chain, a global and murky ecosystem where many brands have little or no knowledge of who makes their clothes.

“We both agree that one of the most important ways we can be sustainable is to reduce,” said Ms. Fisher said. “Just do less: buy less, consume less, produce less. It’s a really hard line to walk when you’re trying to run a business and you measure your success by how much you sell. But I needed a , who was completely involved in it.”

A 20-year Patagonia veteran, Ms. Williams said in a telephone interview this week that she felt “familiarity and admiration” with the Eileen Fisher brand and its way of doing business.

“The unconventional management structure there doesn’t make me nervous – I’m actually in my comfort zone when things look unorthodox,” said Ms. Williams, which has never had a CEO before. “I think the idea of ​​co-creation and collaboration can absolutely work in a business.”

“The past few years have been pretty tough for anyone in retail, let alone those trying to change the fashion paradigm,” Ms. Williams continued. “And I have great admiration for everything Eileen and her team have done in the midst of that chaos to re-root the brand back to its original values.”

Part of getting things back on track involved cutting out some of the bolder colors and prints that had begun to creep into collections, instead emphasizing the hallmarks that Ms. Fisher is well known. The latest clothes on her website come in a muted color palette of shades like ecru, cinnabar and rye. The shapes, like kimono jackets and sleeveless tunics and cropped palazzo pants in soft cotton or gauze and Irish linen, are uncomplicated and designed to flatter. The key now is to find a way to serve these looks to the next generation.

As the “coastal granny” TikTok trend and the success of high-end luxury brands like Jil Sander and the Row suggest, minimalist capsules — collections of clothes composed of interchangeable items, thus maximizing the number of outfits that can be created — are having a renewed fashion moment. There seems to be a collective urge for simplicity – something Ms. Fisher has been offering steadily since the mid-1980s, and her first designs were inspired by kimonos she saw on a trip to Kyoto.

When she started in 1984, Ms. Fisher was a recent graduate of the University of Illinois. The second of seven children raised in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, she had originally come to New York to become an interior designer. (She had $350 in her bank account and didn’t know how to sew.) But she wanted to liberate women by giving them a formula.

The simpler something is, her thinking went, the more things it goes with, the longer you wear it, the longer it lasts in your wardrobe. It was an approach that she believed could also resonate with young women today, who are aware that they can vote with their wallets if they believe in the way their clothes are made, even if it makes them more expensive.

“It’s hard to convince people to buy less on a promise that it will last longer, but I want them to see that they have a choice when they buy into our capsule system,” said Ms . Fisher said, noting that she’s found a crossover between older and younger shoppers on their favorite pieces (boxy tops are a runaway hit, she said). And it’s an approach that not only influences young shoppers, but also young designers.

“Eileen was one of the few industry leaders who made me feel that my company’s success was possible,” said Emily Bode, a menswear designer, who added that Ms. Fisher had been “incredibly inspiring” to her when she was laying the groundwork for her own brand.

“When I was having growing pains with Bode, I visited Eileen and her team,” said Ms. Bode said. “Her dedication to retail, slow growth, remaining privately held and of course the creation of an unconventional but successful business model around recycling and sustainability have undeniably shaped my strategy and results for my company.”

Looking back at previous interviews, it’s clear Ms. Fisher has struggled with how to break away from her brand in some time. She has spoken often over the years about how she felt like she didn’t need to be there anymore; she has talked about the idea that the company had developed beyond her. And yet, here she is, still a long way from letting go.

“Those quotes were true in their moments,” she said. “But I think over time I realized that the idea of ​​simple clothing and design and how we spend money here wasn’t quite landing in the company the way I thought it was. I had to to come back into the center and reorganize things so people know exactly how things were supposed to work. That’s an important part of my legacy and what I’m leaving behind.”

With the impending arrival of Ms. Williams, Ms. Fisher faces the prospect of a little more free time. She doesn’t want to travel, she said, preferring instead to spend more time doing kundalini yoga and meditation, playing mahjong with friends and learning to cook good Japanese food after the recent retirement of her longtime chef. She also has two grown children, Sasha and Zach, with whom she would like to spend more time.

But it is clear that Ms. Fisher isn’t done with the job. First, outside of the office, she wants to continue focusing on education through her philanthropic organization, the Eileen Fisher Foundation. She has also fantasized about starting a design school.

And she wants to ensure that her employees – all 774 co-owners of her brand – are ready for what’s next. Remaining a private company and giving its employees a piece of the business have both been a big part of its success.

“I hope that what we’ve built here in Irvington is a relatable concept that in 30 years, the prototype of what we’re building is what other people can try to build as well,” Ms. Fisher said, referring to the city on the Hudson River where she lives and works.

“I don’t do trends. I don’t do runway shows. I haven’t been a conventional CEO,” she said with a small laugh. “But then again, I guess I’ve never been a conventional fashion designer either.”

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