Service of Admiration for a Modest & Successful Fashion Icon: Eileen Fisher

October 15th, 2018

Categories: Business Decisions, Employees, Empowerment, Fashion

I have always admired fashion designer Eileen Fisher for her simple silhouettes and comfortable clothes and over many years have mentioned to countless other designers the genius of her marketing strategy: In her ads she was the first that I can recall to feature models of all ages, often in one photo.

I didn’t know anything about Ms. Fisher until I read David Gelles’ article in The New York Times, “It Would Be Better Not to Call Eileen Fisher a Boss.” Her business approach is as smart and unusual as her using young, middle aged and old mannequins to show off her clothes and accessories. She sports the same hair color—white—as some of the women dressed in her fashions.

There’s no CEO at her company because of “Ms. Fisher’s belief that consensus is more important than urgency and that collaboration is more effective than hierarchy,” Gelles wrote. And her 30-something year old business is successful. Owned by Ms. Fisher and her employees, annual sales are around $500 million. “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.”

She lived in a chaotic household as a child with nobody telling the kids what to do so having a boss in her first job at Burger King at 15 was “kind of strange for me” she told Gelles. She said she had an authority problem.

“I wanted to create a place where people weren’t powering over people. Where people were kind and people were together and shared.”

In New York she started in interior design and when she went to Japan with her then Japanese partner and first saw the kimono she was “very intrigued by the way it moved…..I was fascinated by the idea that one design, one shape, could transcend time, and be made new just by different patterns and colors.” Her fashions revolve around eight basic pieces to which she adds or subtracts a few pieces every season. Her customers read The New York Times and The New Yorker, not Vogue.

She started her fashion company with $350 in the bank, going by subway, carrying the pieces she cut on the floor of her loft in garbage bags to a factory in Queens. She sold those clothes–$40,000 worth– at a boutique show.

“I think of myself as leading through the idea, trying to help people understand what I’m trying to do, or what the project is about, and engaging them. I always think about leading through listening. I was a designer, so I didn’t have preconceived ideas of how this business works.”

The company has a leadership group, a board and she’s founder and chairwoman of the board, “but that’s not really what I do.” She thinks “co-creation and collaboration absolutely can work in a big company.”

The company offers generous benefits, Gelles reported, and employees own much of it. Ms. Fisher says she knows that the sense of ownership works when she hears in a meeting, “don’t spend my money on that.” Ms Fisher thinks “corporations should have to share a minimum 10 percent of their profits with the people working. It’s not socialism, it’s good for business.”

Have you worked for an employer like this? Would you have fit in? Are you surprised at how successful this business is especially in the fashion world with a reputation for rough gruff souls and primadonnas galore?


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5 Responses to “Service of Admiration for a Modest & Successful Fashion Icon: Eileen Fisher”

  1. ASK Said:

    Sounds like a refreshing change from the usual hyper-hysteria of most fashion firms…alas, I never worked for such an employer, but she seemed to put her ideas into practice and create a very successful business. Most of us older types also do appreciate her very forgiving sizing…

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree–in fact, refreshing for any industry. Personality matters though. If an employee must be prodded to get work done or for every task must be taken by the hand, step-by-step, then this wouldn’t be the environment for them.

  3. Protius Said:

    I’m afraid I’m not much on fashion. What I like best to wear was what I wore sixty years ago, but it sure does sound like Ms. Fisher is one great lady to work with and for. I wish there were more like her around to lead us in these increasing difficult times. More power to her!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Just writing about her business approach makes me feel calm.

    As for your style, no doubt whatever it was 60 years ago is back–and has been a few times–so you’re in luck!

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    I can’t help but admire Eileen Fisher for the same reasons you note. Her style was meant to be and continues to prove itself timeless. She enables women of all ages and an enormous variety of sizes and shapes to dress attractively and elegantly. The quality of her clothes is impressive. She makes looking well-groomed relatively free of angst. Her philosophy of marketing with a diversity of models and her very intelligent non-hierarchical approach obviously work. She is a splendid contradiction to the the wildly negative fashion terrorist as either boss or designer. It is so refreshing, especially in this terribly unpleasant moment in our society, to read about doing good having good results.

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