Eileen Fisher is in London to drop off her daughter for a term at university when we meet to catch up at her Covent Garden store.
She’s balancing her family duties with meet and greets at three of her eponymous UK stores, an event at Fenwick Bond Street and scouting the city for new store locations. She is clearly a natural when it comes to juggling responsibilities.
And it’s safe to say there’s a lot going on for Fisher, founder of the premium womenswear business. Within the first 10 minutes she reveals plans are underway for the launch of a kidswear line and potentially a fragrance in future years, while a trial of menswear in the form of a capsule collection will debut for autumn 14. However, Fisher admits she hasn’t had much involvement in these developments, as she is now acting as a figurehead for the company while taking a back seat on the day-to-day running of it.
“I stopped signing off on everything some time ago, when I appointed a hand-picked core concept team who really got the brand and then I felt safe,” she says. “[As the company has grown] it’s always been a struggle of how much to lean into it and how much to let go. The bigger it’s gotten, the more I’ve had to do it.”
This is her first official trip to the UK, where the first British Eileen Fisher stores opened in Covent Garden and Marylebone High Street in October 2011, when the brand also made its UK wholesale debut in Fenwick Bond Street.
This was the first phase of the 30-year-old US brand’s foray into global retail outside the US and Canada. Since then, it has picked up seven independent UK stockists, including The Clothes Room in Harrogate, Okeefe in Esher, Surrey and Doyles in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. It has also become an exhibitor at London trade show Scoop and opened a third standalone store in Wimbledon at the beginning of this year.
Sales from its UK stores are up 10% on last year and the business has a three to five-year plan to grow its UK wholesale arm, but declined to give figures.
“I’m hugely excited about it,” says Hilary Cookson, owner of womenswear boutique Maureen Cookson in Whalley, Lancashire, who doesn’t yet stock the brand but plans to after being impressed by the spring 14 collection. “There are few collections that translate so well into the UK, and between the simple silhouettes and the great fabric quality it’s ideally suited to my customer.”
Back in the US, Eileen Fisher has 50 standalone stores, of which seven are in Manhattan. Luxury US department stores Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom account for 65% of total US sales between them, with Eileen Fisher the number one bestseller in Bloomingdale’s ready-to-wear ranges and number two in Neiman Marcus and Saks. Globally, the brand will turn over $400m (£250m) this year, up about 7% on 2012.
Fisher launched her brand at trade show Boutique Design New York in 1984, with $350 (£218) in her bank account and just four pieces. “Although I made them in three colours,” she laughs. “So it looked like I had 12.” She picked up eight orders worth $3,000 (£1,874) and never looked back, opening her first store in New York in 1991.
Yet Fisher is adamant that between the initial four-piece line and the multimillion-dollar business she has now, she never had a ‘wow’ moment where it all took off.
“It was always very organic growth,” she says, using the adjective that everyone who works at Eileen Fisher seems to favour when discussing the business. “I guess the first phase was about five years where it was just building. There was never a climactic big change but I’d sold about $40,000 (£24,988) in the second season, then maybe $80,000 (£49,975) the next, so it was never out of control.”
Nowadays, it’s her team that manages the business side of things. Fortunately, Fisher has brought seemingly half the company to London with her.
In terms of venturing outside the US, London was the obvious choice, says Karen Gray, vice president of retail and global development.
“The cultural connection between the US and UK made that first step a little easier; there’s a similar way of doing business.”
It may seem surprising, therefore, that the business has waited until now to tackle the UK, but the move has been in the pipeline for a long time. Mariclare Van Bergen, vice president of sales, explains: “We started thinking about it years ago but we wanted to do thorough research and a lot of trips. By the time we were opening it was not a great economic time, but we’re a privately held company and we don’t have to answer to the stock market so we have the luxury to think long term.”
James Gundell, co-chief operating officer and facilitating leader, adds: “The years prior to 2008 were when the pound was exceptionally strong against the dollar and those were the learning years for the US market, when we saw a huge amount of travel dollars coming in, so that’s when we knew the UK would be a great option for us.”
The team is positive about developing the company further in the UK, having earmarked Sloane Square in London for another store, as well as Guildford, Oxford and Edinburgh, where they have taken scouting trips. Further afield, European expansion is also on the cards. Australia, Switzerland and Germany are the biggest online customers for Eileen Fisher, of the 90 countries its website currently serves. And Germany will most likely be the business’s next move.
“We feel Germany is obvious in the way London was,” says Gray. “It’s the biggest apparel market in the eurozone.”
“If we go into the German market we’re not thinking about retail stores,” Gundell adds.
“We would think about department and speciality stores, because that’s where the scene is at there. In the US a big part of our success is the interplay between department stores, retail stores and online - the buzzword is omnichannel and we’ve been working on it for a long time.”
The brand is developing its omnichannel strategy. In addition to Fenwick the team is now in talks with other UK department stores, while the ecommerce side of the business, which currently accounts for 25% of total sales, is due to be “given some attention” within the next couple of years.
In the US the company reopened its Fifth Avenue store in New York this month, after refurbishing it with what the team calls the ‘London Approach’. This involves a more heavily curated layout, with fewer sizes out on the rails and more emphasis on contemporary store design, all of which was inspired by the UK premium market. The concept will be rolled out across further US stores in coming years.
“There’s a little more sense of a polished approach in the UK,” says Gundell, referring both to store design and the clothing itself.
The brand’s hairier woollen garments and patterned scarves haven’t sold well over here, which surprised the team, although luxury basics have flown off the shelves, with Fenwick increasing basic items, including long-sleeved T-shirts and vests, from 1% to 15% of their overall buy in the last two years.
“The other thing we were surprised by is that UK customers have very little price resistance,” says Van Bergen. “We have a suede jacket that is close to £500 retail and we had to put in a really quick reorder.” Generally speaking, the collection wholesales at between £20 for an organic cotton tank top and £160 for jackets.
Design-wise, Fisher says the past three or four years have seen the business pushing an “edge”, a strategy implemented because she worries that sometimes the clothes “get a little quiet”.
“In the States our customers have grown up with us and they’re now older and of course I’ve aged,” she says. “If we only listen to our same customers we become victims of our own success, so we’re thinking [about] how to create a new image of the brand. It’s not just your mum’s brand. We’re using different models, edgier advertising; I don’t think at this point we’re going to turn off our customer.”
For now though, Fisher is focusing on other projects, including plans to open a factory in New York’s Bronx to start bringing sewing skills back to the US. She’s also working on funding grants to benefit female entrepreneurs, as well as starting to sell the company to its employees as she begins her withdrawal from the frontline, which she has always planned to do. At present, one third of the company is employee owned. Does she have a date in mind by when she plans to fully step back?
“It feels like my vision for the company is realised. I’m proud of all that,” she says, laughing. “It’s nice to feel I can just do all the fun things now.”