GUY RAZ, HOST:
Hey. Before we start the show, I just want to tell you about some really exciting news is that we're doing two more live events supported by American Express Open before the end of this year. The first one will be right here in Washington, D.C., on November 30th. My guest will be Robert Johnson, who founded B.E.T., Black Entertainment Television. The second one is in Atlanta on December 6th, and my guest then will be Arthur Blank, who co-founded Home Depot and who now owns the Atlanta Falcons. Tickets for both shows are going on sale soon so keep checking NPRpresents.org to find out more. OK. Here's the show.
EILEEN FISHER: I was so freaked out the first day, I literally couldn't speak. I just stood there. People would ask me questions like, how much does it cost? What's the style number? And I, like, froze. And other people in my booth would help me out and say, you know, why don't you come back tomorrow? She'll (laughter) help you out. I was like a deer in headlights.
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RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, how an introverted interior designer got over her stage fright to launch Eileen Fisher, a multimillion-dollar clothing company for women.
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RAZ: So if you know a little bit about the clothing industry, the giants, especially for women's apparel, are brands like Chanel and Versace and Prada, and of course H&M and Zara. So given that Eileen Fisher does about $300 million a year in revenue, it's comparatively small, but in women's fashion, the brand is also incredibly influential, and not just for the designs, but how Eileen Fisher started her company. To be precise, with just $350. She never took a dime from outside investors. And she still owns about 60 percent of her company. Her employees own the rest. Now, if you've seen the clothes, you'll know that they're pretty spare and minimalist, low-key but also elegant, which is sort of how you might describe Eileen Fisher.
FISHER: It's funny because lately I've been kind of calling myself a shy extrovert. (Laughter). I think I don't know that I'm wired so much that way, I just think that something - I was kind of shut down when I was young. And, you know, the classroom, I remember there were, like, 60 kids in my Catholic school classroom, and it was just always safer to hide and to be small and to not speak.
RAZ: Eileen grew up in a middle-class family in Des Plaines, Ill., in the 1950s and '60s. She had five sisters and a brother. Her dad worked as an accountant for a local company, and her mom spent her days at home doing laundry and cleaning and making dinner for all nine of them.
FISHER: I think what I mostly remember is my mother, you know, her kind of unhappiness. I think it was hard raising seven children, and I think she felt it was her job to do all the hard work. And my dad felt, you know, his job was to go to work and make the money, and come home and be taken care of after that. So she would pretty much kind of - we used to call it ranting and raving all day long (laughter). And then my dad would come home. And just before my dad would come home, she would get dressed and get the meal ready and sometimes even put on lipstick. And I just remember, I was about 16, and my mother had a breakdown. And my father said that, the next day, he was driving to work and he had to pull over on the side of the road and he broke down crying, realizing that he had thought only a few days before that these were the happiest days of his life.
FISHER: But there were happy - you know, there were a lot of happy moments. Yeah. We played. The kids played. You know, we had the neighborhood, the suburbs and bicycles. And we played kick the can at night, and the Good Humor truck came down the street and we got ice cream. Things like that. So, you know, it was pretty much your typical suburban experience, I think.
RAZ: Eileen went off to college at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s without any real idea of what she wanted to do. She started out as a math major, but eventually she decided on interior design.
FISHER: You know, I just loved fabric and color and playing with the shapes, and, back to my mom for a second, I had sewed with my mother when I was younger. So that was some of my happy memories with my mother. I used to have these pictures in my mind of the clothes I wanted to wear, and we would go shopping. And I loved being in a fabric store. That was one of my favorite places to be.
RAZ: In her early 20s, Eileen moved to New York with a friend, but with no real plan. Now, this was 1972, when you could actually find an apartment in Manhattan for a hundred bucks a month. So to pay her rent, Eileen started doing some freelance graphic design gigs. And eventually, she got a job working with a Japanese graphic designer named Roy Yoshimura (ph).
FISHER: Yeah. I was an assistant, so I'd started just doing whatever needed to be done. And we designed logos and we designed packages, things for banks. And then we did stuff for Japanese clients, Kirin beer and things like that. And after a short while we were, like, working together. And, you know, we ended up getting into a relationship, which was like, oh, no.
RAZ: And were you traveling? Were you - did you go to Japan with him?
FISHER: Right. Right. So this is exactly where the clothing idea came from. So we started traveling. We took two trips together to Japan.
RAZ: I'm just trying to imagine, like, this is the, I guess, the sort of mid to late '70s...
FISHER: Right. Mid to late '70s.
RAZ: ...And you're flying from New York to Japan. It must've been pretty glamorous, right? I mean, that was a big deal.
