Eileen Fisher: “When Was Fashion Week?”

Here is an excerpt from David Gelles’ profile of Eileen Fisher for The New York Times. To read the complete article and check out others, please click here.

Credit: Ariana McLaughlin for The New York Times

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The founder of her namesake clothing line drew inspiration from the kimono and never looked back. Today she oversees her company with a light touch and steers clear of the fashionista set.

Eileen Fisher, the woman, is not chief executive of Eileen Fisher, the company.

Indeed, Eileen Fisher the company — which for more than three decades has made simple, flowing women’s clothes in neutral tones and earthy fabrics — does not have a C.E.O.

The unconventional leadership structure reflects Ms. Fisher’s belief that consensus is more important than urgency and that collaboration is more effective than hierarchy. Or something like that.

Ms. Fisher, 68, offers elliptical, impressionistic answers when explaining her improbable career. She grew up in a chaotic home and worked at a Burger King as a teenager. She moved to New York, but she was inspired by the kimono during a trip to Japan. She bootstrapped her company, caught an early break and has been making the same clothes, more or less, since 1984.

Yet for all eccentricities, her success is undeniable. Eileen Fisher, which is privately held by Ms. Fisher and her employees, has annual sales of roughly $500 million and is still growing. And at a moment when many consumers are willing to pay a premium for quality, sustainability and durability, the company’s longstanding values are deeply relevant.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Eileen Fisher’s offices in New York City.

Tell me about your childhood.

It was a fairly chaotic household of girls, but it was fun.

Why was it chaotic?

I think it started with my mother being a little chaotic. She was overwhelmed. But she loved to sew. She loved fabric and clothes. The one time that my mother was happy was when she was sewing. She would take me to fabric stores and she’d be like, “Look at this, Eileen!”

I read somewhere that you had to wear a uniform in school.

I didn’t like it at the time, but if I look back, I think, “It was sure easy.” When I first came to New York, I was trying to work as a designer and trying to look like a designer. But I was struggling to put myself together. It was just overwhelming. I felt clothes were too complicated, especially women’s clothes, always changing. I just needed to look good, and I needed to not think too much about it.

What was your first job?

I worked in Burger King when I was 15, and that was interesting. Having a boss telling you what to do all the time was kind of strange for me. In my house, no one told anyone what to do. You just tried to pull it together and get yourself to school. My mother would sort of yell. But that’s a different story. Where was I going with this?

Having a boss.

Having a boss. As a family we were sort of fluid. We shared, we did things together. And then work was like, “Do this. And when you finish that, do this.” I hated it. I hated it. I had a definite authority problem.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, and works with the Well team to expand The Times‘s coverage of meditation.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.


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