Eileen Fisher is winning over millennials with clothes older than they are.
In a gallery space in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, Eileen Fisher has put its cyclical fashion process on display through a two-week long exhibit called Circular By Design. The goal is to make its clothing recycling program and zero-waste initiatives as transparent as possible to prove that sustainability isn’t out of reach for fashion brands, as well as celebrate the soon-to-open Eileen Fisher store that will be located next door.
“This is our whole process, beautified and on display in a gallery,” said Lilah Horwitz, the creative lead of Renew, the Eileen Fisher recycled line. “I like to think of this is a work of art, but it’s also a business move. We’re trying to set a model for other companies, and for the future, and say that if we figured out how to do this, so can everyone else. It’s worth it.”
In 2009, Eileen Fisher began asking for its clothing back in order to minimize the brand’s contribution to textile waste. Customers hanging onto Eileen Fisher items from any year and in any condition can bring them to a store or mail them in, getting a $5 gift card per garment in exchange. The clothing is then sent to one of two recycling centers owned by the brand in Seattle and New York to be sorted by damage. The clothing that doesn’t have stains or holes is washed to be resold under a “gently used” billing; clothing that is damaged is cut, re-sewn and Frankensteined together into entirely new garments. One black coat, for instance, is made from 17 pairs of discarded black pants, stitched together in a patchwork effect; holes in cashmere sweaters are fixed with silk threads.
According to the company, the recycling centers process about 2,000 garments per week, and since its launch eight years ago, a total of 800,000 items have been either prepped for a secondhand sale or reworked into a new garment. While Renew’s facilitating manager Cynthia Power calls it a “tiny piece of a huge pie,” secondhand retail has become a small revenue stream for the brand. So far, reselling old garments has brought in about $2 million per year, sold through a small chain of Eileen Fisher-branded secondhand stores, outlets and pop-up shops. Recycled garments account for 2 percent of the brand’s overall inventory.
Horwitz said it’s an area the brand is planning to expand, particularly bringing more pop-up shops and awareness to cities where millennials are moving. She acknowledged that, so far, Eileen Fisher has shied away from shouting stories around its sustainability efforts, which trace back to the brand’s founding in the 1980s. Details including the list of U.S. factories Eileen Fisher clothing is produced in, the sustainable fabrics used to make the clothing and the steps in its recycled fashion program are available on the site, but they’re not built into how the brand markets itself.
“The brand has never been good at getting that story of sustainability out there,” said a former manager at Eileen Fisher. “The fact is that the customer who loves Eileen Fisher is aging. She’s 60 now. It needs to reach this new audience of millennials, especially when they’re actively looking for brands that practice sustainability.”
Right now, transparency in fashion is trendy. Startup retail disruptors like Everlane, Reformation and American Giant lay bare their pricing models and supply chain partners in an attempt to rope in conscious customers and keep them along for the ride as they figure out the future of sustainability in retail. Mass companies like H&M, Zara and Gap Inc. have adopted similar habits in order to do the same; for fast-fashion brands, speaking out about transparency and sustainability helps keep protesters at bay. Eileen Fisher, for its part, has always branded itself as “sustainably conscious,” not sustainable, since it’s a work in progress.
A quiet marketing strategy around its sustainable practices isn’t all oversight. Thanks to tight resources, the brand has been hesitant about blasting the word out about its recycling program. In 2013, Eileen Fisher ran a campaign around it, recruiting influencers and papering stores in promotional materials using the tag, “We’d like our clothes back, thank you very much.” According to Power, the brand’s recycling centers are still working through the onslaught in items they received from that campaign.
While resources are slim, the brand is investing more in bringing its Renew program and its secondhand retail business to the forefront. It’s testing a new retail concept that bring all of its lines — new designs, secondhand items and recycled garments — under one roof. Right now, there are two locations in Irvington, New York and Seattle, but the brand has plans to scale it. The practice also inspires the designs for the new season’s items, which are made with the items’ second lives in mind, according to Horwitz. She said that while it’s a balance, certain details like patchwork and extra seams are reconsidered, since it will be harder to reuse those materials in the future.
“Eileen Fisher has never been trend-driven,” said Horwitz. “We pick up tags that are 30 years old, and it’s still in style today. We think that strikes a chord with a certain customer.”