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

The next year, after the company's headquarters were destroyed in a fire, Doug and designer Hanz Keinz rebuilt the company's Minnesota Street offices in a spectacular, polished, bare-wood, barnlike structure that included a greenhouse, a large cafe, a gymnastics area, and a furniture-making studio. The Doug Tompkins era had arrived, and it was to help shape the fashion world for a decade to come.

Doug Tompkins is a very difficult man to reach by phone. He resides in a remote area 150 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, Chile, a port city just across the border from the Patagonia region of Argentina. Every couple of weeks or so, he visits an office in Puerto Montt, where he conducts the business of his Fundacion Bosque Pumalin.

His contact with the outside world consists of a fax machine turned on in the Puerto Montt office, which he checks periodically.

Tompkins has used part of the estimated $125 million he received cashing out of Esprit in 1990 to become the second-largest landowner in Chile, creating the 785,000-acre nature preserve that has earned him enmity in Chilean industrial circles, and fulsome praise from U.S. environmentalists.

Amassing this huge chunk of land hasn't been an easy task. Suspicious Chilean government bureaucrats have held up some purchases. Other balked at Tompkins' offer to turn over the land to the Chilean government on the condition that it be kept a nature preserve. But through single-minded relentlessness, Tompkins has largely prevailed, and his preserve looks destined to become a Chilean national park.

This is the same irresistible nature Tompkins brought to his role as "director of image" for Esprit through the 1980s. In that post, he pioneered the sort of obsessive attention to high concept that now characterizes many image-conscious brands, including Benetton and Versace. He was among the first to link socially progressive rhetoric to merchandising. He engineered the strategy, perhaps now most used by the Gap, of employing anti-consumerism to promote consumption.

In molding Esprit in his own image, Doug Tompkins tried to create a workers paradise for the outdoorsy-minded, attractive, idealistic youngsters he aimed to populate his company with -- and sell his clothes to. Employee programs included discounted tickets to cultural events, subsidized vacations to Doug's favorite exotic vacation spots, and French language and kayaking lessons.

His image campaigns, characterized by perky models who were posed not to look like models, included the work of photographer Oliviero Toscani (now of Benetton fame) and artist/designer Ettore Sottsass. Tompkins learned Italian and made frequent trips to Milan to hobnob with the aesthetic elite. He spent tens of millions of dollars on designers who produced high-concept packaging knickknacks, breezy, bouncy, fresh-faced catalogs, casually breathless magazine advertisements, and sprightly billboards.

The pioneering genius of Doug Tompkins, fashion analysts and executives still say, was to place an abstract image in the public consciousness that evoked the same sensibility year to year, despite seasonal changes in clothing designs.

The result: a brand name known to -- and seemingly desired by -- every 17-year-old girl in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

"Doug had incredible vision, and the timing was right for that vision to be acted upon," says fashion industry consultant Harry Bernard. "Everybody and their mother wanted Esprit. It probably had the strongest consumer franchise of any brand in our business. Esprit was the benchmark against which everybody measured their junior presentation."

As Doug pushed image, Susie came into her own as Esprit's design director. She would travel frequently to the world's great fashion capitals, filter the latest trends through her laid-back, Northern California sensibility, and come up with colors and designs that became the season's buzz.

"Susie's great strength was a nose. She had one of the most sensitive noses for trends. Traveling the world as often as she did, she was able to pull things together from disparate places and bring a common denominator to them," says Bernard.

By 1986, Doug and Susie's potent combination had turned Esprit and its loosely connected overseas divisions into $800 million in yearly sales. Northern California chic graced the backsides of American schoolgirls coast to coast. Esprit's triple-bar logo was the talk of the industry.

But there was trouble in paradise. Doug's stable of Milanese image-makers never really got along with Susie. They regarded her fashion ideas as dross.

Toscani "used to say Susie's ideas were sort of like a fart. It smells bad, but it goes away quickly," recalls Peter Buckley, former Esprit Europe CEO.

Doug and his image team weren't entirely welcome in the design division either. And as the couple's fashion ideas diverged, their marriage foundered. By 1985 they were living apart. Susie recalls the breakup as more a result of the normal course of their lives than any specific catastrophe.

"I outgrew Doug, he outgrew me," she says. "It just was a time that we needed to get on with our lives."

But they didn't. Not right away, anyway. Instead, their bickering took its toll on the company, employees of that era recall.

"It was a challenging environment during that time. Both Doug and Susie had very strong visions, but some of the synergy had fallen away, so it did make it more difficult," says Danny Kraus, who worked for the company from 1986 to 1996, mostly in the public relations department. "It was more difficult because people knew there was internal conflict."

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