Lately, almost without meaning to, I’ve developed a little vintage Esprit habit. I mean, I mean to, as my eye and hand are drawn to the shapes, colors and fabrics, but that lovely three parrallel line “E” is becoming a deep part of my wardrobe, and competing with my 1980s Liz Claiborne problem.
The pieces are great, but the old ads were even better.
Which was actually a part of the problem with the rise and fall of Esprit.
The whole story of Esprit is a story about the zeitgeist, in fashion, sure, but mostly about culture and that 1960s cohort and their ideals….and it’s fascinating. It seems as almost everyone and everything related to the Esprit story affected or filtered culture in someway.
Esprit was started by Jane Tise and Susie Russell in the 1960s, looking to give American young women a Mary Quant or Biba equivalent. That line was called Plain Jane.
Their third partner, Allen Schwartz, pushed the line into department stores. I think a lot of us know what happened to him.
Susie Russell picked up a young hitchhiker, Doug Tompkins, in the 1960s. They got married. Doug was working on developing his climbing store in San Francisco. That climbing store became The North Face.
Doug sold the North Face and headed down to the Patagonia region of South America to do some climbing with some friends, including his friend Yvon.
After the trip, Yvon founded Patagonia, and Doug became inspired to work on Susie’s growing business.
He encouraged her and Jane to change the name to Esprit de Corps (a hippie play on the Marine Corps). He and Susie started to aggressively move the line and company in the direction they saw for it…eventually buying out the other partners. Jane left in the early 70s. The only thing I could find out about her is that she might be a photographer now.
Susie and Doug pushed onwards. Doug was the head of image and worked on making sure the ads were eye catching, new, and elevated. Susie was the design director.
In the 1970s and early 1980s things were very good.
Here’s their home office. They had a gym, roof gardens, an environmental desk where people could learn about how they could help the environment and days off to volunteer.
Here’s a catalog with Susie and Doug from the 1980s.
But there were problems. Were the ads better than the clothes? Would the money ever run out? With so much growth, did they have a structure in place to handle tightening margins and changing tastes?
Doug and Susan had ultimately different goals for the company, and for their life, and by 1985, they were living apart.
But they were still working together. Doug had his eye on building the company into an empire (and escaping the tastes of mercurial department store buyers) by making stand alone stores. But, just like with the ads, he only wanted the best, and the most high-brow. An example is the 14 million dollar LA Esprit store that’s now a CVS in West Hollywood (more on that location here).
The stores looked amazing, images below from Doug’s book about Esprit.
Remember how we were talking Esprit=Zeitgeist? The Esprit store in LA was where Sarah Jessica Parker’s character worked in LA Story.
By 1986, Esprit grew to be a 800 Million dollar business. However, sales started to decline.
Customers were maybe over big, blocky pastels and primary colored pieces, department stores were asking for lower prices, and Doug’s stores were visionary, but not in the right locations. All the attention had been paid to the front of the house, while the back end was in disarray, and couldn’t cover the deficit in sales.
In 1988, Doug and Susie divorced.
Then things got weird. Doug and Susie appointed an interim board to pick which of them got to lead Esprit. The board picked Doug. Susie left, and Doug kept being ahead of the tide as far as culture goes.
In 1989, Doug took out an ad in Utne Reader, asking for a decline in conspicuous consumption. People were shocked, and the LA times asked, “Did Esprit define the New Spirit?”
He totally had, but the new execs at Esprit weren’t really happy about it.
They wanted Susie, and her on trend pieces, and the sales to match, back.
The way the couple had split meant that Doug was supposed to buy out Susie’s shares. But he didn’t. Perhaps, maybe this anti-consumer move was supposed to lessen the value of Esprit, and Susie’s buyout? Was he being sneaky and trying to ruin the company? So Susie rallied people to take over Esprit. Other companies tried to buy it. It got tense.
Susie came out on top with Esprit.
Doug took his buyout and ended up being a big environmentalist. He owns a huge environmental foundation in Chile, which he runs with his wife since 1993, Kris, the former CEO of Patagonia.
Susie, meanwhile, was at work in 1992: making new lines (Susie Tompkins signature collection bombed…can’t find any pictures)
and new ad campaigns that attracted attention…but not sales.
Maybe you remember this one?
Esprit tried to figure out what to fix. They eliminated all the hippie + forward-thinking perks, and the progressive ads, but the company still ended up being bandied about to several buyers and CEOs.
Susie is now mostly known for being a Democratic fundraiser, and maybe Hilary Clinton’s best friend. She’s currently not funding Obama as of 2012, because she’s disappointed in his environmental leadership.
“The brand has gradually lost its soul over the past few years. The heritage of the brand has been neglected and the company lost its customer focus,” Group CEO Ronald Van Der Vis said in a statement [in 2011].
They planned on dealing with that by spending $6.8 billion Hong Kong ($872.9 million) over four years to reshape its brand. The company will create a trend unit based in Paris and a design center in China so that hot fashion trends can be brought to market faster.
Oy. They posted their first annual loss since the IPO in 1993, in 2012.
A variety of missteps, lawsuits, changing tastes, and maybe just bad taste led to the current state of Esprit. Or, if Esprit is a metaphor about American culture and ethics, and maybe the decline of the company from idealistic brand to being destroyed by it’s own greed and then sold to Hong Kong where it now focuses on fast fashion products for nations other than the US is indicative of the decline of American culture and civilization as a whole?
Nah. It’s just about clothes, right?
Here’s a huge, awesome, exhausting article about Esprit from 1997, which goes more in depth on the legal battle.