January 6, 2012 11:11 pm

Ambition with style

Mrs Moneypenny meets clothing designer Eileen Fisher, one of the ambitious businesswomen who inspired her new careers advice book

New year, new assistant. Although, to tell the truth, Long Suffering Lily has been in place since early November. She replaces Observant Olivia, who was promoted to a more intellectually challenging role as a reward for her two-year stint trying to keep both me and the list of items I leave in cabs under control.

LSL’s first task of 2012 will be to manage my official book launch, scheduled for January 12. I am hoping many key people, including my mother-in-law, will attend. Getting this book written and published has felt a little like giving birth, except that the gestation period has been longer. It has been 16 months, not nine, since I sat by a swimming pool in Singapore and wrote two pages about what I thought a career book for women needed to include, and then sent it to my publisher, Penguin.

I called it Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, and that is what its title will indeed be, in the UK and many other places. But not in the US, where they decided on Sharpen Your Heels: Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Women. No mention of the word ambitious.

Yet the US is full of ambitious women, and I get much of my inspiration from them. Towards the end of 2011, after dropping a lot of hints, I finally got to meet one of the American businesswomen I most admire, the clothes designer Eileen Fisher. Ten years older than me and 10 times more elegant, she invited me for a cup of tea at her house in Irvington, upstate New York, and shared some of her philosophy with me. I paid attention; her company is almost as old as ours, started with fewer people (one: Eileen herself) and, if anything, less inventory (four items of clothing that she designed, had made up and took to a trade fair). But unlike ours, it has grown its annual sales organically to a very acceptable $315m (£203m).

Ms Fisher was very gracious and seemed not at all perturbed that an English columnist, with a body mass index of 37, writing for a financial newspaper was interested in her clothing business. For the record it is privately owned and she has only sold shares in it once – 31 per cent to a staff trust.

Illustration showing heels being sharpened

What, I asked, is she proudest of, looking back over almost three decades? I wondered if it might be the expansion from those original four items to more than 58 freestanding Eileen Fisher stores. No, she said, it was her staff, of whom there are now more than 900. So, who was the first person she ever hired? A lady called Sigi, she said, who at the time came with the added advantage of a loft in Manhattan out of which they could operate, having been squeezed out of Eileen’s loft in Tribeca.

Eileen’s Irvington sitting room has fantastic views over the Hudson river – I had never even heard of Irvington and now I want to move there. Straight after tea I decamped to the nearby Eileen Fisher Lab Store, adjacent to the company HQ. Who should serve me but Sigi – was this a set up? No, she just happened to be working that day, getting on with business, when I walked in. The Lab Store is so named because that is where they test new concepts. Right now they are trying out getting people to recycle (clean!) Eileen Fisher clothes to be sold in the store for charity. The donors get a $5 credit to spend, and the best of their former clothes are on display on a rail at the back of the shop. I immediately took three items from there to the till.

Much as I now love Irvington, it is a bit far to go from W1 for clothes shopping. Fortunately late last year, an Eileen Fisher store opened round the corner from me in Marylebone High Street, as well as one in Covent Garden.

I like her stuff because she uses such great fabrics and the pieces do not date – plus they even look good on me. Which is why I will be wearing a dress of hers (no, I am not telling you if it is second-hand or not) for my book launch on Thursday.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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