“Reclaiming the Voice” with Eileen Fisher
A big piece of the heroine’s journey is reclaiming what’s been lost. For some of us, it’s our intuition, our creativity, or our sense of self trust. For Eileen Fisher, it’s been her voice and her courage to lean into difficult conversations. This design magnate has scaled an incredible organization that generates over $300 million a year in revenue, but she didn’t have an easy start or a path paved with roses.
What makes her shine even more is her passion for sustainability, empowering women, and living life with purpose. In her interview you’ll learn the conditions she’s created for her success, her thoughts on purpose and embodiment, and the principles that guide her leadership today.
Maria: You eventually fell in love with the kimono, which I completely understand. I’m obsessed with kimonos as well. Where did it go from there?
Eileen: I was doing graphic design at the time in Japan and I was inspired by the kimono and the whole concept of the timelessness of that design. How for 4,000 years or more people wore nothing but that one shape in Japan and that really intrigued me. I took it to heart and that whole concept of simplicity. The idea almost of a uniform, something that would work and make it simple to get dressed. I started having these pictures come into my mind while I was doing graphic design. So I guess for about five years I started to sort of conceptualize this business, see it more clearly, and define it a little more. Like, I knew it had to be quality fabric, you know, because the styles were going to be so simple so the fabric was going to be really important. I knew those kinds of things. I hired two different illustrators at different points to try and draw some of my ideas, because I couldn’t really even draw and I certainly couldn’t make patterns or anything like that. They didn’t quite capture it but they got me thinking more and more.
And then I ended up at a boutique show with a friend. He was a sculptor who was showing jewelry. Somehow I just floated around the boutique show and thought, Oh! I can do this. I can picture actually creating these clothes and hanging them up here and people would just come by and if they liked them they could order them and if they didn’t like them they would walk by. I could imagine how to sell them. Before that I couldn’t seem to make them real. I couldn’t hire a seamstress or pattern maker to help me because I couldn’t see a path to how I would sell them. I certainly didn’t have the resources to open a store. So I realized that I would have to put the line together first and then try to sell it. So that’s what I did and I ended up putting together my first 4 pieces in 3 colors, so I had 12 pieces. I literally had no money, it was amazing how I did this.
That first day at the boutique show I was so terrified I just hung up the garments and I couldn’t even speak. And I had forgotten to price them! I didn’t even know how to price them, didn’t even think about that. Then people starting asking me what they cost and I didn’t actually know! So I said, “Come back tomorrow” (Laughs). Other people around helped me, other designers, buyers even helped me think out how to price them. It was very sweet. But I did sell to a small number of stores, tiny little orders, which was actually really good because then I could learn how to do things without making huge mistakes. I learned a lot.
Maria: At this time that you were doing that and experimenting and basically saying, “Hey let me just try this”, did you have self-doubts?
Eileen: Yeah I’m sure I did. I think more I just kind of willfully barrelled through. I saw the picture and I was going for it. I actually wasn’t thinking it was going to fail. I was just seeing the picture and trying to make it real. I look back and I think, wow! That’s amazing that I did that.
- Eileen’s upbringing: Early desires for a simplified wardrobe, the subconscious influence of Catholic school uniforms, and making her own prom dress. [3:25]
- How she used her math skills to help her in business and in finding creative expression. [8:23]
- Falling in love with the concept of simplicity and putting together her first pieces. [11:47]
- How a design-thinking mindset gave her the confidence to move her ideas forward. [16:12]
- Eileen’s biggest challenges starting out (and how she overcame most of them through sheer resourcefulness). [17:31]
- Overcoming her fear of communication and reclaiming her voice. [22:23]
- On being a mom, getting divorced, and trying to run a business (the toughest part of her journey). [26:18]
- The quality that allowed her to keep going during the hard times. [30:38]
- Meaning, purpose, and other principles that guide Eileen’s leadership today. [33:12]
- Beyond profits: The importance of sustainability, organic materials, and supporting women’s bodies. [39:15]
- Eileen’s daily advice for supporting relaxation (which in turn, supports creativity). [45:33]
Discover Eileen’s newest initiative, the Learning Lab, where she is creating opportunities for people to get enlivened and inspired through a focus on the mind-body connection, creative leadership, and purpose-driven living. With online and on-site workshops and events, the Learning Lab offers space to try on new ways to live and work that feel more integrated and authentic.
Connect soon and sign up to be a part of Eileen’s vision at www.eileenfisherlearninglab.com
Lucia Lilikoi at lucia.bandcamp.com