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

Yet Esprit de Corp. is the same company that was found by the National Labor Relations Board to have illegally interrogated and intimidated $2-an-hour Chinese workers, and then to have shut down a factory to keep them from unionizing.

Esprit de Corp. was borne of the patchouli oil and lysergic acid diethylamide ferment of 1960s San Francisco, where illegal drug abuse, new music, and post-beatnik literary dallying were accompanied by a groovy entrepreneurial culture that included music venues, health food stores, jewelry stands, and back-of-the-VW-microbus clothing companies.

An upper-middle-class girl who had put off going to college, Susie Quincey Russell spanned the bohemian generation gap that existed, in that era, between late-twentysomethings looking for something to do and the younger dropout ragamuffins lounging on the sidewalks in the Haight. Susie fell in with the energetic Jane Tise, and together they founded the Plain Jane clothing company, selling puffy-sleeved dresses to local shops.

"We just started it, we didn't really have a mission," Susie recalls. "I'd been to Europe. I'd seen the fashion in Europe and France, and I just loved it, and it was something that was really missing here. Women in my generation didn't have this free-spirited expression of themselves in their fashion like Europeans do. It was just kind of, you know, predictable. It just wasn't fashion. You couldn't really do any body language with your clothing the way you do now. Now, you see the way people dress, and you know something about them. I came back just with that kind of realization that there was this opportunity.

"A friend of mine was looking for a job, and I suggested we start this business."

Other accounts from those days describe Susie serving largely as Jane's aide-de-camp, hauling racks of clothing in her station wagon. But by 1967, they were making dresses in lots of 100. By 1968 they had filled a $15,000 order from Joseph Magnin. The growth came in part thanks to the help of third partner Allen Schwartz, an East Coast salesman who trucked their dresses from department store to department store, pestering buyers until they agreed to try Plain Jane clothes.

Susie, meanwhile, had married Doug Tompkins, whom she had picked up hitchhiking at Lake Tahoe a couple of years earlier. Tompkins had left a Connecticut prep school, shunned his parents wishes that he attend college, and migrated to California in hopes of making the U.S. Ski Team. He joined the budding Northern California rock-climbing scene. Together, he and Susie became part of the love 'n' Haight party-hopping set, traveling to Mexico together in a Volkswagen bus, and, eventually, moving to then-bohemian North Beach.

While Susie carted cotton dresses around in her station wagon, Doug was founding the North Face rock-climbing store across the street from the fabled City Lights bookstore. Tompkins took merchandising at his North Face store and catalog to high concept. His store's image was fashioned around the just-evolving clean-climbing movement, in which scalers try not to mar their boulders with the sorts of nicks, holes, and spikes that their forebears had.

The business thrived, even though Doug spent much of his time skiing, climbing, and surfing. Still, the store interfered with Doug's larger passions, so he cashed out for $50,000 and took off on a trip to southern Argentina with his friend Yvon Choinard. Choinard would later found an outdoor clothing company named after the Patagonia region they visited. Doug tried again to make the ski team, signed on as producer of a rock-climbing documentary, and did more traveling.

But he eventually came back revived, refreshed, and anxious to get involved in running Plain Jane.

While he knew nothing of the fashion industry, Doug brought to the business a rock climber's sense of precision, and an adventurer's verve for self-invention. He soon began clashing with the other partners, who by 1970 had built Plain Jane into a nearly $2 million-a-year business, and who fancied themselves as doing perfectly fine without his interference.

Doug saw no future in sportswear, which Schwartz had been doing a nice business selling to New York department stores. He didn't like the name Plain Jane, and convinced the partners to change it to Esprit de Corp. The name was "a sort of joke on the Marine Corps," says Peter Buckley, a close friend of Doug's and former CEO of Esprit de Corp. Europe.

Doug's drive to fashion the company in his own image was not a joke, though, and Tise and Schwartz found themselves increasingly sidelined by this one-time athlete's single-mindedness. Touchy-feely rock-climber environmentalism aside, Doug at heart was a merchant. "He knows how to project an image around something. This comes from his mountain-climbing days, and starts with focusing on the real subtle things," says Buckley.

In 1972, the company -- then making $8 million a year -- moved into an old wine storage warehouse that Doug had remade into a posh, California-style headquarters, complete with showers, a full kitchen, and roof gardens. Tompkins set up import-export, and later retailing, operations in Hong Kong. He also waged what has been described in press accounts as a guerrilla war against Tise and Schwartz, making more and more decisions without consulting them. In 1975, the Tompkinses bought out their partners.

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