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Eileen Fisher, a leader in slow fashion, ends a chapter

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, if you know fashion, then you know the name Eileen Fisher. The woman and the company that has carried her name since 1984 are known for her quietly comfortable, minimalist designs, but also for leading boldly on issues such as sustainability and employee ownership. Now, though, she says she's ready for a new chapter, although she says she will remain involved with design and her philanthropic work. She's stepping down as CEO of Eileen Fisher. So we were happy when she agreed to spend some time with us, reflecting on her remarkable career, fashion and whatever else is on her mind.

Eileen Fisher, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

EILEEN FISHER: Well, thank you, Michel. Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: You've broken the mold in so many ways. You've gone your own way in so many ways. Would you just take us back to when you started? What was the initial idea?

FISHER: OK. Well, so the original idea - I guess it came in different ways. But one thing that stays with me is my trip to Japan and my experience of seeing the kimono and understanding that they wore that one shape for, you know, a thousand years or more. And, you know, that whole idea of timeless clothing really intrigued me. And I think on that same trip, I was inspired by the general simplicity of Japanese design and other things like the flood pants and the simple things like that.

I had friends that were artists and designers. And somehow, I ended up in a boutique show. And that's where I got the idea that, you know, I could actually - I had this idea. So I had these pictures in my mind. And I didn't understand fashion shows or anything like that or how people in fashion started. I, you know, I just had this idea that I had been carrying.

And it was - besides the timeless and the Japanese inspiration, there was also this sort of kind of system and the idea that I'd worn a uniform as a kid and the simplicity of that. And for 12 years, I wore a uniform. And it was so easy to get up and just get dressed, even though I didn't like it so much. But, you know, so I wanted something - I wanted the ease of a uniform.

MARTIN: How have you - I'm just so intrigued by how you've been able to kind of do what you wanted all this time when so many people in your industry have gone in a completely different direction, for example, continuing to stay privately held. I mean, you own a majority of the company, but 40% of it is owned by your employees.

FISHER: Right.

MARTIN: Many big fashion houses have long since gone public. Some of them have had some fairly unhappy experiences with doing that. You - and sustainability, for example. I mean, you were among the very first to offer an opportunity for people to return clothing...

FISHER: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...Turn it into something else.

FISHER: Right.

MARTIN: I mean you had your Green Eileen stores, where people could bring their clothing back, buy gently used pieces. And you've had a sustainability program, really, for pretty much longer than anybody I can think of other than thrift stores.

MARTIN: Right.

MARTIN: So I'm just curious. Is it that - what has allowed you to continue to march to the beat of your own drum, I guess I would say?

FISHER: Yeah. I don't know. It's the only drum I know. I don't know (laughter). I think that there was good response to what I did. And so I felt like I was sort of following this vision or these pictures that I would see or these ideas or, you know, certain ideas would come up and they would resonate with me or others. And, you know, so that's just what we followed. And it seemed to work. I think, because it worked and people wanted more of it, that's what sort of drove me forward.

MARTIN: How have you accommodated yourself to the idea that, you know, fashion for people isn't necessarily just about covering their bodies with something? Do you know what I mean? Fashion for a lot of people is entertainment. You know, it's identity. It's something to do. And that has led into a whole array of practices that I know you're very concerned about, like, you know, fast fashion. And yet people do kind of crave something new. How have you kind of accommodated yourself to that, to those kind of competing ideas?

FISHER: Well, I try to do what I call, like, of-the-moment timeless. So I'm always looking at the young designers' work and thinking about people want something new. But how do we make sure what is new endures, so that we create things that give people a sense of modern, fresh, new, but it belongs somehow to the moment? And then they're even surprised that it endures.

MARTIN: I was wondering what COVID was like for you, because it - well, COVID has had so many different impacts on people all, you know, throughout, you know, their lives. But just speaking narrowly of clothing, it really caused a lot of people to rethink their relationship with clothing. I wondered if you think you - if if it said anything about the trend that you'd been on all along or the design direction you'd been on all along?

FISHER: Yeah, definitely. It was confirming. But at the same time, it also - it was a strange gift to me because I went back into the center of the work, to the designs themselves in ways I hadn't as much for the last number of years. I got much closer to, like, just the whole system, like the fabrics. I started with looking at all the fabrics we were using. And though we were already committed to sustainable fabrics, we were using way too many different fabrics. And so it was really hard to create a sustainable business model where there wasn't a lot of waste. I went back in, and we through with the designers, what were the important shapes? What were the core shapes right now? And like I said, the same thing with fabric, just kind of going back at all the design elements.

MARTIN: Do you have someone in mind when you're designing your pieces?

FISHER: Well, I think it used to be myself mostly.

MARTIN: Fair.

FISHER: And I think we have now quite a team of designers and others that work in the sort of merchandising and how to put the line together and all of those aspects of the line. And so ideas come from a lot of places. And for me, it's more like kind of filtering and which ones really fit? And what works now? What works together? And a lot of times, we're taking styles from the past and just bringing them into the current line and maybe doing them in different fabrics, maybe even repeating the exact fabric, maybe new colors.

MARTIN: Did you ever worry that younger customers would not find - that they would sort of associate the - your label, your brand with basically older women who want to be more comfortable? You know, did you ever worry about that?

FISHER: You know, worry maybe is a word, yeah. We'd certainly talk about it and have talked about it over the years and wondered about it. And at the same time, I think what we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do is relevant to the younger customer too. You know, especially now, like you said, with COVID, this return to comfort and just this unwillingness to wear anything that doesn't leave you super comfortable, it's, you know, you want to it - now everybody's wanting it to look more - they call it more polished or more a little more dressed up, but absolutely unwilling to sacrifice comfort or washability. They're demanding that the work - the clothes they wear to work are washable, which is fantastic. We've always made washable silks and ponte and even washable wools. So that all makes sense to me.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that concern you most about the fashion industry right now, about the way it operates?

FISHER: Oh, well, you know, I think the first thing I would say is we - and I include myself - make too much of the wrong stuff, you know. And I'm working really hard to make more of the right stuff. We have to make things they love, so they want to keep it for three years or 20 years, you know. Other things - I'm passionate about getting the plastic out. Plastic is a huge problem. All the synthetics, polyester, it just makes me crazy. We need to find a way to create stretch materials that are biodegradable, that don't damage our oceans and our planet. And it's sad what we're not doing and what we're not doing fast enough. So if there's any way I can help, I want to do that.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like you're still excited about things. So what...

FISHER: Why am I going away? Where am I going?

MARTIN: Yeah. What made you decide that now is the time at least to step down from being CEO?

FISHER: Yeah. Well, I think that I'm very passionate about certain things. And I want to be able to just focus on the things I love the most and let other people hold the business parts. And I want to do what's me. You know, I'm always looking for what's mine to do. And I love to go to the office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because that's when we do design and product stuff, merchandising. And it's just super fun. And, you know, other days, not so much. So can I just go in when it's fun, you know? Like, I'm 72 years old, can I just do what I love?

MARTIN: I think the answer's yes. Well, congratulations on all of it.

FISHER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for visiting with us. And forgive me for asking it this way. What - when people see the name Eileen Fisher, what do you want them to think of?

FISHER: Oh, I want them to think good design, good company, great, timeless, wonderful things and wonderful people.

MARTIN: Well, that was fashion designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Eileen Fisher. Eileen Fisher, thank you so much for spending this time. It's really - it's just been a delight. I'm so happy I got a chance to visit with you.

FISHER: Thank you, Michel. You were a delight yourself. Wonderful. You made it easy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.