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HOW I DID IT

How I Did It: Eileen Fisher

Fashion’s un-diva never forgets what her customers want: simple, timeless styles.
Problem Solved "I was an uncomfortable person, and so I wanted comfortable clothes," says Eileen Fisher.
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When Eileen Fisher started her namesake company in 1984, she had $350 in the bank and a basic idea: that women wanted chic, simple clothes that made getting dressed easy. The modular line -- pieces can be mixed and matched from season to season -- is now available in department stores and 52 Eileen Fisher stores, including one in Irvington, New York, where Fisher, 60, lives and the company is headquartered. In 2005, Fisher sold the $300 million company to her 875 employees through an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP. She is now the chief creative officer.

I grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois, the second oldest of five sisters and one brother. My father worked as a systems analyst at Allstate Insurance, so we did not have much money. My mother sewed our clothes -- in sixth and seventh grade, it was all about the red shift dress.

I went to Catholic school and had to wear burgundy jumpers with white blouses. I loved the ease of my uniform. I didn't have to think about it.

When I decided to go to college, my dad said, "Well, Eileen, since we don't have the money to send all the kids to school, we have to save up for your brother. He'll need an education to support his family one day." It didn't upset me -- it was the times. I never expected a penny from my parents. I paid my way through the University of Illinois working as a waitress.

I chose math as a major -- it was my best subject in high school -- but then I got a D in Intermediate Calculus. My roommate was studying interior design, and I liked flipping through magazines with her and playing with colors and fabrics. I thought, This might be an easier way to get through college.

I moved to New York the year I graduated. My first job was in the home furnishings department at Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn. Then I worked for an interior design company, and then for a Japanese graphic designer. He had a lot of Japanese clients, which meant we went to Japan often for work. I fell in love with the kimono. That shape has been around for 1,100 years and looks good on everyone. I also loved the simplicity and natural aesthetic of Japanese fashion. That was the seed for my company.

I never set out to be a clothing designer -- I was an uncomfortable person, and so I wanted comfortable clothes. And I hated shopping. There were too many choices; it was too complicated and a big waste of time. Men had a much easier time getting dressed for work. They had a uniform. It didn't look comfortable, but it looked sharp, and they fit into the business world. I wanted clothes like the simple shift dresses my mother made -- easy, not fussy, and flattering.

I bought a sewing machine and tried making a few things in my spare time. It was a disaster. But in my mind I kept seeing simple shapes made with good fabric. I was living in a loft in Tribeca at the time and had lots of artist friends. One was a jewelry maker who suggested I take over his booth at a trade show where buyers came to buy clothes for their stores. I had three weeks to produce my line, $350 in the bank, and no idea how to make a pattern. Another friend knew someone who volunteered to make the samples. The first line was a pair of flood pants based on ones I'd seen in Japan, a simple top with a three-quarter sleeve, a V-neck vest, and a sleeveless shell.

Everything was made in linen cotton and could be mixed and matched. Eight stores made small orders totaling $3,000, and several buyers even sat down with me and said, "We like your shapes, but try a different fabric," or "Your colors are not quite in sync with what's in fashion now." I listened, made adjustments, and for my second show, I built off the first line by adding a simple skirt, a straight dress, and a drop-waist dress, all in a French terry. People stood in line. They loved the new fabric, the styles, and the modular concept.

I sold $40,000 worth of clothes and took the stack of orders to the bank to borrow money to make them. They laughed. "How do we know that these are real orders? Or that these stores are creditworthy?" I had no idea. So I borrowed money from friends and did the order in shifts. I bought the white fabric first, then the peach, then the teal. Since the orders were COD, the money from the first batch paid for the second batch.

I always choose fabric by touching it -- it has to feel good. If it's a new material, we order sample yardage, make a few garments, and make everyone in the office wear them before we decide to go for it. We still do this today. You don't really know if you love something unless you have lived with it.

I had my son Zack a few days before I turned 39. The company was going crazy when he was born, and the balancing act of work and family was tough. Zack took the brunt of it. It helped me understand how hard it was juggling kids and a job. We have a lot of flexible work situations as a result, as well as a woman in charge of work-life balance. Sasha was born in 1993, a year after I moved my company and my home to Irvington, New York.

We don't do flashy parties or product launches at fancy venues. I have never done a runway show. I always thought that we were designing for real life.

A major turning point for me was meeting Susan Schor. It was at a party in 1999. Her expertise is in organizational development, and so when I told her about my company and my philosophies, she asked, "How are you assured that the culture disseminates?" She worked as a consultant at first, to help me integrate the company and answer that question.

Susan now heads up our People and Culture area, which includes Internal Communications; Human Resources; Social Consciousness; and our Leadership, Learning and Development team, which helps all the other teams work together. Some teams even have their own LLD person. They are like therapists -- and most have a social work or behavioral background. I have been in therapy forever -- I would not have this company if it weren't for that.

I thought about going public, but it seemed way too complicated. I don't think about my business so much in quarters or in numbers that way. I think about getting the product right. If you do that, the money will follow. The ESOP is an extension of what I always wanted for my company: a sense of inclusivity. My employees run the business, and they deserve to own it. We've done profit sharing for years, and it makes people feel really connected. It's not us and them. It's us.

This article has been revised to correct the following error: We misspelled the name of Susan Schor, Fisher's chief culture officer and facilitating leader.

For a full archive of How I Did It features, visit www.inc.com/hidi.

IMAGE: Mark Mahaney
Last updated: Nov 1, 2010




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