Women of the Year 2003
By Amy Bloom
Her clothes flatter women who are not supermodels, and Eileen Fisher's business policies -- no sweatshops, great benefits and ads featuring actual working women -- honor our sense of decency and dignity.
How many clothing designers give all of their employees health and education benefits—and offer free yoga and tai chi classes at the corporate offices? How many clothing designers use real women, over 30, from black to palest white—high school principals, ob/gyns, attorneys, airline pilots, the company’s own employees and the boss’s own pals—in their ads, instead of models? How many clothing designers not only eschew sweatshops entirely but successfully meet the labor and safety standards set by Social Accountability International (just so you know, there are only three American companies that measure up)? How many clothing designers make simple, classically cut, durable and flattering clothes for real women?
Exactly one: Eileen Fisher.
I’m writing this right now wearing her charcoal-grey wool hoodie (2001) over one of her black T-shirts (2002). My black lightweight fleece coat (2000), which makes me look like a “Matrix”-improved version of myself, and my narrow black wool skirt (1997) have survived baby throw up and airport abuse and served as small-child bedding and been shaken out to look simply swell at the opera. My daughter’s bridesmaids wore Fisher’s lilac silk georgette tank tops and ballet skirts because they look as good on amazons as they do on young women who could, conceivably, be ballerinas.
Fisher began, in 1984, with $350, a degree in home economics from the University of Illinois, and an intense dislike of uncomfortable clothes. She designed two tops, a pair of cropped pants and a V-neck vest, cut the fabric on her apartment floor and carried it by subway to a seamstress in Queens. No tassels, no underwire, no florals and no nonsense. After one trade show, eight stores ordered them. Not quite 20 years later, there are 25 retail stores in 11 states, consistently high sales (even when women’s retail is drooping) and consistently low employee turnover. There’s also an approach like no other, the kind that roots elegance in the real and gives feminism back its beauty. Eileen Fisher, the company as well as the woman, receives awards from small-business organizations, gets honored by a group of feminist-holistic learning centers, and turns around to be equally honored by the Trickle Up Program, which provides seed money and business training for a half-million poor people seeking to start their own businesses in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States. Not your usual CEO, not on paper and not in person.
“As the company’s grown. …Oh, I’m sorry—I’m in here” she calls out to her daughter walking in from school. “She comes home, and then my son comes home, and we’re in the midst of moving back into our house—I just gutted it and now it’s the way we want it, but. …Oh, OK, as the company’s grown, I’m working very hard to keep it on track, to keep following my principles. I’m trying to make sure that everything that we did when it was smaller becomes policy, even now that we’re bigger. I hate the idea of the routine—I hate the word ‘routine’—but I want to make sure that we don’t lose any of the good things as we get larger.”
And what, besides size, has changed for the Eileen Fisher company in the
last 20 years?
“I used to design for my own body. Now I design for a range of body types. My customer is not just me, it’s the women I see and meet. My design is more body-conscious, but I don’t mean very revealing. I look back at my baggy dresses of the ’80s and I wouldn’t want to wear them. They were fine then, but now, I just think, too shapeless; they hide the woman. Stretch fabric makes it possible to design pieces that follow the body without constraining it, and I want to encourage a sense of being present in one’s body. None of us has a perfect body, but our bodies, a real woman’s body, can be seen and shown by the woman in a comfortable way. That’s what I want, for the woman to be herself.”
From the factory to the corporation to the ads to the clothes to the woman herself—how can you not be a fan?
No sweatshops, real women... Click here to view the Eileen Fisher collection.
Photo by Timothy Greenfield/Sanders