This is part of my short series on the thinkers, leaders and craftsmen and women featured in Developing Modern Craft (pending publication late 2019). Here you will find a short introduction to Eileen Fisher, featured work, three exercises/lessons from her (and ways to apply them), as well as a selection of quotes. You can also read more about the Look to Craftsmen Project if you are not familiar with the work and check out Profiles in Craft for examples of people applying craft principles in the modern world.
For more than 20 years, Eileen Fisher has been designing clothes that make women feel good about themselves. 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.
Eileen grew up in the Midwest. She’s the second oldest of five sisters and one brother. Her father worked as a systems analyst at Allstate Insurance, and their life was modest. Her mother sewed their clothes—and in the sixth and seventh grade, it was all about a red shift dress. Today, Eileen sells chic, simple clothes that make getting dressed easy. She creates modular pieces that can be mixed and matched from season to season, and is now available in department stores and 52 Eileen Fisher stores. Her business has over 1200 employees and grosses over $400 million in sales.
When I went off to college I was going to be a math major. It was my best subject in high school, but then I got a D in Intermediate Calculus. I had no idea really what I wanted to do or what my options were.
One of my college roommates was an interior design student. We would hang out and I would play with colors and fabrics and that kind of thing—and then I would have to go and do my own work. At that point I realized that I wasn’t going get through college if I was going to do my work like that. I should do something fun. I studied interior design, in those days it was in the Home Economics department.
Many craftsmen appear to stumble on their fascinations and obsessions. Even with her background in sewing, her love of clothing, and her affinity simple styles, Eileen believed she found her interest in design by accident.
Eileen never pictured designing clothing for a living. She moved from interior design to graphic design. Involved with a Japanese boy, traveled to Japan to work on a projects. While there she became fascinated with the kimono.
After moving to New York, she bought a sewing machine and tried making a few things in her spare time. It was a disaster. But her mind kept seeing simple shapes made with good fabric. Living among artists in New York, one of them suggested she take over his booth at a trade show where buyers came to buy clothes for their stores. With three weeks to produce a clothing line, $350 in the bank, and no idea how to make a pattern—she got to work. 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.
Like every master craftsman I’ve interviewed for this project, Eileen never had a moment where she thought “I’m a designer now.” She never had that kind of clarity and her fascinations were ever-evolving—from shift dresses and uniforms, to symbols of design like the kimono, to modular women’s wear.
Eileen has used mediums of design, clothing, and leadership as modes of self-expression. Constant attention and deep reflection to her own awareness, to what is actually driving her awareness, directs her actions and guides her decisions.
By stepping back and viewing the business as a whole, Eileen gains perspective on how she can use the business to creatively express her interests and manifest her values. She also views the business as a reflection of herself. Eileen uses her medium (in this case the business itself) to define her own standards for success and make her unique mark.
In addition to focusing inward on her own awareness, and stepping back to get the big picture, Eileen gets perspective through the passions of others. Interest in recycling among employees led to Green Eileen (now called Renew). Working with and through other people is a unique quality of leadership. Taking culture, climate, and purpose of an organization into account impacts the outcomes the leader is able to produce with their unique signature.
Eileen Fisher Renew RENEW, part of EILEEN FISHER Inc., is a take-back program that embodies our commitment to build a circular design system and create a future without waste.
Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute The Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute brings young people together to explore their passions; learn from pioneers of industry, the arts and beyond; and discover their unique leadership style. When you support EFLI, you are ensuring that young women of all backgrounds will have access to EFLI's unique leadership education that unlocks their personal potential, transforming them into the leaders we need in our communities, and the world.
VISION2020 The EF vision is for an industry where human rights and sustainability are not the effect of a particular initiative, but the cause of a business well run. Where social and environmental injustices are not unfortunate outcomes, but reasons to do things differently.
3 Lessons from Eileen
“For me, communication was a problem. For me it was my ex husband. The sound of his voice would shut me down and I wouldn’t speak around him. After really processing and understanding my trigger with him, when I saw him again two days later, I was talking. I tried to understand what opens me up and what shuts me down.”
Identify and understand your triggers.
“Once I started to notice what was going on inside myself, the feelings of anxiety or my heart beating, faster I would notice when I was triggered (like when I heard the sound of my ex-husband’s voice). It was like my energy was captured and I was not able to be present. I noticed and that I could actually make a different choice. I could say, “oh there's that triggered feeling” and I am talking fast. I'm not really where I want to be. I'm not really saying what I want to say because I'm caught in my anger or frustration or my energy spin around this person. The more I notice, the more I can cut that cord and show up more.”
Cultivate Curiosity: Bring meditation into everyday moments and meetings.
“One of the things I struggle with is listening. I use listening as a meditation practice. When someone speaks, I try to pay attention in a way that's fully present which is actually opening a lot of possibilities. As a company we are going through a massive transformation. We realize we need to bring in outside talent. When interviewing someone, I watched myself not listen. Here was this incredibly talented person. She was talking so fast and so full of information and I felt myself collapsing internally. Did she know more than me? Would she overshadow me? I don’t know if I went that far in my thoughts, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to work with her. After the interview was over, I realized I had completely missed her. So I decided to give her another chance and this time I practiced listening. And I realized, wow, she’s smart. If we don’t hire her we are going to miss something amazing.”
Quotes by Eileen
“Personal growth and development is so critical, because we get in our own ways and it impacts everyone in the workplace. It's almost like some crazy percentage of what do everyday isn't really just what's happening in the moment, it's what's happening that comes from my childhood.”
“You may have to approach your leadership challenges intuitively to make sense of them.”
“The difference between thinking things and trying to solve problems rationally all the time, sometimes you just get stuck.”
“First, we have to know who we are...which is really hard. We have to know what we care about and what we want, and what matters to us. Those are things I work on every day.”
"Everything is about listening. That's how I started. I started listening to buyers in ways that others don't. When we listen, things shift."
"I try to follow energy. Where is it going, and why did it go there? And it's a balancing at to decide whether to go with it or bring the energy back to that moment."
"Not being a fashion designer by trade or training, I saw a different kind of picture."
"A lot of what I did in the early days was very spontaneous or had some kind of common sense as I moved from day to day. Although that is still very much in play for me, I've come to be more clear about what matters to me."
“Running a business with small children is really hard. The advice I would give my younger self would be to be work when you're at work and be at home when you're at home. Be present where you are."
“We live in our heads. Every day, every minute, we are getting messages that open us up or shut us down. Every time we close down we find tension in our necks or shoulders and that shuts off some of the energy going to our brain, and we’re less creative as a result.”
P.S. Visit my page on Quotes on Craft for more wisdom on the principles of craftsmanship and how they apply to the modern world.