What Does Eileen Fisher Think of Our Local Fashion Design Talent?

We talk to the legendary designer about Marymount’s annual student fashion show, what it takes to make it big, and the best advice for those looking to break into the industry.

By: Sarah Zlotnick

Public policy, law, international affairs--the list of academic strengths is long and wonky here in Washington. But students excel in creative areas, too--for proof, look no further than Marymount University's signature fashion design program. On a sleepy campus off Northern Virginia's Glebe Road, aspiring fashion designers learn the ins and outs of sewing a pattern, developing a line, and landing a fashion job post-graduation.

Each year, students compete for the honor of showcasing their designs at the school's annual Portfolio in Motion fashion show (see our favorite looks from this year's show here). After the show, each senior designer's portfolio is critiqued by Marymount's designer of the year. Past honorees have included Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, and Peter Som; this year the title went to Eileen Fisher.

Perhaps most well known for her luxurious, loose-fitting basics, the 28-year industry veteran has stores all over the world and a very loyal following among Washington women. Here, she opens up about the looks she saw, the pros and cons of designing outside New York, and why a work/life balance is important, especially in a field as creative as fashion design.        

Give us your general impressions of the designs you reviewed. What impressed you? What surprised you? 

I was impressed by the range of ideas and inspiration and talent. The fashion show was very fun. It surprised me to see such a creative use of color. Designers use it in New York, but up there it's a little more subdued. Here, everything was so cheerful! That look suits America in general more.

I was also really impressed with the intellectual level of the students. They had fantastic questions. They're very articulate and clearly very passionate.

Washington isn't known as a fashion center the way New York is. How do you think that affects the evolution of a student designer's aesthetic?

I started in the Midwest, so I think the different perspective that provides is a good thing--it makes us who we are. Good will definitely come of that. Certain things are unfortunate--the fabrics stores can be less-than-great outside of New York--but students can overcome that.

Marymount advocates a melding of basic business acumen and creativity in the fashion merchandising program. Do you think that's a good foundation for a fashion-oriented education?

Probably! We talk a lot in our organization about "creative meets business," so I think having an understanding of that is a good thing. At the same time, really fiddling with your creative expression is key in developing your own aesthetic, too. You don't need to be totally bound by business needs at this age, but those [skills] are critical in the end, so having an awareness is good.

The fashion industry can be a ruthless place to build a career. What advice are you giving to Marymount seniors about staying sane as they venture into the professional world?

I'm a bad advice giver, but it's important that they really work on finding their own uniqueness. Figure out what inspires and delights you and look for companies that are doing what you believe in. Don't twist yourself into a pretzel to get any job, but know that you can learn pretty much anywhere you land.

The technical skills they develop at Marymount--learning to sew and create a pattern--also gives them an edge. It took me years to develop as a designer because I didn't start with those abilities.

The Eileen Fisher company has a reputation for being an excellent place to work. Do you think it's necessary for people in the fashion industry to "pay their dues" and work long hours with low pay early on in their career?

Absolutely not. And we have to consciously make things different. Happy people are more creative--we instinctively know that. So we work hard on the work/life balance. We make sure people take days off and that we have good wellness policies. There's also an attitude of working together. One of the things I'm most proud of is our collaborative process.

Lots of people in Washington coming from nontraditional backgrounds are working on exciting fashion projects. You did something similar, beginning your career in interior design. What made you decide and commit to the switch to fashion?

Working with couples or families you have to be a psychologist too and deal with lots of opinions. I couldn't express myself, and I felt hampered by that. I stumbled on clothing by a series of flukes--like answering phones for six weeks at a clothing company and ending up in Japan on a trip with a business partner. I was really inspired by the kimonos and the simple aesthetic--that got the idea going in my mind. Later on, I found myself at a boutique show with some friends. Seeing designers present their clothes in a booth showed me a concrete way to market my idea, which wasn't even real yet. I started on my first line shortly afterward.