FISHER: Yeah. I guess so. It was also kind of stressful. You know, I felt pressure and, you know, I couldn't speak the language so I tried hard to learn it. So there was glamour, yes, I guess. You know? But I'm not - I don't - I'm not so attracted to glamour. I was more uncomfortable with glamour. I used to always say I'm this uncomfortable person, that's why I had to make these comfortable clothes.
RAZ: Yeah. What struck you about design that you came across in Japan?
FISHER: Just how simple and beautiful things were. Simple. Really simple. Like, you could really see, like, with the kimono, for example. One shape, you know, for thousands of years. And, you know, they would just, you know, use different fabrics and different techniques to make it different every time. And, you know, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. And, yeah, that inspired me.
RAZ: How long did you work with - his name was Ray (ph), right?
FISHER: Ray, yeah.
RAZ: How long did you work with him?
FISHER: About four years.
RAZ: And, I mean, of course any time there's a professional and personal relationship, this can also - always often causes some complications. Was that - did that sort of begin to unravel? Your personal relationship begin to unravel your professional relationship?
FISHER: God, yes. Definitely. It was all connected.
FISHER: We thought we could split up and continue to work together, but that became quite clear within a few months that that was just not going to work. But yeah so I ended up separating, getting my own little loft eventually, after about a year of bouncing around, finding a little space in a loft in Tribeca.
RAZ: Where you lived and worked.
FISHER: Where I lived and worked. And I was stumbling around doing still, you know, a few, you know, some Japanese clients still and then some other work I was stumbling around and getting. I don't even know how if I look back 'cause it was really day by day.
RAZ: And it was just freelance, like, design work.
FISHER: Right, right. Apartments. I did a few apartments, a small office, dentist office. Things like that. Just whatever I could get, and trying to survive and pay the rent, and, you know, keep working as a designer and not go back to working as a waitress. That was my one commitment. I wasn't going to end up waitressing again. I hadn't done that in many years, and I didn't want to go back to that. And then I met some people, and that's when I - though I had been kind of cooking on this idea of the, you know, the clothing business...
RAZ: You'd been cooking on this idea already in the early '80s?
FISHER: Yeah. It was in my mind for probably five years before the first garments appeared.
RAZ: To make your own clothes or to try and design clothes? That was in your mind?
FISHER: Right, to try and design clothes.
RAZ: Where did that idea come from?
FISHER: I don't know. I think some of it was that when I was trying to get dressed for, you know, the Japanese clients, and, you know, the different - I wanted, I needed to look like a designer. And (laughter)...
RAZ: And what did that mean?
FISHER: What did it mean to look like a designer? Sort of look, you know, put together and, you know...
FISHER: Yeah. Clean and elegant and simple. I wanted to reflect my own style of my own aesthetic. You know, I wore a uniform when I was young. And...
RAZ: At Catholic school?
FISHER: Catholic school. And so when I was trying to get dressed as a designer, I kind of never really liked the uniform, but I liked the concept of making getting dressed simple, just get up and - I have enough to think about, enough to worry about (laughter). Just put the clothes on and go. You know? I wanted to make it simple, but I didn't want it to be so confined that it had to be exactly, like, you know, the uniform or, you know, only one particular shape. I didn't want to wear the same thing every day. And I just had this idea that I could make these simple clothes, no one's really doing it. And the images would come to me. I would see these simple shapes. And the first one I remember was, I called a box top. It almost had a, you know, quite straight lines like a kimono sleeve, and it was about the way it would drape when you had it on.
So that was kind of the first picture that came to me. And others were, you know, the simple little wide-leg pant and, you know, there was a vest and a shell. And these first few pieces, it just started to come to me. And I was talking to people 'cause now I had artist friends in Tribeca and other people who were designing clothes and jewelry and things like that.
RAZ: You were saying to them - which often happens when people have an idea - you were saying I have this idea to design these beautiful, simple, you know, pieces of clothing for women. And were your friends saying, you should go for it, you should do it?
FISHER: Yeah. Definitely, definitely.
RAZ: And you would have these conversations for, you know, for a long time with many people, like, over a period of five years?
FISHER: Yeah. (Laughter) People probably thought I was really obsessed.
RAZ: So this is what I'm curious about because this is the point at which 99.9 percent of people do nothing. They have a great idea, and they do nothing either because they decide not to do something or just because of bad luck. What was it that switched that idea into something you actually tried?
FISHER: OK. That's good. So I think what happened is that I'm seeing these pictures and I'm trying to imagine, where do I start, you know? And how would I make this happen? And I couldn't picture myself, you know? Like, what if I made these clothes, how would I do that? And then I couldn't picture myself. How would I sell them? You know, would I go to stores? Other people were telling me they were going to, like, Henri Bendel and waiting in line for hours, and the buyer would go, like, nope, I don't like it.
RAZ: And you did not. That was not you. You were not a - you're not a hustler in that way.
FISHER: No. I was a shy introvert, I think, at the time. (Laughter). But I knew I couldn't. I was definitely not a hustler, and I could not have done that.
RAZ: The idea was mortifying to you to have to...
RAZ: ...To have to go and try to be - what do you think was the - would have been the hardest part of that? The rejection, somebody saying no? Or trying to articulate what it was that you...
FISHER: Both. Both. I think probably it was still rejection at the time, you know? But articulating was and still is kind of an issue for me. Just thinking today about trying to tell the story, very hard.
RAZ: You're doing a great - you're doing great.
FISHER: Thanks. I need encouragement. (Laughter).
RAZ: This is an incredible story. So (laughter) you're thinking, all right. I want to try this, but I cannot even imagine what I would do after...
RAZ: ...I would have, like, a sample of this.
FISHER: Right. And so what ended up happening is I had a friend who took me to the boutique show. And...
RAZ: This is, like, a famous show, like, a trade show?
FISHER: It's a trade show.
RAZ: In New York.
FISHER: Right. But it was a show, a big show that catered to the small boutiques around the country, and a lot of small designers and small companies would come there and show their things. And so I remember going to the show just out of curiosity...
RAZ: Just to check it out.
FISHER: ...And kind of floating through and going, like, I can do this. I see how to do this. You know? Like, I just looked at these different booths and saw how the designers were presenting their clothes - a little rack here, a few things hanging. You know, I knew how to do a logo. I could do that. I'd need a logo, wouldn't I? I'd need a name, you know? So I could picture the whole story. So it wasn't just, like, one garment. It was that I had to - people had to see a kind of a whole to understand that it went together and that it was a little story somehow.
RAZ: And by going to the design show, you thought, well, hey, I don't have to be a carnival barker. I can just stand here and wait for people to come to me.
FISHER: Exactly, and the people who like it will come and write orders or, you know, give me feedback. And the people who don't like it will just walk by. So then I committed to a booth, a small section. Just, like, one wall of a booth.
RAZ: For the same design show?
FISHER: For the next show, for the next show.
RAZ: This is in, like, 1983, '84?
FISHER: Must have been '83 because I think it was '84 at the show that I first introduced the line.
RAZ: You thought, I'm going to go there and show my clothes.
FISHER: I'm going to go there, and I'm going to show my clothes. Right.
RAZ: And did you have...
FISHER: No, I had no clothes.
RAZ: Did you have a name for the company?
FISHER: No. I had no name. I had no clothes. I had no fabric. I had no styles. I had nothing. (Laughter).
RAZ: You had designs, though, right?
FISHER: Just pictures in my mind. I had nothing.
RAZ: So and how much time did you have?
FISHER: Three weeks.
RAZ: You had three weeks to come up with a clothing line, a fashion line?
FISHER: (Laughter). No. Don't get carried away now. It wasn't really a fashion line. To start out, it was four garments.
RAZ: Yeah, but still, that's...
FISHER: But still.
FISHER: But I had sewn, you know, as a kid so I knew, you know, that it wasn't that complicated. But I was lucky, and this is how - this is kind of weird how things happen but, you know, again, one of the friends I'd been talking to said, I have a friend who's a pattern maker. She works in a clothing company. Maybe she can help you. So she came, and she worked for me at night and on the weekends those first three weeks.
RAZ: This woman just volunteered?
FISHER: Well, she said, you can pay me. I know you're good for it. You can pay me when you get paid.
RAZ: Did you draw a bunch of designs and give them to her to sew? Or, did you sew them?
FISHER: Well, I pretty much talked my way through it. I scribbled them, you know, my little sketches. And she said, whoa, those are pretty simple. (Laughter). What's special about them, Eileen? And I was like, well, it's special that they're simple. And she said, OK (laughter), but, I'll help you. And so first I had to find fabric. That was kind of the hardest thing. And so she helped me, you know, figure out where I could go to get fabric.
RAZ: What kind of fabric was it?
FISHER: It was a linen and cotton blend. Yeah.
RAZ: So what did you end up making?
FISHER: I made the box top, the little crop pant, kind of based on the flood pant from Japan, and I made a little shell, a vest that kind of went over the top. And then I made a little shell so you could wear just the shell with a simple pant. Oh, my God, these are like the pieces on my line today. It's so amazing to see the pictures.
RAZ: And what colors were they?
FISHER: They were, like, a teal color and kind of a burgundy. It's not quite burgundy. Salmon-y, pink-y red, you know? And ivory.
RAZ: So after three weeks, you had four pieces of clothing samples. And that's what you were going to take to this trade show?
FISHER: Well, I made them in the three colors so I had 12 pieces, and that's what I took with my little logo. And I spent probably as much time obsessing about the graphics and the name because I didn't want to call it Eileen Fisher.
RAZ: Why not?
FISHER: Because I didn't see it as so personal. I thought it was something that, you know, people would make their own, that it would, you know, that it wasn't so personally me. It was, you know, (laughter). It's strange.
RAZ: Well, so what did you end up calling it for that show?
FISHER: So I called it Eileen Fisher because I couldn't think of anything else, and I was working as Eileen Fisher as a designer so I had to - I already had my name registered as a business so I guess if I was going to take checks, I'd better have a business name, and so that sort of worked for them.
RAZ: So like when they make the Eileen Fisher story movie, like feature film one day...
FISHER: Oh, god.
RAZ: ...And they have this scene in there where you're at that first trade show...
FISHER: Oh, god.
RAZ: ...Is there, like, this amazing moment where designers are, like, oh my gosh. This is life-changing. I have never seen anything like it.
RAZ: Is that what was going on?
FISHER: No, no, no, no, no, no, no - absolutely not.
RAZ: Right, OK.
FISHER: I was so freaked out. The first day, I literally couldn't speak. I just stood there. People would ask me questions, like, how much does it cost? What's the style number? And I, like, froze. And other people in my booth would help me out and say, you, know, oh, you know, why don't you come back tomorrow? She'll help out.
RAZ: I just want to give you a hug and say, it's going to be OK, Eileen. It's going to be OK.
FISHER: (Laughter) I was just like - I was like a deer in headlights.
RAZ: So did you eventually get over the stage fright and start selling?
FISHER: I did. I did. I sold to eight store. I sold about 100 pieces.
RAZ: So a couple of thousand bucks?
FISHER: Yeah. Three thousand bucks (laughter) - exactly.
RAZ: So did you - were you, like, skipping home saying...
FISHER: I was thrilled.
RAZ: ...I've got $3,000 bucks. You know, like - right?
FISHER: I was thrilled. And it was the right amount because any more I would have never been able to deliver. I wouldn't have been able to get enough fabric. I wouldn't have been able to figure it all out fast enough or get the money to make it happen.
RAZ: Yeah. So that was a pretty - that was pretty good. You walk away...
RAZ: ...Three thousand. And these are boutiques around the country?
FISHER: Right - exactly.
RAZ: And presumably, you filled those orders. You made most of them yourself?
FISHER: Cut every one myself on the floor in my loft in Tribeca...
FISHER: ...And then carried them in garbage bags down my stairs, onto the subway and out to Queens.
RAZ: And did you so your name, Eileen Fisher, in the tag like in the clothes?
FISHER: The label - I had a label made that the sewers - this tiny sewing company out in Queens sewed them.
RAZ: So at this point, this is like 1984. You've got 3,000 bucks. And are you, like, incorporated? Do you do an LLC and all that stuff?
FISHER: Oh, I don't think I did that until I got my next round of order.
RAZ: Wow. So how did that happen?
FISHER: Well, I came up with eight styles and went back to the next boutique show. And this time, I had this new fabric that I found. It was a very textural French terry, very kind of lush fabric...
RAZ: Like a thicker cotton.
FISHER: Like a thicker cotton, like - yeah.
RAZ: Like, I think of terry, I think of towels.
FISHER: More like an elegant sweatshirt fabric.
FISHER: And came back with three different colors - peach, mint and white, remember? And this time, people stood in line to write orders.
FISHER: I was like, oh my god. I knew something was happening.
RAZ: When we come back, how Eileen Fisher took her clothes from trade show floors to department stores across the country. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So at this point in a story, Eileen had just sold $40,000 worth of orders in her second trade show. And things seemed to be looking up. The only problem was she now had to figure out how to put together a real functioning business.
FISHER: But I was even further back figuring out just how do I get the money to buy the fabric. And you know, how am I going to produce this?
RAZ: Well, yeah, I mean, you had you had $40,000 worth of orders. But not $40,000 in cash. They just made the orders.
RAZ: You had to go and buy all of the material. And I'm assuming you didn't have $40,000.
FISHER: Right. Well, I would have needed about 20 to do the production. And - but I got some good advice actually while I was at the boutique show that I deliver a small order first. So I did white just for, like, a February delivery. And then I did the other colors for a delivery a couple of months later so that let me spread out the delivery. And I could produce part of it while I was starting to turn the money. I did the orders on COD. So then when they delivered, the boutiques would write a check and...
RAZ: They had to pay right away.
FISHER: They had to pay right away. And, you know, at the show, when they were standing in line, it was kind of easy to ask them to do COD...
FISHER: ...Because I could sort of plead with them, I'm a small designer and need this to be COD. And they accommodated me.
RAZ: But did you also try to get, like, a loan at a bank?
FISHER: I tried. And, you know, I went to the bank, I remember, you know, with my stack of orders. And they were like, well, how long have you been in business? I'm like, oh.
RAZ: So they just looked at you and they were like, you have no track record, you're not a business.
FISHER: And I'm like, how do you get - how do you do that then, you know?
RAZ: But did you say, look, I've got $40,000 worth of orders here?
FISHER: Right. And they said - the first thing that person at the bank said, which was great, is how do you know they're even real orders? How do know these - I'm like, whoa. He said, have you checked credit on the orders? I'm like, checked credit on the orders, whoa. OK. No, I haven't done that. That's a good idea. What does that mean? How do I do that (laughter)?
RAZ: Were you stressed out about this or were - 'cause you don't sound stressed out about it now. You sound, like, very chilled out...
FISHER: Oh, wow.
RAZ: ...And I think maybe it's just kind of your demeanor.
FISHER: That's good.
RAZ: You just seem very calm and...
RAZ: No. It was - you were nervous?
FISHER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FISHER: Well, was I nervous you mean during the days when I was trying to make this come together?
RAZ: Yeah, trying to - yes.
FISHER: No, no. I wasn't nervous then. I was nervous at the show. I was nervous when I had to present myself. But I was never nervous, you know, trying to solve the problem. I loved solving the problem. I loved like, how am I going to get the money? How am I going to do this? You know, who's going to help me? How am I going to ask? What do I need here? You know, and I did little shows in my, you know, in my loft and I had friends come and they brought friends and they bought orders and they, you know, they paid me up front and then I could deliver - things like that.
RAZ: Anything you had to do to just get...
FISHER: It was like puzzle-making kind of, and it was fun. And just figuring it all out - I like - I guess I'm a math major somewhere in my soul.
FISHER: You know, I like solving puzzles and problems and, you know, trying to, you know, make things right.
RAZ: So you would make some, get the cash and then use the cash to buy more material and then just continue to kind of fund it that way.
FISHER: Right, right, scrambling day by day, you know, how to make this work. And, you know, then go to the next show and sell $80,000 worth of orders and then it's like, oh, my God.
FISHER: Here we go, wow, you know.
RAZ: So at what point did you actually say, this is real. Like, I'm not just going to trade shows. This is a company. I need to hire somebody.
FISHER: Oh, well, I hired my first official employee, that was Sigi (ph), who still works for the company today. And I don't remember thinking I'm a real business or anything. I just remember thinking, I need help. I really need some stable help.
RAZ: And did you start to go to department stores and do the thing that you were mortified to do earlier in your design career?
FISHER: No, I never did that but eventually opened a store on Madison Avenue. And buyers from the department stores would come.
RAZ: So you open this store on Madison Avenue in 1991. And how did it do?
FISHER: Really well. Again, similar experience to that boutique show where, you know, people just stood in line and bought clothes and stacks of clothes. And they were so delighted to find the store. And I remember that's when I think it was a buyer, somebody from Bloomingdale's came in because they had been looking at the line and curious. And they would say things like, you know, great clothes, but they're just going to get lost at Bloomingdale's. And they're too simple. That same thing - too simple, too simple, you know?
But I knew that was the idea. (Laughter) So I had to hold that piece. Anyway, so when they came into the store, they knew - they didn't understand it, but they knew something was happening. And so they wanted to open a shop, a small shop in Bloomingdale's.
RAZ: Inside Bloomingdale's.
FISHER: Yeah, so it was a kind of - I think that catapulted us to another phase.
RAZ: Who were your customers? Were they - was it a certain type of woman? Was it a certain age? Was it a certain profession?
FISHER: Yeah, in the early days, I'd describe them as artists, therapists and teachers. And it seemed like they were people who, you know, I used to say they help people find themselves, something like that, you know? Or that they could figure out how to make their own style with these clothes and they could - they operate in the, you know, not in such a corporate world. They didn't have to dress a certain kind of way.
RAZ: How were you able to finance the stores and the production? Just through existing sales?
FISHER: Yes and no. We found - we were able to get a line of credit from our fabric manufacturers because we bought fabric in bulk, even though we were small because I was very dedicated to a certain fabric. So, you know, I built around one fabric. And then I had - my brother-in-law came and was helping me. And he got me a small line of credit, $50,000 line of credit. Then I got a new accountant who, you know, helped me tap into the banks and how you had to put business plans together.
