Eileen Fisher is a former interior and graphic designer who started a clothing line in 1984 with a mere $350 in her savings account. She settled in Irvington, N.Y., developing her signature aesthetic of simple pieces — often made from luxury fabrics — for women like her. By and large, Fisher’s original customer grew older and loyal to the effortless and timeless dressing underpinnings of the chic founder.
Nearly 35 years later, Eileen Fisher, the brand, is a privately held powerhouse selling a wide collection of women’s fashion — apparel, accessories and shoes — in misses, petites and plus sizes. The clothing is sold at more than 300 department and specialty stores across the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, as well as two Renew (Green Eileen) stores, which are part of the company’s recycling program. Eileen Fisher Inc. sells its collections online and through 68 Eileen Fisher company stores in the United States. There’s also an exclusive home collection of sheets, blankets, throws, rugs and pajamas available online from Garnet Hill.
As a socially conscious and sustainability-focused company, Eileen Fisher was an early adopter of eco-friendly practices that range from employing non-toxic dyes and sourcing organic cotton to its Eileen Fisher Renew collection, which is created with garments from the company’s take back program. Through reimagining the production process and redesigning, the Renew program helps find new lives for discarded clothes.
The company also supports global initiatives that empower women and girls. With its eyes set on the future in March 2015, Eileen Fisher Inc. announced Vision2020, a plan detailing the steps it would take over the next five years toward reaching a goal of 100 percent sustainability. A year later, the company became a “Certified B Corporation,” joining Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and more than 1,500 other companies across 42 countries and 130 industries recognized by the nonprofit B Lab organization as leaders in social and environmental standards that are redefining success in business.
PRODUCT LIFECYCLE COMES TO LIFE
Its most recent move to maintain relevance in a less-is-more retail landscape came in August, when the company introduced a community-oriented store in Brooklyn, N.Y. The concept, dubbed “Making Space,” was conceived to integrate its latest innovations and experiments to engage current customers while attracting new ones. Making Space features a mix of current lines, including The System, the label’s defining collection, and the Renew and Remade lines featuring recycled or reimagined pieces that showcase the company’s commitment to being circular by design.
“The store is where the full product lifecycle comes to life,” says Kate McShane, vice president of brand marketing. “We are sharing the story of circular design, which reconsiders traditional production by creating one-of-a-kind garments out of returned pieces. These pieces sit alongside our main line, which have utilized sustainable and responsible production methods. From Resewn patchwork blouses to luxurious alpaca coats to bold-colored felted pillows, we are inviting people to experience the next evolution of the brand.”
In terms of brand activation, the new store ticks all the boxes from unique in-store experiences to merchandise not available elsewhere.
While the company has several stores in Manhattan including its flagship location at Columbus Circle, Making Space is consciously positioned to attract younger neighborhood residents. Its retail neighbors include Clare V., Aesop and Warby Parker. (It’s also a short walk to the site of the former A&S department store on Fulton Street, where Eileen Fisher once worked.)
The two-level store, an old carriage house, maintains an original historic vibe but is clean-lined and contemporary. Eileen Fisher’s internal visual and architecture team handled the store design. Many vintage elements are still intact — exposed beams and walls — topped off with furniture and fixtures made from Northeast-based businesses. The overall effect from the wide-open storefront to the spacious interior invites passersby to step inside and check out the buzz.
“We were drawn to Brooklyn, and specifically Bergen Street because it is a neighborhood unto itself,” says Avery Casper Filbin, director of stores. “The residents in the neighborhood are committed to supporting each other. The opening of this concept store comes at a point in our company’s lifecycle where we feel ready to experiment and enhance what we already have. In an industry that is experiencing so much disruption, this new concept once again proves that through innovation, we will learn how best to grow our company to be healthy for the long run.”
The company is already testing a “Brooklyn Lite” prototype at existing locations in University Village in Seattle and Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich.
DOWNTOWN ENERGY AND COMMUNITY
“We wanted to invite a new customer into the brand,” McShane says. “As a brand, we have a rich story to tell with many layers. As a design-led innovator, we introduced the Making Space concept as a way to engage customers in a new way while providing a strong assortment of product.”
Making Space combines the quality of community with its work in design innovation to deliver a unique in-store experience. “Our objective is to speak to that by creating a space to highlight these pieces, along with artist workshops and community events that make a unique space for connection beyond traditional retail.”
The store will not only be used for ongoing sale of apparel and accessory collections, but for other opportunities as well. For the first time the company has invited “Artists in Residence” to the store; each month, different local artists will cycle through the space, making it integral to the surrounding community. They’ll be visible from the storefront windows, where the featured artist is creating in real time. (The store opened with Cara Marie Piazza, a New York-based textile artist who uses flower and food waste in her work.)
This past fall the brand worked with streetwear label Public School on a line that “infused the Eileen Fisher aesthetic with new, downtown energy,” McShane says. “This was a collaboration that could have only happened within an experiential place.”
Another difference is a rethinking of store associates. “In this store, we refer to sales associates as ‘guides’ that will not only help with customer service but will also build relationships and educate customers about how [the company does]business differently,” she says.
“We are a company built on a sense of community — from our employees to our supply chains,” Fisher says. “In this new store environment, we combine that essential quality of community with our work in design innovation to deliver a unique in-store experience. This is not a radical reinvention of [our brand], but simply the fullest expression of who we are: A space for experimentation and creation. For making and remaking. For finding inspiration, because in creating this space, we’re making space for something new.”
When entering, visitors are invited to write down what they’re “making space” for in their closets on provided cards. Non-Eileen Fisher merchandise includes Tiffany Dufu’s “Drop the Ball,” a book about achieving more with less, as well Japanese sashiko embroidery kits.
Making Space encourages store guests to bring in clothing (regardless of brand) they’d like to repair and attend a hands-on workshop. There are public workshops in mending, sewing and washing of garments, to extend their life and usefulness to the owner. Events such as Mindful Monday, Friday Night Wine, guest lectures and panels invite the public to use the space for not just shopping, but for community engagement. Customers shopping with children will be thankful for thoughtful touches like books and puppets available to entertain kids. And everyone is invited to take a break on the back patio, a peaceful green spot in the middle of the busy neighborhood.
“We are still very much in the process of discovering and reacting to the customer that we have seen,” McShane says. “We are happy that we have been able to maintain our core customer while simultaneously widening our reach and giving a platform to our sustainability message that we believe attracts a new audience that is engaged in issues like sustainability and supply chain.”
There is a new energy, she concedes. “Yet our brand DNA remains consistent through the values we have always stood by: simple, timeless design. The idea is to have a dynamic space for experience beyond transaction — this is a space for experimentation. We have introduced this concept in Brooklyn, Seattle and (suburban) Detroit.”
How does McShane see a future and evolving Eileen Fisher empire shaping up? “At the moment we do not have plans to expand,” she says, “but instead use what we are learning within these three markets to inform the future of our retail doors.”
Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.