THREADED: Eileen Fisher – Designing With Depth and Appreciation

ColumnAn interview with designer Eileen Fisher.

Threads, seams, and sewing machines were familiar and fascinating for Eileen Fisher from a young age. Growing up with a mother who often handmade her brother and sisters’ clothing, Fisher enjoyed filtering through fabrics and selecting her favorites to be worked into her wardrobe. When she found herself more academically enamored by her college roommate’s interior design projects than her math major assignments, she knew design must be a part of her future and focus.

Organic cotton and cashmere cardigan

Fabrics Are Unforgettable

Fisher’s attraction and loyalty to fabrics stemmed from her early years, and has now evolved into one of the grounding forces behind Eileen Fisher, the brand. “You’ll notice we use a lot of the same fabrics over the years. We get really hooked on fabrics, we love the way they feel but we change the proportions to make them feel modern and to give women different ways to mix it up,” Fisher tells EcoSalon. Using this design approach allows women to buy consciously, adding to their wardrobe with staple pieces that will last, in style and quality.

It’s intriguing to realize that the design process for Fisher is integral to extending the lifetime of her pieces. “We’ve never used prints – we value rich color and textures in quality fabrics over patterns and prints. Avoiding prints helped me think about simplicity and how it worked – because when a garment is patterned, it becomes the ‘thing’ and can disguise poor quality,” Fisher explains. Instead, if the concentration is on investing in fabrics, garments will flourish and also maintain their versatility as prints and patterns tend to come and go instantaneously via the land of trends.

Linen and recycled cotton poncho and tencel dress

A Sustainable Mind

For Fisher, she believes her sustainable mind can be somewhat attributed to her roots. “Sustainability goes back to growing up in the Midwest. We didn’t waste things. I don’t like waste so I think clothes should last a really long time,” she says. Whether it be long-lasting, durable fabrics, or thinking more creatively in the way you style pieces, simple shapes make the Eileen Fisher world go ’round. Now a core value for the company, Fisher was inspired by the Japanese aesthetic through her various travels to the country.

“I was very interested in the kimono because for 1,100 years in Japan, people wore nothing but the kimono shape and I thought that was really interesting – what made it timeless, what made it last so long?” This simple art philosophy that has filtered down into Eileen Fisher’s collection is somewhat refreshing and calming amidst the world’s chaos.

Sheer silk georgette box-top with dolman sleeves and silk georgette cropped cargo

Design Without Borders

Global connections are undoubtedly part of the patchwork behind Eileen Fisher; with a team that sources wools from Italy, silks from China, collaborates with artisan groups in India, and develops fabrics in Japan, the accepting and open-armed nature of Eileen Fisher gives it an edge amongst the larger womenswear brands of today.

This spring Eileen Fisher will debut their first piece made in Africa – hand-loomed by a women’s collective in Ethiopia, and for Fall 2012, they will launch their first item made in Spain – artisanal natural-dyed merino knit gloves. In an effort to support the local American culture, Eileen Fisher also produces their garments in NYC and Los Angeles. Literally a quilted work of art, Eileen Fisher is a collage of global cooperative efforts that respect local techniques from the world’s artisans and producers.

The Peru Project

Directly in line with the acknowledging, thought-driven philosophy behind the brand, Fisher asked Julie Ribuner, the sweater knit designer who has been leading The Peru Project for the past few years, to take over for her and answer EcoSalon’s questions.

Born in 2005, this Project evolved out of an interest to boost Eileen Fisher’s use of organic fibers and materials. “After researching options, we turned to Peru because we saw an opportunity to participate in a holistic program – not only do they grow organic cotton locally, they spin the yarn and knit the sweaters creating a sustainable local story,” says Ribuner.

After instigating this venture with one iconic shape – the original box top in a simple reverse jersey stitch – Eileen Fisher has expanded the designs and production in Peru each season, due to their customers’ positive reaction. “Our work in Peru supports the local community – workers are paid fair-trade wages and they collectively reinvest capital into the community,” Ribuner adds.

The above video captures the authenticity and beauty of this project.

Hand-knit kneck warmer in yak yarn

Yak Love

Another fascinating project led by sweater knit designer Mimi Wong, is built around yak yarn.

“The sweater knit design team was captivated by the beautiful story of Yaks and the nomadic herders of the remote Qinghai-Tibetan plateau,” Wong says.

For these Tibetans, the yak is at the center of their livelihoods, providing them with fibers, shelter, clothing, milk, and yogurt, while also being used in farming and for transportation. With a body makeup designed to survive in frigid, high altitudes, these animals’ long hair and thick overcoat sheds naturally once each year in the springtime. This super-soft-cashmere-like fiber is then spun into yarn. For Eileen Fisher, they blend their un-dyed yak yarn with merino to maintain its luxe touch.

Wong tells EcoSalon, “We like using the fiber of Yaks as it also supports a vanishing way of nomadic lifestyle, traditions and community.”

Sheer silk georgette scoop neck box-top and silk Habutai tiered maxi skirt

Design For All Ages

Eileen Fisher appears to be taking on a younger edge as of late, but maybe it’s less about the garments, and more about the styling. “As a designer, I think my perspective can shift, but I hold onto the core values of simplicity, comfort, ease, versatility and being drawn to beautiful fabrics,” Fisher says.

Some of her designers have been working with the company for years and have a deep history, which according to Fisher, “blends with the new designers fresh out of school.”

In an emergence of design that is in-the-now and transcends time, Eileen Fisher’s cooperative design team seems to really be finding their groove in balancing these distinct angles.

Fisher tells EcoSalon that she consistently finds inspiration in the way different women in their office style the same garment, expressing themselves in an individual way. “For me personally, I have a daughter in college and she’ll take things from my closet, but when she wears them it’s completely different to how I would. We want the line to be intergenerational, to invite more women into the brand.”

Organic cotton knit box-top and tencel linen cropped cargo

Healing The Future Holistically

So what story does Eileen Fisher hope to share with the world?

“I guess it’s really thinking about eco and sustainability in a more holistic way,” Fisher says.

On a practical level, The brand offers wardrobe basics, like organic jeans and organic tees, or a pencil skirt made from recycled garments, but also luxurious silks that are made in a factory that uses fewer chemicals, less water, and less energy. However, for Fisher it’s about moving beyond simply being organic and integrating organic fabrics into your designs.

“It means looking at the supply chain and how companies can make a difference there too, from the factory workers all the way to the end customer. It isn’t easy, but we’re seeing how business can be part of lasting environmental solutions.”

When framed this way, the future of fashion from a holistic approach could prove beneficial for people and the planet. And we hope Fisher’s groundwork is something upcoming designers will embrace and continue to evolve.

Kestrel Jenkins

Kestrel Lee Jenkins currently resides in New York City where she writes a weekly column covering the sustainable fashion world.