The Gap has recently rolled out its springtime collection -- skinny, ankle-zip pants, patterned shoes, oversized oxfords and pale, shaker-knit sweaters. I really liked everything I saw, and I didn't quite realize why until a Facebook friend of mine pointed out that she had been wearing these clothes in 1986. The pieces fell into place: I remember being very happy in spring 1986, and the idea of buying all the things I'd never have been able to swing on 1986's babysitting wages thrills my inner 14-year-old.
The subsequent Facebook discussion had me thinking about the potency of brands. In 1986, I had papered my bedroom wall with posters of New York City and Lufthansa travel ads, and I'd look at those pictures of far-off places and at United Colors of Benetton ads, and deep in my reptilian retail brain, I'd think, "Benetton is for people who are citizens of the world!"
(This probably explains why I fell hard for the Body Shop in 1993, when Anita Roddick was constantly explaining how she used passionfruit cleansing gel in the types of places where Anthony Bourdain's forced to eat pig anus.)
Brands can be totemic. Brands can also force uncomfortable confrontations between our internal conceptions of who we are versus the external perceptions. Case in point: Eileen Fisher.
Just as Jennifer Saunders used to cry "Lacroix!" to broadcast the vulgarity of Edina Monsoon, so do an entire class of writers use "Eileen Fisher" to dismiss its wearers as middle-aged, frumpy, fat, sexless, fuzzy-thinking. As Nora and Delia Ephron purportedly wrote, ""When you start wearing Eileen Fisher, you might as well say, 'I give up.'"
Let's leave aside the fascinating counterargument that all of the negative criticism leveled against Eileen Fisher are spat out because people hate it when women decide, "I give not one whit about conforming to commercial dictates of youth-oriented, heterosexist retail trends."
Let's just focus on the fact that for lots of people, "Eileen Fisher" is a punchline, because it's okay to make fun of middle aged women, and snort things like, "Forever 49" when you walk by the store with its three simply-cut silk shifts hanging in the window like prayer flags to the goddess of dark chocolate.
Being an avid reader and a less-than-confident follower of fashion can really mess up your relationship with your wardrobe. I’ll read Caitlin Flanagan writing archly about suburban matrons lying to each other about how good they look in the Eileen Fisher dressing room.
And you wonder: "Have I become one of them? One of the middle-aged?" The rational response to that is, "So what if I have?" As Wanda Sykes has said, one of the awesome things about passing beyond the threshhold of 40 is ceasing to give a f***. I love the routine that starts like this:
"I love getting older, because the older I get, the less I care. The words 'I don’t give a f***' just fly out of my mouth. And if I’m not saying it, I’m thinking it."
Let's go with the premise that you have entered the Sykesian territory of caring a whole hell of a lot less about a lot of things. Let's embrace that Eileen Fisher! Linen-cotton shifts in colors like olivine and pewter for all!
Except ... Eileen Fisher is perilously close to becoming cool. I know! I'm as surprised as you are. But the signs and portents are there. It's not in the company's higher profile and new hires who are experimenting with waxed cotton skinny jeans and leather moto jackets. No -- it's when New Yorkers with a vested interest in maintaining an image of cool start kvelling over pieces. It's when Los Angelenos joyfully share their new secret favorite piece of clothing and it sells out on websites within 24 hours.
Eileen Fisher is in danger of becoming another one of those brands that people who "curate" American brands of clothing or blog about "minimalist" fashion are going to discover. It's got the trendy ingredients: (some) made-in-America cachet, a backstory about hustling hard and treating people well even after natural disasters, a reputation for "alternative" corporate values, the kind of good fabric + simple shapes formula that makes people culty like they are about Zoran clothing.
All it has to do is get over its branding. And in an age where brands rise and fall with breathtaking rapidity, "Forever 49" stands a good shot of becoming proudly, defiantly cool.
If one is susceptible to navel-gazing about one's own generation (guilty!), one might even say that embracing Eileen Fisher as countercultural cool is an eminently Gen X way to approach middle age. It would be hilarious if, in a few years, the brand association for Eileen Fisher was "slacker" instead.