Esprit de Court

How Susie Tompkins Buell built, wrecked, and sued San Francisco's legendary Esprit de Corp. clothing company, and why she still gets to sit next to President Clinton

"On the principle of it, we didn't think it was right to go sue Esprit for that money," says Doug Tompkins, who, like his former wife and partner, cashed out of the company under a 1990 stock purchase agreement. The agreement puts him in exactly the same legal posture as Tompkins Buell. But, he says, "we elected not to sue. We didn't feel that this suit had merit."

Esprit de Corp., now owned by a consortium of "vulture capital" investors that bought the troubled firm at discount, immediately banned Tompkins Buell from the premises upon learning of her lawsuit. The company lashed back at Tompkins Buell with court filings accusing her of financial double-dealing and cynical corporate malfeasance. Esprit issued a veiled threat in legal filings that it would scour the world for evidence against her -- unless she backed off.

"Ms. Tompkins, through her operatives, orchestrated a scheme to strip over $150 million out of a once-thriving clothing company she owned, via a classic leveraged buyout, leaving in its wake a financially crippled entity so heavily burdened with debt that its survival was doubtful," Esprit's lawyers wrote in court filings.

Company spokesman John Ordona says Esprit officially stands by the filings: If Tompkins Buell continues with her suit, the company will use its resources to attempt to show she has been involved in serious financial skulduggery, Esprit court papers suggest.

If Esprit is successful, a court "could order Ms. Tompkins to disgorge this ill-gotten gain," those filings say.

Don LaVigne, Tompkins Buell's financial adviser, says the threats are nothing but irrelevant harping from lawyers who should know better.

"You've got to remember that they're trying to put as much pressure on, and make Susie and me look as devious and bad and greedy as possible," LaVigne says. "They're trying to use every tactic they can to get us to throw out the suit."

Adds Tompkins Buell: "It's on their records that they owe me money, and they think they can get out of it."

Whatever the merits of the lawsuit, it represents what would seem to be the last, tawdry, 1990s chapter in one of the more dramatic -- and emblematic -- tales in recent American corporate history.

Esprit was one of the many attempts children of the '60s made to soften the practice of business by wedding it to a not entirely coherent set of leftish sensibilities. In the case of Esprit, the result was charming and successful and disordered, until it was greedy and disastrous and just plain strange.

Susie and Doug Tompkins are now enormously wealthy. The rich actually are different from ordinary people. But in many ways, as Susie and Doug Tompkins went over the last 30 years, so went the best and brightest of their well-intentioned and often self-deluded generation.

No one who knows the whole Esprit story should have been very surprised to see William Jefferson Clinton and Susie Tompkins Buell together at a public dinner the other week, chatting and smiling away as if lawsuits and investigations and the troubles of time could never touch them, not in a million years.

Like its cousin, cinema, the fashion world depends largely on the creation and maintenance of illusion.

The fun, sprightly clothes on the magazine fashion model were likely sewn by tired people in a low-ceilinged sweatshop. The knit blouse you bought on a whim won't likely do anything for your sex life. And the enviable men and women on catwalks are said to suffer at least their fair share of life's sadnesses.

Susie Tompkins Buell, most of whose life has been spent in this illusory fashion industry, is a creature of her environment.

Upon meeting her, one is struck by her guileless graciousness, her engaging, almost purposefully scattered conversational style. But with her takeover of Esprit de Corp. just seven years ago, she joined the ranks of the country's most artful corporate raiders.

She gained, then nurtured during 20 years, a reputation as the model New Age professional woman: stylish, competent, and independent. Yet her shocking blunders as leader of Esprit de Corp. during the 1990s drove a once-thriving company into insolvency within less than two years.

She is famed for her generosity, sponsoring two foundations that give money to schools, environmental causes, soup kitchens, and other worthy organizations. She has been a top California independent contributor to the Democratic Party. Yet, her detractors say, the lawsuit against the shriveled remains of Esprit smacks of greed. And her excesses -- her famed lavish parties, her 44-acre estate in Bolinas, her Pacific Heights penthouse -- seem to give her charity an air of Carnegie-like atonement.

These contradictions are as unremarkable, of course, as they are human. But it is useful to understand them to follow the dramatic rise, the ensuing fall, and the complex present of the corporation Susie Tompkins Buell helped found, because the corporation evinced many of those same contradictions.

It was a company where stringent idealism was an unyielding corporate creed. Employees received 10 hours a month off for volunteer work, and staffed an "eco desk" that looked after environmental education of workers. Company-sponsored employee rafting trips culminated in company-sponsored presentations by environmental activists. Esprit was an early sponsor of the AIDS Walk.

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