So it was a combination of credit lines and loans and, you know, self-funding because it was growing and it was profitable. It was always profitable.
RAZ: From there, were you - I mean, was the growth just off the charts? Were you just - was that what was happening?
FISHER: You know, it was kind of strong and steady, you know? It was not exactly off the charts, but it was exciting. And sometimes it felt like, you know, like horses and a carriage, like, kind of out of control a little bit. You know, like, it was pulling me, somehow. And, you know, mostly it wasn't too out of control. You know, it was mostly organic. There was never, like, an attempt to make it ever bigger than it was. It was more like, OK, it's working, so let's open two more stores or it's working so let's open four more stores, you know? Or now, you know, other department stores want to buy the line, you know? - Saks and Nordstrom and, you know, that kind of thing.
RAZ: What was your revenue at that point?
FISHER: Oh, different moments in time - how much? I can't remember. I remember my dad came to visit me at one time in the early days. And he sat back in the chair. He was an accountant. He was going over some of my books. He wanted to make sure I was getting paid and things were working out OK. It was so adorable. And he sat back in the chair and he said, Eileen, do you know how much money you made last year? And I said, no, I really don't. And he said $200,000. That's incredible.
FISHER: That was gross sales, of course. And there were plenty of expenses. But, you know, it was still pretty shocking.
RAZ: How did you - I mean, as the company was growing in the 1990s, how did you deal with being a CEO? Did you like that part of the job?
FISHER: Oh, CEO - no, no, no, no, no. No, I think CEO is a word that I've always been sort of uncomfortable...
FISHER: ...And not actually held that title. I used to call myself chief creative officer. That was sort of the closest I could come. But I did know that sort of the bucks stop with me. You know, sometimes I had to make important decisions, you know, which were - would have been - would be hard. But I always kind of held business - and sort of from a leadership standpoint - pretty loosely. And so I like the designers being with it and making it, you know, their own and working together and, you know, in a sort of collective way. And I feel that way about the leadership. And even today, we're a leadership team.
FISHER: It's pretty complicated. And we're really working to streamline it. And we're getting better. We're getting a lot better.
RAZ: But in that period of time when you really - I mean, really just started to explode in your growth...
RAZ: ...I mean, did you find yourself in a position that you were reluctant to be in?
FISHER: Yeah, yeah. I would say that's accurate. I saw myself more as a designer, artist rather than a business person, even though I wasn't bad at it in terms of - maybe not so much at managing people. I guess I never liked telling people what to do. I - and I never liked working for other people, you know, when they would sort of tell you what to do.
FISHER: I didn't like being told. I liked give-me-the-problem-and-let-me-do-it-my-way kind of thing.
RAZ: Eileen, did you - I mean, I know that in the '90s it was an incredibly just active time for Eileen Fisher and would continue and also personally. I mean, you were...
RAZ: ...You'd been married. You had two children and in a four-year period of time - two young kids. You were trying to run this company, and your marriage was kind of falling apart, too. How did you manage the personal and the professional?
FISHER: I would say that was the hardest, hardest ever. And if I look back - man, if I could do anything differently, that'd be - now, I'm not going into regret. But that was incredibly hard. God, I think about all the women out there trying to start businesses and work in the business world and just how hard it is to manage families. I just - so I really had to rely on the people in the company. I tried to, again, you know, sort of lead loosely and just - but I struggled a lot with being in two different places and wanting to be at work when I was at home or worrying about work, you know, and reading reports and trying to understand is this working or not, what's working and what's going wrong - and at the same time, worrying about my kids when I was at work and just, you know - I guess the thing I say to myself now is that if I looked back, I would have just worked harder on being where I was and just doing what I was doing in the moment and stop trying to be two places, just - and stop taking the work home and just do the best you can and...
RAZ: You were trying to be the best mom you could be and...
RAZ: ...And also run the company...
RAZ: ...And you - I must - I mean it's kind of sounds a little bit like what your mom went through where she was kind of overwhelmed, right?
FISHER: Oh, god. Yeah.
RAZ: I mean, she was - it was relentless. Every day was this hamster wheel.
FISHER: Yeah. I did the best I could. I had to let go a lot. I had to trust a lot of people which worked and didn't, you know? It worked in places. And then there were moments that I felt, you know, sad about how I let go too much over here. You know, I'd go into a store and see pieces I didn't recognize or feel like the line didn't look right or I couldn't find the clothes I wanted to wear or wasn't really the concept. It was gone. Where was the soul of this company? And you know, what happened? And...
