Eileen Fisher: The meek fashionista’s fresh vision

She turned $350 into a $300m empire by holding to her ethics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fans from New Zealand and Dubai flocked to meet American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, as she held audiences with her customers at stores in Wimbledon Village and Covent Garden.

The “audience with” tour this month also took in her concession in department store Fenwicks on Bond Street, yet she doesn’t dress Oscar nominees or fashion icons.

Fashion snobs have criticised her linen skirts and cashmere jumpers as “boring” or even “slouchy”. One off-Broadway show even had a character sighing: “When you start wearing Eileen Fisher, you might as well say, ‘I give up’.”

But dedicated wearers of $298 (£186) alpaca silk jumpers and $15 viscose socks the world over keep buying Fisher’s generously cut designs.

Over 29 years, the sexagenarian has created a $300m (£187m) empire from just $350 (£220), yet her manner marks her out more housewife than fashion star.

She claims her female customers are attracted to what she describes as an ethos of “empowerment for women”, which probably explains why Oprah Winfrey is her most famous fan.

Fisher’s meek persona does not scream “empowerment” – which is exactly her point. Everyone has a voice, not just the most powerful and overbearing.

Having spread this message in the States, she toured the UK at a time when equality in the workplace, particularly the boardroom, has become an increasingly important part of social debate.

Sitting near the fitting rooms in Fenwick’s, Fisher admits she finds public speaking difficult and recounts a recent event she attended with other high-flying executives. “The only people that spoke were the men,” she explains. “Women generally find it harder to speak up in public situations.”

She acknowledges that things have got better for women in the workplace since she started out nearly 30 years ago but argues that “women are still not equal”.

The 63-year-old advises companies on how they can include women in the decision-making process. “There has to be a more concerted effort to accept and engage women.”

At her own company meetings every member of staff, including shop assistants and secretaries, is encouraged to speak up with his or her ideas.

And as well as making clothes that are in her words about “women, freedom, comfort and ease”, she also gives grants to female entrepreneurs and to non-profit organisations that “foster leadership in women and girls”.

Last year a London businesswoman – Catherine Conway, the brain behind food retailer Unpacked – was one of the winners of her Business Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs.

As well as gender equality, Fisher is also right-on when it comes to ethical sourcing. All the clothes that the Eileen Fisher brand sells can be traced back to the exact farm and factory they were made and manufactured.

She admits that her ethics, admirable as they are, are not what usually sell her garments: “Of course some women just like the clothes and don’t even think or know about all the other elements that we are involved with.

“Some women just like the way our clothes look and feel.”

The Eileen Fisher brand launched in London two years ago and is slowly expanding, but this was her first trip to the British capital.

She flew over with daughter Sasha, who is starting university in London, where she will read media and design at Goldsmiths.

Fisher says she hopes that by the time Sasha graduates, debates and public speaking will not be totally overwhelmed by booming male voices.