In the 1980s, Esprit fashion was super hot. Here’s a story by Mara Altman nabbed from the June 1987 Seventeen Magazine.
Once upon a time two women from California, Susie Tompkins and Jane Tise, traveled to Europe and returned with a fashion bug. They shopped high and low for the kind of clothes they had seen in London and other cities, but America just didn’t have the styles they craved. So with no previous design experience, they started making close-fitting minidresses from magazine pictures and their own little sketches.
By 1969 they had started a small company called Plain Jane, and with business help from Susie’s husband, Doug, they began expanding their designs. As the years went by, Susie and Doug became sole owners, and the little company grew into Esprit, a fashion empire with four thousand employees in twenty-four countries and seven clothing and accessory lines. Nowadays they are opening retail stores and franchises in extremely out-of-the-way places (from Aspen to Australia) and are turning their attention to all sorts of new products, including Esprit for the feet, for the beach, for the bed and bath, and even Esprit to eat.
The secret, you see, is that the Tompkinses didn’t just make clothes, they created a lifestyle–one that has massive international appeal. “We just used ourselves as a barometer,” Susie says. “I’m totally instinctive–not a conformer. And if I find myself feeling like one, I do something quickly to offset it–you know, like when you sometimes see what you’re doing and it’s too normal?”
Esprit all over: Plans for next year start with sheets, towels, eyeglasses, fifty new stores, and a takeover of China-stylewise.
This sense of nonconformity is largely what’s behind the Esprit look. The clothes that put Esprit on the fashion map grew out of this attitude: They are comfortable, fresh, funky, colorful, energetic, interchangeable, and most of all, creative. They are casual clothes that are easy to live in, designed to allow people to put together their own version of the Esprit look.
In the past four years that look has been expanded with accessories: earrings, socks, belts, scarves, and handbags. And shoes. After Susie found herself dyeing sneakers in a bathtub to show with the clothes in one of their catalogs, Esprit decided that shoes were a must. In 1983 they began designing them in earnest, and now they’re up to about forty women’s and kids’ styles, including strappy sandals, lace-up boots, dressy pumps, and ballet flats.
Last year they even ventured into the kitchen, with the opening of Caffe Esprit next door to their factory outlet in San Francisco. The restaurant was started by the two employees who ran the company’s cafeteria for three years and who were renowned for their interesting, attractive, and fun-to-eat food (sound familiar?). The café–which opens up to include an outdoor dining area in warm weather–has turned out to be a major attraction for the shoppers who flock to the outlet. The menu features trendy California cuisine, with items like a “garden composée” of baby garden lettuce and edible flower blossoms, Apple Thyme Pie, and iced black currant tea. Each dish is painstakingly styled to look as good as it tastes.
At Caffe Esprit–where what you eat is as important as what your wear–fresh and healthy is the order of the day.
The road to happily ever after, however, didn’t always run smoothly. For several years after the Tompkinses had started Plain Jane, they worked with partners–in the United States and Europe–turning out clothes under nine different labels. Shortly after they agreed to buy out their American partners, in 1975, catastrophe struck: An unexplained fire destroyed their San Francisco facility and most of their inventory.
They didn’t have enough insurance to cover the loss, but within a week they were back at work in a temporary space. “We fell on our fanny,” says Susie, “but our feet were always on the ground.” In 1977, when the smoke had cleared, they consolidated all their labels under one name–Esprit de Corp (after the French for “spirit of the group”)–and established themselves in a huge San Francisco headquarters, complete with a running track and tennis courts.
By the late 1970s the Tompkinses had two daughters, Quincy, now twenty-one, and Summer, nineteen, and their company was expanding around the world. Today Esprit operates on five continents, and it had estimated retail sales of more than $800 million in 1986 alone. Recently they were even granted a charter from the Chinese government to do business there. Those dreams are still on the drawing board, but Esprit’s world-class status is secure regardless. This summer they plan to open a European headquarters in Milan, Italy.
All this growth has occurred within the innovative framework of Esprit “concept”–the driving force behind everything they do. For Doug, forty-four, a born entrepreneur with an eccentric management style, the key to establishing and maintaining Esprit’s images lies in his compulsive control of the details. From the copy in their ads to the decor and music in each of their retail outlets, Doug has a hand in every particular and insists that everything–the napkins for Caffee Esprit, a factory opening in Hong Kong shopping carts for their stores–be exactly right. The office is run with the same strict eye for harmony: Employees are forbidden to wear high heals on the office’s softwood floors, chew gum, smoke, or eat at their desks. The receptionists must answer the phone, “Hi, Esprit!” Though Esprit’s image is spontaneous and fun, it’s maintained by a rigorous system of rules.
Yet, Doug, who spends nearly as much time mountain climbing and skiing as he does running Esprit from his office, upholds the Esprit attitude in other ways. In keeping with the company’s total-lifestyle approach, employees are treated to a variety of off-beat perks, including subsidized theater tickets, wilderness field trips, free haircuts, aerobics classes, and language lessons, to name just a few. In many cases having the company involved in their lives makes employees feel they are more involved in the company, and it inspires enthusiasm and the kind of corporate spirit that keeps Esprit on the cutting edge.
Interestingly, even as Esprit has expanded and the lines have multiplied, their style sense still grows naturally from what the designers like and feel is right for them. As design director, Susie regularly travels with her staff of ten designers to check out the global fashion scene, collecting inspiration and living out of suitcases. As a result of that shared experience, Susie says, they are all looking for the same thing in their clothes: comfort, style and low maintenance.
Susie, forty-three, notes that as the company has grown, their clothes have evolved, too. “In the late 1970s, everyone was having a good time, and it was really sporty and just . . . puppy love. But today the world’s a much scarier place. Kids are more directed, and they’re not going through so much experimenting.”
In response to this view, Susie says Esprit now caters to a “well-rounded, assured young woman who’s confident but very curious about life. She isn’t as frivolous as maybe ten years ago.” To meet her needs, they are making more classic clothes in beiges and neutrals and coming out with styles that can be worn to work as well as to play. They’re clothes that “don’t need to scream, ‘me, me, me,'” Susie says, “because today it’s you, not your clothes, that should be the priority. Things can’t look contrived, like you had to work to put it all together–it has to be natural.”
Esprit’s newest design direction, ironically, is coming out of the past, derived from styles found in a big thrift-shop archive the designers keep for inspiration. “Right now there’s a great romance with romance,” Susie says. “We want to bring back some kind of traditional authenticity but do it in a new way. That’s modern to me.”
Also on the agenda are a new denim line, licensing agreements with Optyl for sunglasses and Martex for sheets and towels, new stores, and more “shops within shops” at chains such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. The Tompkinses say they have their hands full and would like to slow down, but the Esprit tide show no sign of turning. Whatever they do, it will be with a “combination of physical, intellectual, and emotional awareness,” as Susie describes it. “When you understand all three, you equal the spirit and you equal the Esprit.”