FISHER: You know, once I got divorced, it was - my kids were 4 and 8. And I said I am - I'm going to stop working on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at 3 o'clock. I worked in my home a lot. And I would, you know, let the people keep working. And I'd close the door and go and - you know, and be with my kids. And you know, my husband would have the kids on Mondays and Tuesdays. And we share the weekends and things like that. So it actually worked better for me. I don't think it worked so well for them. They didn't really like the going back and forth stuff. And I guess kids never like divorce.
FISHER: But I think that, you know, over time I sorted it out, and things got better. I got stronger. I started doing things like yoga and meditating. I had some time to myself, which my mother never had, you know?
FISHER: I didn't have to have a breakdown actually to get a hold of myself.
RAZ: I mean, was there a point, Eileen, where you thought - because your business was - I mean, it was - by this point it was already huge. Like, you were successful beyond your wildest dreams. And this is the late '90s. It's not even where you are today. And did you ever think maybe I should just cash it in and sell this company to somebody and just wash my hands of it?
FISHER: Oh my god, no. I never, never thought that. No, no.
RAZ: Never thought that? Never, never crossed your mind?
FISHER: That would be like selling my firstborn child. I just really felt like that.
RAZ: Yeah, but you were under so much stress. And you had - you did have that security blanket. You could have done that.
FISHER: Oh, right. It was never about the money. No. I mean, probably in the very beginning when I didn't know how to price the clothes, it wasn't about the money. But it was personal, I guess. I wanted it to be how I wanted it to be. And I think it's still true. And actually, what I did do was sell part of the business to the employees. So we are 40 percent ESOP, employee-owned. And I always wanted that collective idea. I wanted the people who are a part of it to participate and feel like owners and be owners.
RAZ: Yeah. I think Eileen Fisher has, like, 55 - I'm not talking about you - Eileen Fisher, the company. Your company has like about 60 stores around the world now. Is that right?
FISHER: Right. Right. Roughly, yes.
RAZ: And thousands of employees probably?
FISHER: Twelve hundred direct employees. But many - probably 10,000 people work daily on our - making our clothes and...
RAZ: Presumably as the company became bigger and bigger, it became more corporate - more corporate because you just had more people.
RAZ: You had - it was a big company. It was, like, a lot of revenue. You were doing a $100+ million a year at a certain point and, of course, much more today. But was that - was it weird for you? I mean, you're the person who didn't want to work for other people. All of a sudden you are - your name is a corporation.
FISHER: Oh, man. Yeah.
RAZ: Was that weird?
FISHER: It is weird. Yeah, it was weird. It's still weird.
FISHER: Someone suggested I write a book called "How I Became Eileen Fisher." Like, it's a strange thing.
RAZ: I keep thinking - like, I keep thinking of your dad coming to visit you in New York in your early days and saying, you know - doing - like, looking through your books and saying, Eileen, you guys made $200,000 last year and just being so blown away by that. Eileen Fisher does, like, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year. I mean, is it strange to you that you became rich even though you'd never wanted to or tried - that wasn't your intention?
FISHER: Yeah, yeah. Oh, yes. I'm still very uncomfortable with that. That's something that I have to do some more work in therapy on (laughter), you know?
RAZ: Especially because you grew up with, like, seven children in your house...
FISHER: Right. Right.
RAZ: ...In this very middle class...
FISHER: Oh, yeah I put myself through college...
FISHER: You know, my father said, no, women don't need to go to school so, you know...
RAZ: Wow. Did your parents ever see this level of success? I mean...
FISHER: Yeah, my mother did. My father was utterly, totally impressed by $200,000. He didn't need to see anymore (laughter). But my mother did. I don't know that she did understood it quite, you know? My sisters work in the store out in the Midwest. And so she'd go in there. She was so adorable. She would go in - and even as the company got really big and she'd see damages - we'd have a section of damages that we'd sell in the back of the store cheap. And she'd go to the back of the store and pick out those damages and say, I can fix this. She'd take them home and fix pieces. And you can sell this. It looks good as it first - put it on the main rack. But I think to her, you know, it couldn't have been 200,000. It would have been just fine. It didn't need to be this big. Nobody - you know, that didn't mean so much to her, you know?
RAZ: It sounds like you are in a pretty good place in life professionally, personally. You sort of - you don't have to do the logistical operational stuff with the company. You have - you can have, like, vision and big picture stuff. And you seem like you're really happy.
FISHER: Yeah. Well, you know, not every day, not all the time, but I know how to work with it. You know, I watched my mother. She was depressed. And you know, I remember having this insight even before I started the business when I went through a kind of a dark moment in my late 20s. I remember going, you know, having this revelation that I can make a different choice. I don't have to be depressed just because my mother was depressed. I might have to be overwhelmed because my mother was overwhelmed.
