By Bart Boehlert
On a trip to Japan in the early 80s, New York graphic designer Eileen Fisher was struck by the simplicity and timelessness of the classic kimono. With $350 and a desire to create similarly clean-lined, minimalist clothes for women, Fisher started her own business in 1984 and applied her artistic talent to design drapey, comfortable, unembellished pieces rendered in mostly neutral tones like black and white and blues and browns. Her clothes found a passionate following among customers and her namesake company grew to become a leading American fashion brand (this writer’s sister-in-law works for Eileen Fisher). Now the designer is expanding beyond fashion into home decor with a limited-edition sustainable collection created in collaboration with home retailer West Elm.
Fisher has long been concerned about the detrimental impact the fashion industry has on the environment -- from how clothes are made to where they end up -- and was one of the first fashion designers to address it. In fact in 2019 she was honored for her commitment to sustainability with the Council of Fashion Designers of America Positive Change Award. “I envision a future where the clothing industry actually helps restore the planet. Just imagine the impact if every company took their clothes back and turned them into new designs,” says Fisher.
To that end, her customers are encouraged to, instead of throwing out clothes which will end up in a landfill, bring their items back to a store and receive $5 towards a new purchase. Gently-worn vintage pieces are given a good cleaning and sold again through the Renew program.
Clothing that is damaged or shrunken is sorted and collected at the company’s Tiny Factory up the Hudson River in Irvington, New York, where it is transformed into something new through the Waste No More program. In a mechanical felting process using a needle punching technology, disassembled garments and pieces are arranged and layered by an artisan and run through a felting machine. Thousands of needles pierce the materials, entangling and blending the fabrics and colors into new textiles that have been made into bags and striking wall hangings. The possibilities abound. “We are all on a discovery passion path,” says Sigi Ahl, who is the Creative Director at Waste No More. “We have so many more things to explore and create. There is so much more to do."
For this home collection, Eileen Fisher collaborated with West Elm, which is also committed to using organic materials and non-toxic finishes to produce sustainable goods. Denim is felted together into fabric that is fashioned into pillow covers and upholstery material. Pieces of jeans and the cotton blues melt into one, and the flat texture of denim becomes soft and smooth. Each collage-like piece is unique. Through modern ingenuity, Eileen Fisher and West Elm have turned discarded clothing into one-of-a-kind works of art.