Eileen Fisher: Transforming Reclaimed Clothing Into Reworked Collectables

  Founder and designer Eileen Fisher.

Founder and designer Eileen Fisher.

According to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur foundation, less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled and turned into new clothing. This is largely the result of the fashion industry’s favored ‘make, use, dispose’ linear business model, which not only has a negative impact on the environment, but is economically inefficient too - 87 per cent of total fiber input used for clothing is incinerated or sent to landfills which represents a loss of more than $100 billion annually. But writing in the Business of Fashion (BoF), Chantal Fernandez highlights the efforts of one company whose circular approach is much more in tune with the times.

It was the success of a take-back program that prompted Eileen Fisher, the independent American ready-to-wear brand, to start to build the foundations of a circular supply chain, which today sees the company turning reclaimed garments into an economically viable collection of renewed and remade clothing. Over 900,000 garments have been collected to date, which since last year have been processed at the company’s dedicated workspace an hour north of Manhattan known as the Tiny Factory. “I'm a believer that we have to take responsibility for the stuff we put out there,” Fisher told BoF,” and we have to take responsibility for how it is made.”

  Inside the Tiny Factory.

Inside the Tiny Factory.

The majority of the inventory collected as part of the program, 55 to 65 per cent, is resold at a reduced price, after being cleaned, as part of the Eileen Fisher Renew collection, which generated a profit of between $200,000 to $300,000 last year based upon total sales of between $2.5 million to $3 million. The remaining reclaimed garments often simply require mending or need to be over-dyed to hide a stain or flaw in the color, and much of the rest is then sorted by fiber content, construction, color and then style so it can be used as raw material for the production of new garments. “There are no two identical pieces,” says Fisher.

In addition, about 100,000 items have been donated to women’s shelters, art schools and disaster relief efforts, and even labels, buttons and zippers are collected and returned to Eileen Fisher’s factory partners for use on the mainline or for repairs.

  Renew garments in the Tiny Factory ready to be sold.

Renew garments in the Tiny Factory ready to be sold.

For those seemingly unsalvageable garments, a process known as felting gives them a new lease of life. This involves fabrics being shredded and layered into a type of fluffy textile, which has not only been used to create one-of-a-kind felted coats, but pillows, rugs and wall hangings, a selection of which were recently exhibited at the Lisa Cooley Gallery in the Lower East Side in September. “Waste can be art,” says Fisher. “It’s a statement about the possibilities.”

The brand’s passion for sustainability is clear, and Fisher’s goal is to make the company 100% sustainable by 2020. But as Cynthia Power, facilitating manager of Eileen Fisher Renew points out, there are practical considerations to take into account too, such as the finite nature of the world’s raw materials which will inevitably increase in price over time. So, by devising a way to offset that future cost, it offers the brand an important long-term competitive advantage.

Read the full article on BoF here.