But I don't have to be depressed. I didn't understand the full impact of the different choices I had to make. But I realized that I could choose. And it doesn't mean that it doesn't get the better of me some days. But I also know it doesn't last long. So I would say happy. I'm happy. I'm also really sad sometimes. I'm also really, you know, scared - like before I came in here today. I'm really anxious. I'm really excited. I'm really more feeling-ful than probably ever in my life.
RAZ: I love that you - because everybody listening to this is going to say, Eileen Fisher, hugely successful, you know, created this amazing company and brand, has, you know, made it beyond our wildest dreams and yet she has bad days. She gets sad.
FISHER: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I think what's different is now I know that. I can look at it. And I can just be with it. And so if I'm anxious, I can just say, hey, I'm anxious. And it's OK. You know, I don't have to try to pretend I'm not. I can just be who I am, and that's OK.
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RAZ: Eileen Fisher, the founder of Eileen Fisher. By the way, Eileen still oversees all of the designs for the company. And in recent years, she launched a program called Green Eileen. The goal is to eventually - you reuse or recycle almost all of the clothing the company sells.
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RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you are building. But first, a quick thanks to one of our sponsors, Delta Airlines. Now you can enjoy free mobile messaging while flying on Delta. You can use iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger simply by logging into the in-flight Wi-Fi.
Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today's story comes from Springfield, La., where you might find one of these guys.
CHARLIE MUNFORD: They're jet black sometimes. They're a little bit modeled with some gray color. They have spiky hair. It sticks up on the back of their neck. You know, they have a long skinny snout. And they just make a big cacophony coming through the woods.
RAZ: And what could he be talking about? - wild boars, of course. And in Springfield, La., where Charlie Munford lives. These wild boars can cause a lot of damage to nearby farms.
MUNFORD: They mess up corn fields and soybeans and, you know, wheat fields. They do - root up levees. So they're very destructive.
RAZ: So it's probably important to mention at this point that Charlie is a butcher.
MUNFORD: We would buy and condition and harvest beef, lamb, pork and goat.
RAZ: Harvest, as in capture and slaughter.
MUNFORD: And chefs kept requesting wild boar. And at first, I was like, you know, that's kind of wacky. No one does that.
RAZ: But then he started to do just that. Charlie, actually created a program and partnership with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture to legally harvest wild boars.
MUNFORD: And this was a really defining moment because we were essentially able to harvest this delicious wild game and, at the same time, help our farmers with the problems that they're facing managing their land.
RAZ: So the chefs get their meat. And the farmers' fields are protected. And so during the summer of 2016, Charlie got to work. He built a smoker. And then he came up with a recipe for what is now Charlie's Wild Boar Sausages.
MUNFORD: We actually have a wood fireplace. And we have seasoned water oak that we use. You know, it just makes a much richer flavor. And we built the smoker ourselves - this stainless steel smoker that's - you know, it's about the size of a big pickup truck. And we did about 50 rounds of the recipe. You know, we just kept doing the recipe over and over and over and trying over and over again.
RAZ: And how does the final product taste?
MUNFORD: Well, if you would think about how beef taste in comparison to venison - I mean, it's a darker meat. It's a more aromatic meat. And when you smoke it gets just buttery and delicious.
RAZ: This past spring, Charlie started selling his wild boar sausages to local restaurants and grocery stores. And he had ambitions to expand his customer base. But the sausages aren't exactly cheap. They're about $12 a pound.
MUNFORD: We decided early on that since our distinctive thing was going to be flavor and it's going to be a little bit more expensive than most smoked sausage, we were going to need to literally get a sample into every person's mouth.
RAZ: At first, Charlie got culinary students to do some demos. And that was going OK - not great but OK. So he decided to recruit some people who knew the product a little better.
MUNFORD: We hired professional, full-time chefs that really love our product and, you know, put them in the grocery store, so they can speak the language of, like, this culinary ingredient that we're using. And the number of packs sold per demo went from seven to 35.
RAZ: And today, Charlie's selling his sausages in 70 stores around Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. And through his website, he's starting to get orders from around the country.
MUNFORD: In fact, we just got an order from Hawaii (laughter). My fulfillment company called me. And they said, hey, look it's going to cost like 80 bucks this order to Hawaii. You know, what do you want to do? And I was like, send it (laughter). I was like, we're going across the Pacific (laughter).
RAZ: To find out more about Charlie's Wild Boar Sausages, head to our Facebook page. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks for listening to our show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also download our podcast at Apple podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us. It's email@example.com. You can tweet at us. It's @HowIBuiltThis. Our show is produced this week by Rund Abdelfatah, with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to send us Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breene and Jeff Rogers. Anya Grundmann is the vice president for programming at NPR. Our intern is Dayana Mustak. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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