March 14, 2011

Moving Fashion Forward: Building a Brand Experience

Eileen Fisher’s Karen Gray ’81 advises retailers to stay true to company values as they grow, and to remember that customer — and employee — treatment matters most.


When the financial crisis began wreaking havoc in fall 2009, Karen Gray ’81, Eileen Fisher’s director of retail and global expansion, faced a daunting task: the company, originally targeted towards baby-boomer women, sought to make its trademark loose and flowing clothes appeal to younger buyers. Under Gray’s direction, Eileen Fisher began advertising its lesser-known form-fitting designs, which had been available all along. The approach was a success, and despite the recession, Eileen Fisher went on to its most profitable year ever in 2010.

No stranger to challenges, Gray started a line of children’s clothing with a friend shortly after graduating from Columbia Business School. When the company went out of business several years later, Gray returned to school to study design, a decision that led to her position as an assistant manager in Eileen Fisher’s Westchester County, NY, store. From there, Gray worked her way up to her current position, each promotion coming on the heels of another problem solved.

Now Gray and Eileen Fisher are taking on yet another novel mission: moving beyond US borders to bring the brand to the United Kingdom and Canada. Gray spoke with HERMES about global expansion and other challenges facing retailers, advising that a strong company philosophy can see brands through the ups and downs of today’s competitive retail environment.

Gray will participate in a panel, Building and Managing the Brand Experience, at Reunion 2011, April 15–17. To register and learn more, visit the reunion website.

How would you describe Eileen Fisher’s company culture?

We are a highly collaborative culture focused on engaging people’s passions and empowering them to make decisions. As a leader, I’m interested in finding ways to help people do their best work, instead of a more authoritarian approach. We have a big emphasis on learning. One of Eileen’s founding principles is that mistakes are great opportunities — as long as you don’t keep making the same mistakes.

We also emphasize wellness and social consciousness. The company has always been passionate about fair trade practices and paying people fairly. We have a social consciousness team that ensures our manufacturers are abiding by labor rules. We have a very close manufacturing partnership and a big part of that is treating our partners — and the people who work with our partners — well. I think our customers appreciate that.

How does the company philosophy translate into a brand experience for customers?

Customers feel the authenticity of employees living the brand values. You can train people to say things, but if someone is saying it because they really believe it, that’s a whole different thing.

We view the employees in our stores as important conduits of information and vital to the success of our company. Eileen actually sold 31 percent of the company to employees, so everyone you talk to in a store is part owner.

The visual merchandising and written materials and, of course, the clothes are also expressions of our company values, but the people are the most important part of communicating a philosophy that defines a brand.

When Eileen Fisher launched, its target consumers were women over 50. Why is it important for Eileen Fisher to become a multigenerational brand?

We wanted to include more women in their 30s and 40s, but more than age, we wanted to show people that you could wear our clothes in a more body-conscious way. Eileen started the company when loose and flowing was really the look, and we knew there were customers even in our traditional baby-boomer category who didn’t think our clothes were for them because they wanted designs that were more fitted. We had those products, but our advertising didn’t show them.

The fashion world loves to exclude people. Consumers are made to feel they are not thin or beautiful enough. Eileen’s philosophy has always been about inclusion, and all of our brand work is focused on bringing more people into our circle and being an intergenerational fashion company.

Is your approach to international consumers different than your approach to those in the United States?

One of the advantages of choosing the UK as our main target for global expansion is that culturally it is similar to the United States. From a clothing standpoint, the body types and sizing are similar, so we felt that we wouldn’t have to re-do patterns and sizes, which you often have to do for Asian markets, for example.

But aesthetically, we feel that the UK customer is probably a bit more fashion-forward than the US customer, especially in London. So we will take the best of the best — what we are most proud of — to enter the market there. But we are going to base our marketing mostly on tactics and images we’re using here. We believe we’ll have one or two retail stores opening there in fall 2011. We’re also working with a partner to open a store in Vancouver this year.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge for retailers today?

From the product end, I think the biggest challenge for retailers is to understand how to move a brand forward. Customers are looking for brands — especially apparel brands — that will bring them to a new place, excite them, show them something new, and help them reinvent themselves. But how fast you do that — and how far you push the envelope — is really tricky. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re being left behind or succumbing to a trend.

From a business perspective, competitive pricing that continues to give consumers good value is challenging. There’s huge upward price pressure on commodities like yarns and materials. We know that our customer is more cost-conscious, so we started a new line, “Our Favorites,” that features products from previous seasons. Because we don’t have to redesign the styles and we’re using the same fabrics, we’re able to offer them to customers at value prices. Also, Eileen would really like to make the entire brand more available to people of different income levels; it goes along with our goal of including more people in the experience.

Overall, I think it’s most challenging to stay true to your values as you grow and to remember that what’s most important is treating your employees and customers well. It can be easy to adopt policies that are restricting to customers to help solve an operational challenge, but those policies can really make people unhappy. It’s important to build your company policies around providing the best experience for customers.

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