Eileen Fisher: business dynamo

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Things are looking way up for Eileen Fisher Inc.

The Eileen Fisher LAB Store in Irvington’s historic Bridge Street complex recently reopened after four months of renovation as a result of flood damage from Hurricane Sandy.

“I was really sad that we had to close the LAB Store,” says Fisher, who lives nearby. “Not only is it my favorite place to shop and experiment with the clothes, but the LAB Store has become a community hub where we hold crafting and upcycling workshops, book readings and events.”

The hurricane wreaked its havoc on the place – unmooring the store’s huge plate glass window, sending a couch into the middle of the selling area, scattering scarves like mud-stained leaves and ruining many of the one-of-a-kind fixtures. Miraculously, the window didn’t break and is now back in place welcoming customers.

New features like the eclectic fixtures underscore the store’s unique mix. It’s the only Eileen Fisher store that sells one-of-a-kind samples along with recycled clothing (some from Eileen’s personal collection) and new pieces. The reimagined store will have a new wall that highlights all the season’s basics – the elevated system pieces that Eileen counts on to get dressed simply, quickly – and elegantly.

All proceeds from recycled clothing sales support Green Eileen, which sells recycled clothing at a store in Yonkers and a new one in Seattle, as well as causes benefitting women and girls. It was in her capacity as a champion of women entrepreneurs that Eileen was recently honored by the Women’s Enterprise Development Center Inc. (WEDC) during the unveiling of her spring line at Bloomingdale’s in White Plains. (See Watch in this issue.)

A busy woman, Eileen graciously took time to answer a few questions about subjects dear to her heart:

Eileen, why is it so important for you to support WEDC?

“While it’s often said that I started my company with $350 and a vision, it was really the support of friends that kept me moving forward. Not all women have this, which is why we need organizations like the WEDC. They offer counseling and training, in addition to capital. While the financial support is crucial, it’s really the energy behind it that makes the difference. When someone believes in you, the possibilities are endless.”

What were those early days like and how have they informed your involvement with women entrepreneurs?

“The early days were fun and filled with opportunity. One season I chose a fabric that didn’t perform well and learned a wise business lesson: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

“Overall, there was a community of people around me willing to offer help and advice. I took my first booth at the Boutique Show (in Manhattan), because a friend pushed me to show my idea – and it turned out customers liked it. Friends supported my vision and helped me with the work – producing samples, packing shipments, etc. I saw that collaboration between individuals could achieve more than I could do alone.

“These early days informed me about women entrepreneurs, because they were my customers. Specialty store buyers advised me in the beginning. They answered my questions about styles and how to price garments. I learned that creating and owning your own business is a way to build confidence and promote financial independence. But it’s not something that happens overnight. It needs cultivation. …”

What would you like to say about the spring collection and what may we look forward to for fall?

“Spring for me is keeping things simple – with an edge. My favorite spring item is the harem pant. It’s our own take on a trend, and I have to admit I’m addicted to the comfort. Our harem pants are stretchy and easy but really make a statement. They look great with so many of the things in my closet, particularly our new reversible sweater with organic linen stripes.

“Harem pants have been such a hit we’re moving them forward to our fall collection. You’ll also see uneven hemlines, luxurious ombre knits and mottled silk prints. We’re introducing waxed denim jeans – made with organic cotton. You might think that the combination of a waxed, leather-like surface and organic cotton doesn’t go together, but we like to support farmers who are growing cotton in a way that sustains wildlife and ecosystems.”

Eileen Fisher invites women-owned businesses to apply for her ninth annual Business Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs. The program celebrates women at the helm of innovative companies that foster environmental and economic health in their communities. Up to five grants of $12,500 will be awarded to prospective applicants. Recipients will also attend a two-day conference in New York City, meeting with past beneficiaries and Eileen Fisher teams in early 2014. For more information about the program or to submit an application, please visit eileenfisher.com/grants.

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