Eileen looks at the new line with Kira Denison-Cole of the Core Concept design team. Notice the notebook under Eileen's arm; she has one with her wherever she goes so she can capture a thought or sketch a new idea.
"I like simplicity. It makes the woman important.
I want clothes to help us relax into ourselves."
In 1984, I started EILEEN FISHER for a very personal reason: I was having trouble getting dressed. At the time I was working as an interior and graphic designer. In my mind I kept seeing these simple shapes for clothes. I knew they had to be beautiful colors, great fabrics and have certain shapes and proportions that worked together. This was my "aha" moment: a system of dressing that I'd been looking for ever since I abandoned my Catholic school uniform back in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Although I couldn't sew and only had $350 in the bank, I believed in these simple shapes. I had four shapes made up and took them to The Boutique Show in New York. Encouraged by $3000 in orders, I expanded my "line" to eight pieces. The second show brought in $40,000 in orders. Suddenly I wasn't just Eileen Fisher. I was EILEEN FISHER, INC.
Today we are 900 people strong with 58 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Our warehouse-style corporate offices, located in Irvington, New York, were recently remodeled using natural lighting and we moved our New York City offices and showroom into loft-like spaces in the Flatiron district. These new spaces have contributed a lot to the way we work. By exchanging our cubicles for open work areas we are encouraged, inspired and informed by the people surrounding us. We are a company of passionate, engaged people who value our collaborative culture and are committed to connecting with one another as well as with our customers.
Design is what drives us and our business. We find that good design is a result of paying attention to what women want and need. The women who wear our clothes want to experience the magic that happens when you put on a piece of clothing that has been pared to its simple, pure essence. It comes alive on your body. It makes you move differently. It changes the way you think and feel about yourself.
I have two kids in their twenties, great friends, five sisters, a brother and on most days, a very full calendar. I imagine my life is as busy as yours. I go to work, stay close to my kids, walk with friends along the river and every now and then host a party. In these modern and sometimes overscheduled times, I want EILEEN FISHER to be known for clothes you don't have to think too much about. You put them on and know that they will give you the comfort, ease and elegance to move with confidence through your day.
What is the secret to getting a work-life balance program off paper and into practice?
It's taken us time. I think it starts with caring about people...and letting people be their whole selves at work. I think it started for us [with] small, individual kinds of things...and sort of just grew. We have a lot of people who work less than five days a week. We actually give benefits for over 20 hours. And we get the best part-timers, really dedicated part-timers.
What are you most proud of in the business?
I'm most proud of the people. The magic that people create. How creative they are and how much they do without me and how much freedom I have.
What advice would you give for someone starting a business now?
I don't know that it would be so different in this time. I guess you would have to be extra cautious. Follow your instincts and follow the threads. Be open to what might happen. You heard my story about being in college and thinking I was going to be a math major and then finding myself on the floor with a roommate [who was in interior design], designing, picking colors and choosing fabrics. So just be open.
Why is investing in women's issues so important to you?
Well, because women have helped me so much. Because I've struggled as a woman, because women support our company and we want to support women. We're in a good position to sort of give back. It's sort of a snowball effect. It's more magic.
Read about Eileen's Business Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs