When the classic fashion brand Eileen Fisher set out on a journey to be completely sustainable, they started examining their fabrics, researching how to switch from hardy and long-lasting but unsustainable viscose to an equivalent tencel fabric, for example. But eventually, they had to figure out what to do about the question of what customers do with their old clothing. First, they started a takeback program, where customers could drop off their old Eileen Fisher items and get a $5 gift card. Because Eileen Fisher's style is so classic, with minimal changes from year to year, half of the stuff that was dropped off could be – after some cleaning and pressing – put right back on the racks. This was called Green Eileen, a sort of vintage store within certain Eileen Fisher stores that benefits programs that enhance the lives of women and girls. But what about the rest of the items? The blouses with pen marks, the pants with broken elastic, the sweaters with moth holes? For that, Eileen Fisher turned to three recent Parsons School of Design grads, Teslin Doud, Carmen Gama, and Lucy Jones. They were the first recipients of the Eileen Fisher Social Innovator Award, a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the CFDA. During their 12-month residency, which started last August, the three young designers rotated through all of Eileen Fisher's departments, and worked alongside Eileen Fisher's design team to innovate ways to upcycle the old garments. And you can shop the results starting tonight at the Eileen Fisher Remade in the USA pop-up in Brooklyn! I stopped by to get a sneak peak before it opened to the public, and was utterly charmed. Each material gets damaged in a different way, the ladies told me, so they came up with different strategies to deal with each material. The stained tops were naturally dyed to camouflage the pen marks or coffee stains. Eileen Fisher's most popular pants – of which they received many – were taken apart and resewn into simple and classic box tops. And old sweaters were felted and sewn into super-soft, patchwork sweaters and coats. The resulting items have a unique artistry to each one, and come with a label that tells you how many pants, tops, or sweaters went into your new piece. They also costs anywhere from $20 to $80 less than the new equivalent. Doud, Gama, and Jones told me that they were involved in the whole process from beginning to end. They came up with the new patterns to make the most of the old garments, deconstructed the garments, and then stacked the fabrics to be cut and sewn by Eileen Fisher's workers. Jones even hand-stitched the circular red logo on the old labels.
"They gave us so much freedom, and let us keep our vision," Carmen Gama says. And Eileen Fisher's design team liked the box top pattern the young designers came up with so much, they are testing it out in a new version for the main line.
This isn't just a experiment; it's a proof of concept. Eileen Fisher got back 170,000 garments last year, and sold half of them. That leaves almost 100,000 garments sitting in the warehouse, ready to be transformed. The company plans to take these solutions and apply them to all of those garments. Eventually, they hope to convince Eileen Fisher customers to bring back all the garments they sell – 4 to 5 million a year – for recycling. "We want to close the loop. What these three women have done is the biggest first step toward that," Cynthia Power, Facilitating manager of Green Eileen, says.
There's only one drawback to this system: it would only work for a company like Eileen Fisher, who has an army of super loyal customers, and is in the business of making similar classic clothing in a small library of fabrics year after year. "This was only possible because it's high quality," Jones affirmed when I brought up this point. For a company like H&M, Zara, or even Gap, who are constantly chasing trends, there would be no way to put a system in place that could deal with thousands of different styles and hundreds of different fabrics, and the fact that fast fashion falls apart and goes out of style in a New York minute.
The pop-up will only be open on weekends until the end of July. But Eileen Fisher has plans to open a center in Irvington with a small factory making new items, a small factory remaking old items, and a store selling both. Keep a lookout for that – it will make a great sustainable-fashion day trip when it opens!