Wearing it Well: Eileen Fisher on Mindfulness, Leadership, and Doing Good

Designer Eileen Fisher wears the mantle of leadership with the ease and owing style of her clothing. Her company is not only doing well, Barry Boyce writes, it’s doing good—for employees, young women, and the planet.

In 1992 Eileen Fisher moved her company from trendy Tribeca in Man- hattan to suburban Irvington in West- chester County. She wanted her son, Zack, to have a backyard to play in.

“I could come home and start cooking while he was outside playing,” she
tells me. Well, she didn’t exactly cook, she admits, but she was at home. Only recently has she had time to get into cooking. She’s been a little too busy creating the burgeoning clothing empire that bears her name—with more than 60 retail stores, distribution through department stores and boutiques in 90 countries, a thousand employees, and over $350 million in annual revenues. But she’s overseen it all in the same spirit as getting that backyard for Zack. It’s domestic. It’s a family. It’s caring. Nobody lasts at Eileen Fisher, she says, if they aren’t kind.

The fashion industry has a hard reputation, conjuring images of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory re in 1911, undernourished, underaged models, and heavily marked-up products man- ufactured in Third World sweatshops.

“We’re fortunate to have a sophisticated customer who under- stands the value of our clothes,” says Fisher. “There’s a price for lasting quality and sustainability. It should be industry standard, but it isn’t by any means.”

Fashion is not always pretty.

But Fisher is not in the fashion busi- ness. “We’re in the clothing business,” she says. “The word ‘fashion’ connotes fast-paced and planned obsolescence, the throwaway culture. That annoys me.” She winces at the thought. We’re sitting in the company’s design center, three oors on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district. With high ceilings, open spaces, and lots of natural light, each oor brims with fabrics and clothing in various states, patterns, mannequins, pictures

of clothing throughout the ages (for inspiration), glowing screens, and lots of people, mostly women. It’s a hive of creative activity.

Fisher settles her lanky, owing frame into a comfy seat. She sits upright, statu- esque, if statues could breathe and laugh. The conference room is glass-walled, and we look out on a spacious kitchen– dining area where employees mill about.

A small chime and striker sit on a side table; they’re for signaling the minute of silence that begins all meetings. Award plaques ll the wall outside the door. Eileen Fisher has been recognized as one of the top 500 women-owned businesses and, for nine years running, one of the 25 best small-to-medium-sized companies to work for.

Before we talk business, Fisher talks values. For her, the two are inseparable. “That minute of silence may be a small thing, but it creates a little spaciousness. It gives people a little taste of something, and that e ect starts to ripple,” she says. “People in all kinds of corporations have been doing it, and they credit us for giving them the idea, even if we never dealt with them directly. You don’t know who might be meditating in a corporate o ce somewhere as a result of taking that little break.

“I don’t go around saying I meditate, but in my life and work, I try to live those values. Mindfulness means slowing 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 started designing clothes that I would want to wear myself,” she says. She grew up outside of Chicago in
a Catholic family of modest means, the second oldest of six girls and one boy. Her mother needed to stretch a dollar, 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 design or textiles did in those days”—Fisher moved to New York. After a stint in interior decorating, she ended up at a graphics design rm in SoHo. During that period she visited Japan and was taken with
the kimonos and wide cropped pants. She loved the simple, earthy fabrics, and styles of dress that transcended fashion, that had been around for a millennium.

Fisher also disliked shopping for clothes. She recalled the ease of her school uniform and was mi ed that men could put on a suit in the morning and look turned out, while she had to spend an hour deciding what to wear. In 1984, her idea for simple, timeless clothes that o ered beauty and 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 bank. Her rst retail store, which still exists today, was a tiny space on 9th Street in the East Village that she lled with damaged 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 grew, 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, in uence this industry, and e ect 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 understands 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 have a lot more work to do; we are on it 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 and 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 from lots of di erent 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 unclear and just sit with them. We de nitely err on the feminine side—more intuitive, less linear. We consciously work on the collaborative process. I have a deep sense that I didn’t create this business alone. I listened, I heard, and we worked together. It would have been something di erent if I hadn’t worked